Rotisserie chicken is a saving grace: a low-lift dinner that lends itself well to leftovers. It’s affordable, comforting in its simplicity and faster than takeout; the carcass can also be further repurposed for homemade stock. But doing it oneself — making roast chicken at home — is often met with apprehension, if not shied from altogether.
The NoMad in New York City is home to one of the best roast chickens in the country: an heirloom breed stuffed with a legendarily indulgent mix of butter, truffles, breadcrumbs and foie gras and roasted to perfection in a hearth oven. The beauty of a roast chicken, though, is that it’s just as satisfying in a simpler form. “For me, doing a whole roasted chicken, there’s some sort of nostalgia with that,” says Mike Reilly, executive chef at The NoMad. “It’s nice to come to a table with a whole, intact bird.” The thought conjures the roasted bird atop a sterling platter in Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want.” It’s a callback to Julia Child and bygone styles of cooking and dining.
That roasting a chicken is labor-intensive, or a day-long endeavor, is a misconception, Reilly says. It’s largely hands-off; the most challenging part is removing it from the oven at the right time, and then letting it rest. Once you’re comfortable with the basic technique, it becomes infinitely mutable: swap thyme for rosemary or sage; infuse the butter with herbs and spices; or, simply add root vegetables to the base of the roasting pan.
The Tools You Need to Get Roasting
1 Gear up. “Use a roasting pan with a roasting rack, so the chicken isn’t sitting in its own juices,” Reilly says. “You want the chicken to roast as much as possible, as opposed to stew, so elevating it off the pan is important.” He also recommends lining the roasting pan with parchment paper for easier cleanup.
2 Choose your bird. “You’re going to want to look for a chicken that’s been air-chilled,” Reilly says. “The other technique of cooling chickens after they’re slaughtered is to submerge them in ice water. The chicken soaks up some of that water and loses its flavor.” A fresh chicken should feel plump — not dry, but not overly moist, either. Reilly recommends a bird in the range of 4 to 4.5 pounds for easy and even cooking.
3 Turn up the heat. “If you’re using a smaller chicken, you’re not really worried about cooking evenly because the heat is going to get through it pretty fast,” Reilly says. He recommends cranking the oven up to at least 425 degrees Fahrenheit. “It’s a race against cooking the meat and getting the skin crispy,” he adds.
4 Prep your bird. Much of Reilly’s preparation is done in service of a crispier, golden skin: pat the skin dry, then rub it with a thin layer of softened butter and salt it about 20 minutes before cooking. The layer of fat, he says, promotes even cooking, while salting draws out excess moisture. For added flavor, Reilly stuffs the chicken’s cavity with a lemon and sprigs of thyme. “There’s just enough steam, so it helps cook the inside of the bird as opposed to [letting it sit in] its own juices,” he says.
5 Get cooking. Place the chicken on the roasting rack, fit it with a temperature probe and slide it into the oven. The chicken is fully cooked when its internal temperature reads 160 degrees Fahrenheit, though Reilly recommends taking it out a bit sooner: “Once it’s reading 160, it’s going to go well past that after it rests, and that’s when you start running into dry chicken,” he says. For those without a convection oven, rotating the pan two-thirds of the way through helps to facilitate even cooking.
6 Check the juice. Visual cues are strong indicators of doneness. Look for a golden skin and juices that run clear. “If the juice is coming out red or pinkish, that means it’s not done cooking,” Reilly says. “A little pink is okay, because it’ll continue to cook through as it rests, but if you start to move the legs and see red, then you still have time to go.”
7 Let it rest. “The most important thing is to let it rest,” Reilly insists, suggesting waiting anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes before cutting into the bird. “If you carve it too soon, the juices are so hot that they just rush out of the meat.”
8 Carve it. Serving method is a matter of personal preference. For family dinners, Reilly says that he leaves everything on the bone, carving the breasts off then separating the thighs and drumsticks. “If it’s a bigger chicken, you can, of course, continue to slice the breast and get pieces from there,” he notes.