BY CORBY RUMMER
“HOW DO YOU roast a chicken? That’s like asking how to boil an egg,” a French chef once said when I requested advice. Cooking an egg perfectly is no easy trick, and roasting a chicken perfectly poses even more problems. I never sorted through them until I read a provocative recipe for roast chicken in Barbara Kafka’s Food for Friends, an imaginative and stylish book full of unconventional ideas, which was published last year. After following her recipe, which calls for a short cooking time at 500 degrees, I roasted a dozen chickens in a dozen ways and found that she was right to put a chicken in the oven and leave it alone. But I formulated my own rules for temperature, which puts me squarely in the camp of Kafka-followers, who find that disagreeing with her can be more productive than agreeing with anyone else. My rules also apply to turkey, a bird I don’t like nearly as much but can’t avoid around this time of year.
I always like to think that the way you cook something makes all the difference in the way it tastes, but finally I had to admit that when it comes to chicken, nothing matters more than the quality of the bird. So that I could judge flavor, I rarely used anything other than salt and pepper for seasoning, and I found that most chickens don’t have enough taste to warrant such delicate treatment. Chicken is versatile because it has a mild flavor, but it shouldn’t have no flavor. Mass-produced chickens are raised indoors under twenty-four-hour lighting and are given yellow corn or marigold petals to color them yellow. Their food is supplemented with medications to prevent poultry diseases and with low levels of antibiotics as a precaution against intestinal and other infections that inhibit “feed conversion” of grain to meat. Preventive doses of medicine are virtually mandatory because wood-shaving litter, which harbors protozoa, is usually replaced only once a year, and because of the close proximity not only of the houses themselves (each of which holds as many as 30,000 chickens) but also in some cases of producers. If a flock becomes ill, it is given higher doses of medicine.
Some fancy butchers are selling “freerange” (or, as I saw on a Philadelphia menu, “range-free”) chickens. This is nearly always a misnomer. A true freerange chicken would eat whatever it could forage, which might be a lot of bubble gum. Ideally what is sold as a free-range chicken will have been fed grain without medicine and allowed to roam outdoors in a fenced area and to sleep indoors at night. Very few farmers follow this uneconomical practice, which requires a great deal of space and hardy breeds that can withstand winters. Wholesalers aren’t interested in variable rates of supply or in levels of quality that must by definition be inconsistent.
Instead, “free-range” is most often used to mean chickens raised indoors on high-quality grain (usually corn and soy) and given either no antibiotics or only those that stay in the intestinal tract and thus leave no traces in the eviscerated bird. The reduced number of antibiotics and the breeds used cause the birds to mature more slowly than mass-produced ones. Most have white skin, because they are not fed colorants.
When roasted, the meat of the freerange chickens I tried was velvety and as moist as if it had been poached; it had the light but identifiable taste of chicken. Free-range chickens are hard to find, but even if you can buy only a frozen one, try it. Defrost it slowly in the refrigerator (it usually takes a day and a half), wrapped, in order to lose as little liquid from the bird as possible. If you have no luck, and feel like spending $33 on a four-pound chicken ($12 for the chicken, $21 for postage), Ariane Daguin, the daughter of a famous French chef, who sells fresh foie gras and game birds, will ship you by next-day UPS a true freerange chicken, raised indoors and out and fed no antibiotics, that is a cross between the American Rock and the legendary poulet de Bresse. It is very good, and beautifully proportioned (by the time I received one I had studied perhaps too many chickens), but no better than the best of the other free-range chickens I sampled. Daguin’s company, D’Artagnan, is at 399 St. Paul Avenue in Jersey City, N.J. 07306; the telephone number is (201) 792-0748.
When buying fresh chickens in the supermarket, avoid ones with reddishbrown marks, wbich are often bruises, and skin that looks dried out. If you don’t like the taste of the chickens your supermarket carries, ask the meat manager to stock more brands. Some relatively small growers and packagers with good reputations include Bell & Evans and Paramount in the East, Foodworks in Chicago, Shelton in southern and America Poultry in northern California, and Marshall Durbin in Texas and the South.
Don’t worry about roasting what is called a broiler or a fryer. These terms refer to weight, and you can successfully roast any size chicken. Cornish game hens or poussins, which weigh two pounds and under, are chickens bred to look and taste good at low weights. Fryers and broilers weigh between two and four pounds; roasters are four pounds and over. Capons—neutered roosters—generally weigh between six and eleven pounds. They are rarely available fresh except during the holidays, because they are expensive to raise and to buy, and because that is when demand is greatest. Capons have the largest and best-tasting breasts. Fresh turkeys are also plentiful at holidays. Don’t ever buy a “self-basting” bird. It has been injected with liquids, which have the effect of steaming the bird, and with fats and stabilizers you wouldn’t add yourself. Buy fresh birds now, while they are in abundant supply, and nag your butcher to find a source for them during the rest of the year.
