Go ahead. Roast a chicken. What are you scared of?
Who doesn’t love roast chicken with gravy and potatoes? The sight of a whole bird emerging brown and sizzling from the oven scratches a deeply primal itch. As a dinner, it’s both profoundly satisfying and ridiculously easy.
What’s that you say? Your bird’s thighs are always undercooked while the breast is as dry as packing foam? You don’t have three hours between now and dinner? Gravy, are you for real?
Faugh, that’s right I said faugh. You are obviously working way too hard. Turning the bird? Madness. Stuffing the bird? Eww, plus I hate anything that involves wet bread. Hours to cook? Ninety minutes tops and you can bake the potatoes at the same time. Gravy? Child’s play.
The secret is using small, unstuffed birds cooked at high heat.
Here’s what you need:
- A big roasting pan, preferably dark colored (see below)
- A fat skimmer (also called a gravy separator or a fat separator)
- A small free range bird or two
- A few onions, some garlic cloves and bay leaves, sherry or marsala wine
- Baking potatoes (optional)
Here’s what you do. It looks involved, but it’s not. I just talk a lot.
- Get a three to four pound free-range bird, organic if you can, but not absolutely necessary. Grain fed birds taste better. It’s that simple. Those big, yellow-skinned, six-pound behemoths in the grocery store are not chickens. I’m not sure what they are, but they are definitely not chickens as God intended them. If a three-pound bird is not big enough, or you want leftovers, get two.
- Take two onions and slice them in rounds about a quarter of an inch thick. No need to peel them, just take any dirty layers off and give ’em a rinse. The onion skin adds flavor. Lay the onion slices in the bottom of your roasting pan. The darker the color of the pan, the better your gravy will be, and you must make gravy. And for God’s sake, don’t use one of those disposable tin foil roasting pans from the bodega. Just don’t.
- Remove the organs and neck and any other disgusting parts you find in the cavity of the bird and throw them away. If you like chicken liver, buy all means, fry it up. Frankly, when it comes to pate, I can’t eat it if I think about the origins too much and handling livers is way too close to the source for me, but that’s a subject for another day. Some people boil the giblets for gravy later, but see my above comment re pate.
- Check the neck cavity for parts. For reasons I cannot fathom, some producers use this as offsite storage for random bits of offal.
- Rinse your bird inside and out with tap water and throw it in the roasting pan, on top of the onions, with the knees pointing up. Pour a cup of water or so into the pan.
- Gash the thighs. I picked this up from the Naked Chef and it’s the best trick I ever learned. By making three deep gashes on the outside of each leg, the heat penetrates the slower-cooking dark meat faster, so the bird is fully cooked before the white meat dries out. Fabulous!
- Into the bird, shove a quarter of an onion (again, unpeeled), a good size clove of garlic or two (no need to peel it if you slice it in half) and a bay leaf. (Some people say put half a lemon in there instead, and you can do that if you want, but you’ll have to substitute white wine for marsala later, and to me this doesn’t taste good. But that’s just one palate.) I never stuff whole birds, even at Thanksgiving. It takes too long for them to cook and they get all dry and nasty and the anxiety is more than I can bear. If you must have stuffing, cook it separately and drizzle it with a bit of the rendered chicken fat.
- Take some kitchen twine and tie the ankles together so they don’t flop around. This is really optional, but I like the way the birds look when they’re all trussed up, no need to go into the whys and wherefores of that, it’s a personal preference. If you can’t be bothered, don’t.
- Dump some marsala wine or sherry over the bird(s), maybe half a cup or so, more if you feel like it. This makes all the difference.
- Pour a little olive oil or melted butter over the breast and thighs, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and into the 425 degree (yes, 425) oven it goes UNCOVERED for an hour and a quarter for a small bird (3 to 3½ pounds), ninety minutes for bigger ones (up to 4 pounds), or if you’re roasting two in the same pan.
