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Butterflied Roast Chicken (AKA Foolproof Roast Chicken)

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 (also known as spatchcocking, heh heh) 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
olive oil

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.

This Post Has 21 Comments

  1. MarthaAndMe

    This looks terrific. Martha Stewart has a recipe for "perfect roast chicken" in her cooking school book that also says to cook at a very high heat – I think that is the trick. Butterflying is another good idea.

  2. Alexandra

    Cool! I am another who could never get my roasted chickens evenly cooked. Thanks for explaining how to do it. I cannot wait to try this method!

  3. Sheryl

    Thanks for explaining this. Now I know why my roast chicken never cooks evenly! And you've mastered the art of not only cooking it, but making it easy to do.

  4. Alisa Bowman

    This is interesting–I'll try this next time. I make a roast chicken roughly once a week during the winter months. One thing I do that seems to work is to put some chicken broth in the roasting pan and inside the cavity of the bird, so it sort of steams and roasts at the same time. It seems to keep the white meat tender. Plus the flipping thing is always a good option, even if it does mess up the entire kitchen (especially with the chicken broth).

  5. Deborah

    Do you think (with adjustments for cooking time) this would work well with chicken parts, such as bone-in thighs?

  6. Jennifer Margulis

    This is so helpful. I've always had trouble roasting chicken (I was a vegetarian for 20 years so I never really learned to cook meat). I think this butterflying will help me be successful next time I try.

  7. Frugal Kiwi

    I think I must be less of a perfectionist about my roast chicken since I've not noticed much trouble with it. Either that or the attachment on my roasting pan that essentially suspends the chook in mid-air for more even roasting is covering up my sins.

    I love the idea of a quicker cooking chook though!

  8. ReadyMom

    Ah, so that's how you do it? I've been nervous about butterflying too. Thanks for the pictures, othewise I'd be lost.

  9. debbie koenig

    Martha, I do think the high heat has a lot to do with it. But I also think that a whole bird (as opposed to a butterflied one) might not fare so well at 500. I imagine the breast could end up very dry indeed by the time the thigh's done, kwim?

    Alexandra, Sheryl & Jennifer, thank you so much for letting me know I'm not alone in my chicken-challenged cooking.

    Alisa, interesting about the broth. That's one method I've never tried!

    Deborah, I think this would work perfectly with parts. Start checking for doneness at 20 minutes, I'd say.

    Kiwi, first I'm jealous of your chicken-roasting prowess. And second, I've been wondering if those racks help–do you mean the chicken roasts vertically?

    ReadyMom, anytime 😉

  10. Stephanie -

    Thank you! I have no clue how to do this… your tutorial is super helpful. I roast chickens all the time without butterflying them – this looks like the dawning of a new era.

  11. Peggy Bourjaily

    I love the butterfly approach. My father always did it this way and the skin was super crispy while the meat was juicy and tender. You should take it one step further and try Chicken under a brick. You'll fall even more in love.

  12. Cindy

    I've been roasting chicken this way for the past 3 years; and I always use the "potatoes on the bottom" method. No smoke at all. You can use your broiler pan! Put foil in the bottom part of the broiler pan and cover the entire bottom surface with thinly sliced, shredded or small diced potatoes (if you don't have much time, frozen hash browns might work.) Then place the top of the broiler pan back in place and put the bird on top. As it cooks the chicken juices drip on the potatoes. Absolutely delicios PLUS you'll have an excellent bird to go along with your amazing potatoes.

  13. debbie koenig

    Cindy, that's the method I mention in the post–so glad to hear from someone who's tried it & approves. Maybe next time…

  14. Cindy

    Yes, it is — that's why I posted the reply — you had asked for someone to let you know how it turns out with the potatoes. You're absolutely right, those chicken-fat-roasted-potatoes are so good it may be the only thing you ever want to eat. Probably safer for your health not to try it 'cuz they really are that good! Last night I put sliced onions in with the potatoes and it was out of this world good.

  15. debbie koenig

    Gotcha, Cindy. You're killing me with your potato description. I can only imagine what onions would add. Oh my.

  16. Christina

    Just tried this. It was AMAZING! I served it with green beans and mustard roasted new potatoes (from the WW site).

  17. debbie koenig

    So glad you liked it, Christina! I've made it several times since this post, each time with slightly different seasoning. It's all good!

  18. Anonymous

    made this for dinner today… and i did the potato thing. those potatoes should be illegal. i had a very large bird; 7.9 pounds, so the taters cooked for over an hour in chicken juice. yummmm…. and the chicken was perfect, too.

  19. Darlene

    I do steaks under the broiler and the trick I was told (and that works for me) is to put some water in the bottom of the broiler pan and then put the top on the pan. You have to be careful moving the pan that you don't splash yourself with hot water. It only takes a tiny bit of water for this to work. Maybe 1" deep. I use a toaster oven and only broil the steaks for 3-5 mins on each side. The tiny broiler pan isn't deep and so I only put in about a 1/8" layer of water.

  20. debbie koenig

    Interesting, Darlene. Seems like this should work using a broiler pan in the oven–that might be just the trick!

  21. Donn

    My grandma taught me how to butterfly a whole chicken when I was five. And I’ve never looked back. God love that lady!!! It’s amazing what you can do with a pair of kitchen shears (or a really big french knife) and an oven on high. Grandma, I salute you, you have fed more of my friends than I can count. And they salute you too!!! And she did it on a wood fired stove…

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