THE ONLY WORK in roasting a chicken comes before you put it in the oven. Bring it to room temperature so that it can start cooking right away. Take out the giblets, usually wrapped in paper, and the liver, usually in a plastic bag. The heart can feed the dog, the liver can feed an unfinicky eater the next day, and the rest of the giblets can flavor stock. Reach into the cavity and pull out whatever is left. Chickens are rarely as clean as they could be; the area of the cavity near what is usually called the pope’s nose (although many families use different names—“parson’s nose” and the Yiddishpupik, or “belly button,” are the most common) almost always has extra viscera. Pull out all the pieces of fat you can see, starting with the undersides of the flaps of skin around the cavity and the neck. (To render the fat, which will keep in the refrigerator for several davs or in the freezer for several weeks, heat it for a half hour or so at the oven’s lowest setting in an uncovered pan with just enough water to cover the bottom. Strain the bits of gristle that remain or lift them out with a slotted spoon. Pour the fat into a jar, chill it, and use it for stir-fried dishes or for bread stuffing.) Wipe the chicken inside and out with paper towels.
Whatever you put into the cavity will flavor the meat more thoroughly than anything you put on the skin. Start with salt and pepper, which is easier to add to the cavity if you put it in a spoon first. “Poultry seasoning” is mostly sage, a brutish herb whose acrid taste drowns out any other flavor. 1 prefer to season with a lemon cut in quarters, half an onion, and a big bunch of whatever fresh herbs I have (often that means a lot of slightly old parsley). You don’t need to close the cavity. In fact, leaving it open will make the flavors scent the air in the oven, so that they can penetrate the chicken from within and without.
French recipes tell you to truss the bird, which involves tying the legs close to the breast and the wings close to the body. This is considered the only acceptable way to bring a bird to table. When I told a classically trained friend that I planned not even to tie the legs together—the minimal step for decency’s sake—she said, “Do you know what an untrussed bird looks like? My ninetyyear-old grandmother on a club chair after supper.” I have several trussing needles (they look like knitting needles but have eyes and sharp points), and I’ve learned to sew a bird together in no time flat, but I won’t do it again to a chicken. Trussing makes a chicken cook unevenly. Protecting the breast meat with the legs is necessary fora small bird that has only a thin layer of breast meat and little fat. American chickens have been bred for thick breasts, and they have copious amounts of fat. For ease in handling I do fold the pinion, the small end of the wing, behind the large end, and can countenance tying the legs, but only enough to keep them from spreading during cooking and tearing the skin—not so that they touch.
Put the chicken breast-side up on a rack in a shallow pan just big enough to hold it. Don’t add any liquid — the chicken will soon release enough fat to keep the juices from scorching, and you want to roast it, not steam it. A rack isn’t essential, but without one the bottom of the bird will sit in a pool of fat and some of the skin will get soggy. (If you don’t use a rack, jerk the pan a few times in the first fifteen minutes to prevent the chicken from sticking.) Instead of using racks the French exploit the hot metal in browning the bird, which they turn from side to side, finishing breast-side up.
They say that they want to sear the outside, closing the pores so that liquid won’t escape. This appealing theory has been almost completely discredited, Harold McGee reports in his invaluable book On Food and Cooking. Browning the outside gives a delicious flavor, but it won’t keep in juices. A chicken will brown in a very hot oven without being turned. In any case turning can tear the skin, which should stay intact in order to protect the meat under it. Cooking a chicken breast-side down for a time in order to make juices flow to the breast is another intuitive idea but a mistaken one, according to McGee. He explains that juices are restricted to whatever parts of the chicken they are in; almost all the blood has been drained, and only that could freely circulate.
I RECOMMEND’S STAR TING roast chicken at 450 degrees for fifteen minutes and then turning the oven down to 400. I part company with Kafka not because her 500-degree method isn’t closer to true roasting, which is done over a fire at a temperature of up to 1,000 degrees, and not because it doesn’t work—it does, and well. But few kitchens have sufficient ventilation to clear the smoke that fat spraying against 500-degree oven walls produces, and few cooks feci like cleaning the oven afterward. Even starting at 450 degrees can make a dirty oven smoke, so be careful: if you’re expecting guests and don’t trust your exhaust fan, start roasting at 400.
I do go along with Kafka’s refusal to baste. Very lean meat benefits from a coating of fat, which prevents some moisture from escaping and keeps the outside from becoming too dry. Chicken skin and the fat deposits under it serve this purpose for breast meat. French recipes call for butter, to supplement lean, truly free-range birds. American chickens don’t need any more fat. Basting slows down cooking, because you have to keep opening the oven. It also slows the browning of the skin, which must dry each time it is covered with juice before it can go on crisping. I experimented often with basting, and found that for short cooking times—under two hours, say—it made no difference in texture or flavor. Not taking out the chicken to baste or turn it keeps the oven at an even temperature and also cuts down on arm burns from spattering fat. In my experiments I quickly discovered why you never see a chef in rolled-up sleeves, no matter how hot the kitchen.
