Beginning today, the Journal will begin offering a mini cooking lesson every Wednesday — at least one technique or recipe for family-friendly dishes made with simple, common ingredients.
Today’s lesson is about how to roast a chicken.
Roasting is one of the easiest, most hands-off cooking techniques around, and a whole chicken often can do double duty in the kitchen to create soups, salads and more.
Really, if you take a whole chicken and stick it in a hot oven till the meat juices are no longer pink, you probably will end up with a satisfying meal. But there are a few pro tips that can make it a great one.
The recipe below has just four essential ingredients: Chicken, salt, pepper and water.
The recipe includes a few options for added flavor. Lemon halves can be stuck inside the cavity. Herbs and spices can be added to the salt and pepper, too. Oregano, lemon and garlic is a great combination. Almost any herb will go with chicken; besides oregano, consider basil, thyme and rosemary.
If you have a favorite seasoning blend, feel free to use that. It could be something like an Italian blend, Cajun blend or something like Accent or Mrs. Dash. Check the label of any blends, and follow my guide below for adjusting the salt content as needed.
I’m a big fan of pre-seasoning meat. Done the day or night before you cook the meat, such pre-seasoning is sometimes called “dry brining.” Working ahead gives the seasoning more time to penetrate all through the meat. That not only makes it more flavorful, but also can help keep the meat moist because the salt in time allows the meat’s cells to absorb water through osmosis.
But all you really need to know is that salting meat ahead of time can make it tastier and more moist. Still, if you are in a hurry, you can salt the chicken, stick it in the oven right away and still have a great meal.
When I’m ready to cook the chicken, I like to add some vegetables to the pan, partly to add more nutrients and variety to the meal, and partly to get the most out of the energy use of the oven. Carrots, celery and onion are my go-tos, but you can put potatoes or other favorites in there, too. Just choose something that takes a while to cook, or won’t suffer from a little overcooking; root vegetables as a group tend to work very well.
You can eat these vegetables as is, or toss them in the blender to make a tasty sauce for the chicken. The kitchen magic here is that whatever vegetables are in that chicken pan will get basted with the chicken’s juices and they will have a super flavor.
I am a big fan of high-heat roasting, because it’s faster and gives the meat less opportunity to dry out. So I roast my chicken at 450 degrees.
One caveat of that high a temperature is that the chicken and especially the vegetables can overbrown. That’s where the water comes in. Usually a cup of water in the pan will prevent overbrowning. For the first part of the roasting time, the chicken and vegetables will steam a bit as the water evaporates, and they will spend less time browning and so not overbrown.
If 450 makes you nervous, try 425 instead — but I’d still add a little water. You also can open the oven halfway through to check how much it is browning, and either add water then or reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees.
If you have a large family or like leftovers, consider roasting two birds at once. The leftover meat can be used in salads, casseroles, quesadillas and more. Also, once you strip the meat off the bones, toss the carcass in a big pot, cover with water, and gently simmer for two to three hours to make your own chicken stock. For added flavor, you can season the pot with a little salt (1 teaspoon per quart of water) and some pepper, thyme, bay leaf, onion, celery and carrots.
I’m also including recipes for roasted potatoes and asparagus. Again, it’s nice to maximize use of the oven and keep the utility bills down. But roasting is also one of my favorite ways to eat vegetables. Roasting helps caramelize the natural sugars in vegetables and concentrate their natural flavor.
Once you learn to roast potatoes and asparagus, you may never go back to cooking them any other way — except possibly grilling, which is roasting’s cousin.