Thomas Keller’s Perfect Roast Chicken

by Gwen on March 9, 2011 · 1 comment

I’ve been in a rut with my roast chickens of late.

Growing up, my family took roast chicken seriously.  I lovingly recall spending weekends at my Grammy’s, where on Sunday the farm fresh chicken would hit the very low oven early in the morning and slowly roast while we attended church.  By the time we got back, the house could not have smelled more welcoming and our early supper could not come soon enough.  Sometime in the 90s we got a Ducane grill with a built in rotisserie.   It only took my parents about 2 months to perfect their chicken, and from there on out Robson’s Rotisserie was a monthly occasion.  We put Boston Market (heck, back then it was still called Boston Chicken) to shame.  My dad would lovingly baste the bird and my mom would whip up mashed potatoes, stuffing and veg.   And for me, this became the epitome of a family dinner.  Even in high school, when schedules became crazy and spending time out of the house become a priority over family time, when my brother and I heard it was a Robson’s rotisserie night, we dropped everything and stayed home.   At least until the table was cleared.

So you can see that this is a very serious matter that my roasted chickens haven’t been tremendously exciting of late. I’ve been rummaging through recipes, experimenting with new techniques, stuffings, brines, rubs, herbed butters under the skin… and somehow I’ve moved away from what makes roasted chicken so good: simplicity.  Simultaneously, a new vendor showed up at the local farmers market with not only some of the most beautiful, fresh eggs I’ve tasted on the west coast, but with lovely farm-fresh, free-range chickens.

In my recipe hunt, I noticed a particularly well reviewed roast chicken recipe on Epicurious.  This is worth a looksie alone because the foodies on Epicurious are quite critical.  Then I saw Thomas Keller’s name attached to it.  For the uninitiated, Thomas Keller is a legend of American cuisine.   He is the chef that is revered by chefs.  His restaurant, The French Laundry, is one of the most highly sought-after reservations in the states, serving food that is at once decadent, pristine, whimsical, and pure.  And his chicken recipe has four ingredients.   Like Julia Child, this is a chef whose recipe you just trust.  You don’t adapt it and you certainly don’t paraphrase it.  Because it’s perfect.

My Favorite Simple Roast Chicken
Recipe by Thomas Keller
Makes 2 – 4 servings

One 2- to 3- pound farm-raised chicken
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons minced thyme (optional)

Preheat the oven to 450°F.  Rinse the chicken, then dry it very well with paper towels, inside and out.  The less it steams, the drier the heat, the better.

Salt and pepper the cavity, then truss the bird.  Trussing is not difficult, and if you roast chicken often, it’s a good technique to feel comfortable with.  When you truss a bird, the wings and legs stay close to the body; the ends of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out.  Trussing helps the chicken to cook evenly, and it also makes for a more beautiful roasted bird.

Now, salt the chicken—I like to rain the salt over the bird so that it has a nice uniform coating that will result in a crisp, salty, flavorful skin (about 1 tablespoon).  When it’s cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin.  Season to taste with pepper.

Place the chicken in a sauté pan or roasting pan and, when the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in the oven.  I leave it alone—I don’t baste it, I don’t add butter; you can if you wish, but I feel this creates steam, which I don’t want. Roast it until it’s done, 50 to 60 minutes.  Remove it from the oven and add the thyme, if using, to the pan.  Baste the chicken with the juices and thyme and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board.

Remove the twine.  Separate the middle wing joint and eat that immediately.  Remove the legs and thighs.  I like to take off the backbone and eat one of the oysters, the two succulent morsels of meat embedded here, and give the other to the person I’m cooking with.  But I take the chicken butt for myself.  I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip—until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat myself.  These are the cook’s rewards.  Cut the breast down the middle and serve it on the bone, with one wing joint still attached to each.  The preparation is not meant to be superelegant.  Slather the meat with fresh butter.  Serve with dijon mustard on the side and, if you wish, a simple green salad.  You’ll start using a knife and fork, but finish with your fingers, because it’s so good.

The only thing that could make this recipe better is watching the man prepare it himself.

He does things a tiny bit differently in the video than he does in the recipe, mostly just when he adds the thyme.   Pay close attention to the amount of salt that he uses.  This is crucial for the flavor.  He also makes an important point about tempering your meat.  Leave your chicken out on the counter for about 30 minutes before you get started cooking.  This takes the chill off and, like the trussing, allows the meat to cook more evenly.   Needless to say, with only four ingredients at play, you have to skip the supermarket chicken and get a farm-raised bird.  It just won’t compare.

The meat is the juiciest, most succulent I’ve had in years.  The skin is salty and crispy.  It carves up like a dream and makes it impossible not to go back for seconds.  Or thirds.  Yup, rut resolved.

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