People do fuss over a roast chicken, don’t they? Doing all sorts of things like draping bacon over the fleshiest bits to keep them moist, mucking around poking seasonings under the skin, stuffing all sorts of things inside them to add flavour, even insisting that you have to roast a chicken breast-down in the pan and then flip it over part way through cooking.
In our opinion, if you keep the cooking simple, getting a good result can be reduced to one decision: buying a decent chicken in the first place. There’s been a lot of publicity about chicken welfare lately, with the focus being on battery laying hens and intensively reared, fast-growing meat birds that can hardly stand up by themselves.
In our house we haven’t gone down the full free-range route, but have settled on buying slow-growing birds that are fed better food in more spacious barns endorsed by animal welfare authorities. In the UK the scheme is called RSPCA Freedom Foods and no doubt there are equivalents elsewhere in the world.
Why haven’t we gone free range? To be honest, Lenny and I don’t think the extra quality is there for the price compared with a Freedom bird. I know the debate is not all about quality, but we do believe a meat bird can be grown indoors without the process being inherently cruel.
Since going for the better bird I have realised just how devoid of taste and texture the average cheap chicken can be. The flesh seems slimy and dense. A bird that’s been reared in better conditions seems to have a more open texture and grain to the cooked flesh, indicating that it’s been able to get plenty of exercise.
Welfare birds will sometimes have the last joint of the leg left on (like ours in the video), which allows you to check for hock burn, a sort of rawness or callousing on the joint that can be a sign of neglectful rearing.
Lenny and I don’t worry about stuffing, nor do we generally season the bird to any great extent. Just baste it liberally with brandy mixed into melted butter. Then hit it with high heat until done.
Nothing against stuffing or seasoning, mind you. A roast bird with all the trimmings can form a charming centrepiece to your Sunday or seasonal table. But at our house we get full mileage out of our birds by using the leftover carcass to make a basic stock in our slow cooker. I think it’s a good idea not to contaminate the stock with flavours that don’t belong there.
When roasting we’ll sometimes go as far as putting a lemon inside the chicken, which may help keep it moist and add some flavour – once cooked, Lenny recommends squeezing the lemon into the pan juices when making your gravy.
Roast potatoes and other vegetables are your classic accompaniment, but for a different approach Lenny also advocates canned lentils into the pan juices along with some chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon. Heat and serve.
Preheat oven to 220C/425F. This is just below the maximum temperature on many ovens.
Remove any packaging from in or around the chicken. Check it doesn’t have plastic-wrapped neck or giblets in the cavity. If the neck is in there, you could roast it with the bird to use as part of a stock later on.
Wash the bird inside and out under a tap if it needs it. Pat dry.
Lightly oil an oven tray or dish that is deep enough to catch juices and suitable for putting on a burner or hotplate later. Put the bird in the dish.
Melt a slice of butter and splash some brandy into it. Mix together and then baste liberally over the outside of the bird. If you’re using a lemon, halve it and place inside the cavity.
Place the bird in the oven. Cook for 40 minutes, then check. A smaller bird might be done by now, but for a medium to large bird the cooking time will be more like 1 hour, or 1 hour 20 minutes.
To check for doneness, take the chicken out of the oven. If a leg can be easily pulled off, it’s usually done. If there’s sort of elastic resistance and it doesn’t break away easily, it probably needs longer. You can also check by poking a skewer into a juicy part of the chicken – if the juices run clear it’s OK. But overall, if the flesh is still obviously raw or part-cooked, put it back in until you are satisfied it’s done.
Once cooked, remove the chicken to a plate and cover with foil. Drain the pan juices into a small clear container that can take the heat. The oil floats to the top – pour it off until you are left with just the juices (a little bit of oil is OK).
Put the chicken pan over medium-high heat, pour your juices in and deglaze: pour in a goodly cup of wine and let it boil the yummy bits off the pan.
To a cup of cold water, add two teaspoons of plain flour and mix, then pour into the pan. Let it bubble away and thicken to your liking (the flour needs to cook, otherwise it will taste bland), and add salt if you want.
We won’t go into carving the chicken – generally we tend to be rustic about this, tearing the joints off, using a knife where necessary, and either slicing the breast or pulling it apart in chunks.
Serve with your side dishes and gravy. My favourite bit is the wings! On a perfectly roasted chicken they are crispy and delicious.