My temperature scheme won’t work on a bird with a meat or bread stuffing, because the stuffing might not cook through by the time the bird does. The safest temperature is 325 to 350 degrees from start to finish, which makes cooking time much longer and increases the risk of drying out the breast. Toward the end of cooking a stuffed chicken or turkey in this way, you may want to baste the breast, put a cheesecloth soaked in butter over it, or cover it with foil after the skin browns. A mahogany-colored skin often means that the bird is overdone, even if it does look like the color pictures in ads and magazine articles. Many food stylists heat turkeys at the oven’s highest temperature for several minutes to make the skin absorbent and then slather on a mixture of Kitchen Bouquet, a gravy enhancer that consists mostly of caramel and salt, and dishwashing liquid.
Roasted vegetables brown with no help and are delicious. The time to put them in is when you turn down the oven after the initial high heat (or twenty minutes after you put in a stuffed bird). Don’t expect whole root vegetables, such as potatoes, parsnips, and carrots, to cook through in the oven. Parboil them first, starting them in cold water and cooking them for five minutes after the water boils or until they are halfdone. The English scratch peeled potatoes with a fork so that they will absorb more fat and form more crust. Don’t cram the area around the chicken, or the vegetables won’t have any crust and they will release so much liquid that the chicken will steam.
The best way to tell if chicken is done is by the temperature of the meat, and I don’t think you should roast meat unless you have an instant-reading thermometer, which costs about $15. It tells you in seconds whether to take meat out or let it cook longer. Insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh, aiming for the middle of the meat and making sure that it doesn’t touch a bone. If it reads 160 degrees, the chicken is done. Ignore the instructions in most books, which say that chicken should reach 175 or 180 degrees. Ignore, too, the pop-up thermometers in many commercial roasters, which typically are set to pop at 184 and are in the breast, which cooks fastest.
Another test—the standard one—is to put a skewer, a toothpick, or one prong of a cooking fork into the thigh, keep it there for a second or two, remove it, and examine the juices that flow out. If they are golden, without a trace of red, the chicken is done—or overdone. The red is not from hemoglobin in blood but from myoglobin, an almost identical molecule, which is what muscles use to store oxygen. Many cooks look for juices to be clear at the beginning but then slightly pink just as they stop flowing, knowing that the hot liquids will keep cooking the chicken after it comes out of the oven. Undercooked chicken is revolting—no one considers it fashionable — but overcooked chicken is little better, and that’s what most people serve.
I’VE ALWAYS RESENTED the instruction to let a roast sit before carving. It’s taken long enough to get done, and I want to eat. But after tasting chicken right out of the oven and at various intervals afterward, I won’t even pull at a scrap of meat for twenty minutes. McGee explains that while the chicken rests, the proteins can re-absorb some of the liquid that they have released during cooking. The length of the rest period should increase with the size of the bird and the oven setting. Meat cooked at 500 degrees is so startled that only after a half hour or so does it stop being chewy and fibrous. A twenty-minute wait is a good rule for a chicken of four pounds or more cooked at 400 degrees or less. Leave it on a platter in the warmest area of the kitchen and it won’t get cold.
The rest period will give you time to collect the pan juices. Pour as much as you can into a glass jar. When the juices settle on the bottom and the fat rises to the top, skim the fat. Deglaze what’s left in the pan by putting it over low heat and adding a very small amount of hot water or stock—start with two tablespoons. Scrape up the caramelized drippings, which will melt into the liquid. You can add more stock or even make a thickened gravy—both mistaken ideas, to my mind. The bit of juice from the pan and at the bottom of the jar isn’t a lot but it’s all you get, and it’s best unadulterated.
Chickens of four pounds and under should be served in pieces rather than carved. Remove the wings, legs, and thighs, and cut the breast down the middle lengthwise, and then cut each half in two, along a diagonal. Poultry shears make sectioning easy. Carving is more elegant, if more difficult, and it’s necessary for larger birds. Use a very sharp knife, so as not to squash the meat while cutting, which encourages loss of liquid. Try to cut off only the skin that comes with each piece, no matter who begs for extra, because skin will help leftover meat stay moist. So will keeping the meat on the bone.
Chicken that has been refrigerated is never as smooth or tender as it was at first serving. The gelatin, which is cooked collagen, or connective tissue, solidifies, and if you melt it by reheating, you dry out the meat. I wrap leftovers tightly in plastic and leave them in the coolest place I can find other than a refrigerator, and eat them the next day. I haven’t died yet, or even been sick— but I carry on this foolhardy practice only in cold weather, and I can’t seriously recommend it, because unrefrigerated meat does spoil rapidly and I’m not that well insured. I can only say that Europeans have relied for quite a while on cool, dark pantries. After a day or so even my courage fails and I put the chicken in the refrigerator. I never mind cold chicken, no matter how cold it is. □