She looks so demure, doesn’t she?
It’s often said that the true test of a restaurant kitchen is roast chicken. This is because, for as simple as it looks, roasting a chicken well is ridiculously difficult. Just ask me, I know. Over the years I’ve roasted dozens of chickens, and I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never once finished dinner, leaned back in my chair, and sighed with contentment. No matter what technique I used, I could never manage to get the dark meat cooked without the white meat turning to dust. And the skin never took on that allover tawny brown color, the one we see in magazine glamour shots (yes, there are glamour shots of roast chicken). It was always patchy, and in some places still flabby—and even though I throw away the skin, if I’m roasting a chicken I want the full experience, the glory of pulling it from the oven and gazing upon its crackly, shiny covering.
I tried the multiple-flip version (in which you cook it breast down, then on one side, then the other, before finally turning it breast-side up). I tried it at high heat for 10 minutes, then lower heat for an hour or more. I tried it trussed. I tried it untrussed. And every time, it was the same story: disappointment. I’ve been embarrassed to tell you all about this, since what kind of food writer can’t roast a chicken? It’s my great shame.
But today, I’m here to say I’ve cracked the code. I finally found a method that works beautifully, and consistently, and it looks a thousand times harder than it actually is: butterflied, and roasted at high heat. Butterflying a chicken is so easy, I can’t believe I never tried it before. The elegant results deceived me into thinking it was too fancy for my simple style, but if you’ve got a pair of kitchen shears, you can make this chicken. Butterflying a chicken is quicker than trussing it, it roasts faster (as little as half an hour!), it roasts evenly, and it makes one helluva pretty bird—just look at that beaut up there. Don’t you want to rip off a drumstick and start eating? And that breast was jui-cy, my friends.
Here’s a step-by-step, with pictures! Try this with your next bird, and you’ll never roast a whole chicken again.
A note on the high-heat method: Your kitchen will get smoky. I’m sorry. There doesn’t seem to be much way around that—although Cook’s Illustrated does have a recipe in which you use the oven’s broiler pan, and stuff cut-up potatoes inside the pan with the chicken above it on the tray. Supposedly the potatoes keep the drippings from burning and smoking. I’ve never tried it, because I’m afraid that those chicken-fat-roasted potatoes would be so good I’d never want to eat anything else, ever. But if you try it, please let me know how it turns out!
Butterflied Roast Chicken with Mustard Sauce
Method courtesy of The Cook’s Illustrated Complete Book of Poultry
For the chicken:
2 cloves garlic
salt & pepper
1 whole chicken
For the mustard sauce:
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon butter, softened
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
Chop the garlic roughly, then sprinkle ½ teaspoon of salt all over it. Use the side of your knife to gently smash the salt into the garlic—you’ll wind up with a paste. Mix in as much pepper as you like and set the whole thing aside. (If you’ve got some fresh herbs, feel free to mince & mix in here.)
Place the chicken breast side-down on a cutting board, drumsticks pointing at you. Using kitchen shears, cut along one side of the backbone (about half an inch from the center of the back)—cut all the way up the chicken, until you’ve completely freed one side. Along the way, you’ll feel lots of small bones crunching. Now cut all the way up the other side of the backbone. When you’re done, you’ll be holding the backbone, which looks like this:
If you’re frugal and like to make chicken stock, save it for later use. If not, toss. Remove and discard any giant gobs of fat.
Turn the chicken over and push down with some real force on the meaty part of the breast—you’ll hear bones cracking and you’ll feel the chicken flattening out. This helps it roast more evenly. Next, using a very sharp knife cut a half-inch slit in the skin at the front end of each breast, and tuck the drumstick through the hole:
This, too, helps it roast more evenly, plus it makes a prettier finished dish. (Be careful not to cut too close to the edge of the skin—as you can see in the glamour shot up there, the drumstick on the right side tore through during roasting, which is why my bird appears to be delicately holding one foot in front of the other.)
Put the bird into a large ovenproof skillet or roasting pan. Work your fingers between the skin and the meat to loosen it as much as you can without tearing, then smush the reserved garlic paste underneath the skin. Try to distribute it all over the breasts, thighs, and drumsticks. Rub olive oil, more salt, and more pepper all over the outside of the chicken. It’ll look like this:
Pop it into the oven and roast for around 30 minutes for a 3-3.5 pound bird, or around 45 minutes for a 4-4.5 pounder. The chicken is done when the drumstick wiggles freely and the juices run clear after piercing the thigh. (Mine was 4.14 pounds, and it was done in 45 minutes.)
Using a soup spoon, remove as much of the fat as possible from the pan. Put the skillet or roasting pan on the stove, over a medium-high flame. (A roasting pan will likely need two burners.) Add the chicken broth and stir to release the browned bits—they’re full of chickeny flavor. Let the broth bubble away until it’s reduced by half, 3-5 minutes, then remove from the heat. Whisk in the mustard, then stir in the butter. Taste, and add salt & pepper if you like. Serve with the chicken (duh).
I served this with a brown rice pilaf (recipe tk another time) and my favorite ready-in-a-snap vegetable side: The Red Cat’s Quick Saute of Zucchini, Almonds, and Pecorino.