Here’s an important safety tip: Never, and I mean NEVER, turn a bird over while it’s roasting. I don’t know who came up with that, but the one time I tried it I burned my hands, dropped the chicken on the floor and spilled grease all over the place, which I then had to clean up. It took two months for my eybrows to grow back. Never again.
- Now, if you want to serve potatoes with the chicken, just throw several well-scrubbed, good-sized russets with a couple of fork prickings into the oven right along with the bird for the last hour of cooking. Don’t wrap them in foil! That makes them steam and it’s no good. Sometimes, when I’m feeling clever, I take six baking potatoes and set them (whole and pricked) in a cupcake tin for easy in and out. Alternatively, if you have room in the roaster, you can throw some medium size red potatoes – skin on and cut in half – into the pan with the bird about an hour to 45 minutes before the bird comes out. They get all roasty and dark on the cut side. Delicious. Up to you.
- Anyways, after 40 minutes or so you’ll need to look in on the bird to be sure the drippings don’t dry up and burn during the roasting, but that’s not too difficult. If the roasting pan is dry, just pour a half to a full cup of HOT water into the pan and jiggle it around a bit to mix it up. You can baste the bird if you want, but strictly speaking it’s not necessary.
So now your bird is out of the oven.
- Lift it up with a couple of big forks shoved into either end of the cavity and tip it so the juices in the cavity run into the pan. Or don’t. Not a huge deal. Remove the bird from the roaster and let it sit on a cutting board or plate for at least 15 minutes. Really, this is important. It’ll cool down a bit for better handling and this gives you time to make gravy.
- The bird and the spuds are really just staging platforms for the gravy, n’est-ce pas? If the drippings are dark, and thus very concentrated, take the roasting pan and dump a cup or so of water over the onions and burned bits. If the drippings are very light colored (and thus less flavorful), you can add chicken stock instead of water (Pacific is good and it comes in little single serving cartons, which are oh so convenient).
- Stick your finger in to test the flavor, or use a spoon. Add water if it’s super concentrated. If it tastes bland, you’ll have to let it really reduce (boil out the water to concentrate the flavor) for a while. You can also add more wine.
- Scrape up any burned bits as you stir the drippings/water/stock mixture over a low flame on top if the stove for a few minutes. Keep checking the taste. You can also add more wine to the mix if you think it might help.
- Strain the drippings into a saucepan (or fat skimmer, see below), pressing on the solids with the back of a big spoon to squeeze out all the flavor, then throw the solids out.
- You really should skim off the fat once the drippings are strained. Pouring the drippings into a fat skimmer is by far the fastest, easiest way to do this. Alternatively you can pour the drippings into a bowl and place it in the freezer and just peel off the fat once it cools. Kind of gross, but it must be done.
- Once the fat (or most of it anyway) is gone, pour the drippings into the saucepan and then stir in a mixture of water and flour (say one tablespoon of flour to 1 1/2 tablespoons of water, all mixed up and smooth, more if you have lot of gravy in the pan) to the drippings. THE BURNER SHOULD BE OFF OR YOU’LL GET DUMPLINGS. Some people use cornstarch, but Grammie Sue never did this and it seems weird to me, so I don’t. To each his own.
- Once the flour is added, you need to bring the mixture to a boil and let it cook, stirring, for at least five minutes to thicken it up and cook the flour. Now, here’s the cheat. If you don’t have enough gravy, you can always add a little from a jar or box, but you have to be very picky about what you use. Again, my friends at Pacific come to the rescue. They make chicken and turkey gravy which, though not really palatable on its own (no store-bought gravy is), can be added to your drippings to extend them without totally ruining the flavor. A word of warning: in dinner party situations, never use premade gravy alone. If you screw up the homemade gravy, throw it out and offer sour cream for the potatoes instead, and really push the wine.
Et voila! Carve up the bird to the best of your ability, throw a potato on everyone’s plate and pass the gravy. To me vegetables are optional, but you could always make a salad or warm up some frozen peas or boil a couple of carrots. Cranberry sauce also jazzes up the plate, and people love the stuff from the can. They really do.