How My First Roast Chicken Paved the Way to More Adventurous Cooking
Is it possible that your first roast chicken is the gateway meat for all others? For one carnivore, it was the Rubicon she needed to cross as a home cook.
Young home cooks need mentors. I had to be walked through my first roast chicken, and eventually I had to return the favor for my best friend, who couldn’t bear the idea of working with the cold, raw bird.
It makes sense that so many of us would be intimidated. Is there anything in the world that looks scarier to a child in the kitchen than a parent preparing a whole chicken? Not only does it look like an animal—unlike, say, sliced deli turkey breast—but the colors and whatnot are just so off-putting, from the pale beast itself to those innards. Look too closely, and it could make an instant vegetarian of most anyone.
For my part, I avoided cooking meat for the longest time—right up into my mid-20s. Sure, I loved eating it, but I had some strange ideas about raw meat: Ground beef in its paper wrapping seemed like food poisoning waiting to happen. Chicken, in its tight dress of plastic casing, would likely give salmonella to my roommates, my parents, or the entire dinner party.
I think it was Nigel Slater’s book Appetites, the first one I loved, that helped me over the hump—plus a friend who was simply a more adventurous cook than I. My friend told me to brace myself, pulled out the bag of guts and threw it in his freezer (to my horror) to make stock later. He put my hands on the bird itself—probably the hardest part. I grit my teeth and tried to get accustomed to its texture. I learned how to pull the skin away from the breast and put a knob of butter mixed with garlic and herbs underneath. I washed my hands for something like 10 minutes afterwards—the Lady Macbeth of my kitchen.
That first bird was not great. I was frantic that I’d overcook it, so I opened the oven door repeatedly. I’d rinsed it before being told that was a no-no, so there was no chance of it emerging golden and crisp-skinned like I’d imagined. (Now I know to get it as dry as possible, including on the inside, so it doesn’t steam.) I’d under-salted it by quite a bit.
But my bird had some redeeming qualities: I’d overdid it with fresh herbs and lemon, which if you’re going to overdo it is a good way to go. I’d crushed them into the pan when the bird emerged, making a very basic gravy by deglazing with bourbon. And although the chicken was not remotely crispy (and wouldn’t be till I’d practiced for a good decade) and was rather bland, I’d cooked a chicken, and made a gravy! I felt like a culinary genius.
Over the coming years, my technique evolved, and I now don’t believe in the Platonic ideal of roast chicken. There are so many good ones! I like par-boiling potatoes, shaking them in the Dutch oven afterwards to give them crisp edges, and nudging them under the bird with onions to finish cooking. I’ve learned to let the bird come to room temperature (even though the USDA sort of frowns upon this technique). I’ve tried drying out the skin in the fridge, and I’ve learned Thomas Keller’s technique of salting it extensively. I like roast chicken spatchcocked and splayed just as much as I like it whole.
In retrospect, the grabbing of the guts of a chicken—with apologies to vegetarians; it’s a marvel you made it this far—was my gateway to all meat cookery. Now I’m comfortable with carving a chicken and spatchcocking it. I know how to break one down into eight parts with relative speed. Now I make steaks and scallops, duck and venison, lamb and pork, no sweat. I’ve even taught myself how to carve a rabbit, much to the dismay of my 10-year-old niece, who is still angry with me. (But it was delicious.)
So although it’s a painful thing to get cracking on that first bird, know that if you wash your hands frequently, don’t wash the bird, get it very dry, and salt it well, it’s actually pretty easy to pull off, and much cheaper than buying those ho-hum separate chicken breasts. You’ll find that eventually you’ll look more closely at that bag of bits, too: Perhaps you’ll make chicken liver mousse, one of the world’s best foods. Maybe that neck will become the base of a much better chicken stock than the one you’d get just from bones.
But even if the bits go straight into the trash, know that roast chicken is one of the simplest, most impressive things you can make at home. Buy the best bird you can afford—free-range or organic if you can swing it—since you’ll taste the difference and you’ll be supporting a more humane way of raising animals. Plop the finished bird on chopped greens or surrounded by roast vegetables, which you can cook in the oven at the same time. Squeeze lemon over it to serve. Make a super-simple pan sauce.
And most importantly, rejoice in the ease of roast chicken.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.