Students of philosophy (of which I was one) rarely get through school without a class on the ancients, which often includes a day or so on the alchemists. If you’re not familiar with these guys, here’s what you need to know: they spent all their time looking for a magic element that would turn base metals to gold. Seriously. Sometimes this element is referred as “elixir” but mostly it’s known as the philosopher’s stone. Today, this seems like a fruitless and frivolous pursuit, but for hundreds of years the best minds in science were certain that it was only a matter of time before the philosopher’s stone would be discovered. Midas would be real.
I started thinking about the philosopher’s stone after reading a post on Michael Ruhlman’s blog about roasting a chicken. The subject of the post was that American commercial enterprise is conspiring to convince us all that it’s too hard to cook from scratch so that food manufacturers can sell us processed food. He chose roasted chicken as proof that it’s not hard to cook. With tongue ensconced in cheek, he wrote a set of instructions called “The World’s Most Difficult Roasted Chicken Recipe.”
“Turn your oven on high (450 if you have ventilation, 425 if not). Coat a 3- or 4-pound chicken with coarse kosher salt so that you have an appealing crust of salt (a tablespoon or so). Put the chicken in a pan, stick a lemon or some onion or any fruit or vegetable you have on hand into the cavity. Put the chicken in the oven. Go away for an hour . . . When an hour has passed, take the chicken out of the oven and put it on the stove top or on a trivet for 15 more minutes. Finito.”
Ruhlman is not the only one to champion roasted chicken as the quintessential easy meal. In the Les Halles Cookbook, Anthony Bourdain says: “. . . if you can't properly roast a damn chicken then you are one helpless, hopeless, sorry-ass bivalve in an apron. Take that apron off, wrap it around your neck and hang yourself. You do not deserve to wear the proud garment of generations of hardworking, dedicated cooks.”
Bourdain’s recipe for roasted chicken is, however, by no means easy. To start with, he has you lie down on the floor, bend your knees and bring your legs up, so you know how to position the chicken. Then, keeping that position in mind, you cut holes in your chicken and place the ends of the drumsticks in them (this so you don’t have to truss). You smear herb butter under the skin of the breast, and fill the cavity with herbs, onions and lemon pieces. Place the giblets and some more onion in the bottom of a roasting pan and pour some wine over it. Finally, the chicken goes on top of that and into the oven. But wait! You have to turn the temperature up halfway through cooking. Oh, and you baste, and then you have to make a pan sauce. Now, I’m sure all that work produces a decent roasted chicken, but easy? Call me a sorry-ass bivalve if you want, Tony, but I am damn sure not going to lie down on the floor imitating a dead chicken. Not in this lifetime. I went back to Ruhlman.
I don’t know if Ruhlman thought anyone would follow his directions; they seemed to be an afterthought to his post. But despite big gaps and some questionable instructions, I gave it a whirl and did exactly what he said, pretending that I knew nothing about chicken roasting. An hour and 15 minutes later I had a roasted chicken that was edible, so in that sense, it worked. It wasn’t good: it was overcooked, the skin was too salty, and the thighs were soaked in chicken grease. It yielded a hot scorched lemon, which I threw away. However, it was easy. (It would have been even easier without having to find fruits and vegetables for the cavity. What is it about lemons that makes people want to abuse them so tragically? Here’s a better use for a lemon: make a Sidecar and drink it while the fruit-free chicken cooks.)
I understand why Ruhlman says it’s easy to roast a chicken, why he wants -- even needs -- it to be easy. He’s taken it upon himself to prove that cooking isn’t hard. Chicken seems like a slam dunk. I also understand why Bourdain goes to such lengths in preparation. He thinks that all of those things make for a better bird, and since he starts out by ridiculing anyone who can’t produce a good roasted chicken, he’d be in serious trouble if he couldn’t deliver.
Other authors and chefs are not so quick to call roasted chicken easy, but neither will they come right out and call it difficult. They tend to be coy. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child and Simone Beck say, “You can always judge the quality of a cook or a restaurant by roast chicken.” Like those two dames de cuisine, most authors agree that a “perfectly roasted chicken” is a crown jewel of the kitchen, a feather in the cap of any serious cook. But no one admits the bare truth: you can’t have it both ways. If it’s easy, it can’t be the hallmark of a successful chef. If it makes or breaks the reputation of a restaurant or cook, then -- news flash -- it’s not going to be easy.
Paul Simon could just as easily have sung about 50 ways to roast a chicken (just slit it up the back, Jack; throw it in a pan, Stan; learn how to truss, Gus). Before you get that bird anywhere near an oven, you have to make decisions. Do you brine it? Salt it? Rub, butter or marinate it? If you butter, does it go on the outside, or under the skin? Plain or herbed? What, if anything, goes inside the chicken? Then comes trussing: you can tie the legs together loosely or you can draw them up tightly so they almost cover the breast. (Or do nothing.) Even putting the poor chicken in a pan is problematic. Deep or shallow pan? Rack or no rack? Vegetables under it, or not? Next, when you get it to the oven, what temperature do you use? Not only can you can roast at high temperature or low, but you can start out low and turn it to high, or start out high and turn it to low. But you’re not done yet: baste? Don’t baste?
You might think you’ll get definitive answers if you turn to the experts, but agreement among them is as elusive as phlogiston. The recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking has you salt the inside of the bird, butter the inside and outside, place the bird on a bed of vegetables, start it out at a high temperature, turning and basting for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down and continue to baste and turn. Somewhere in there, you salt the outside of the chicken. James Beard has a similar method of turning and basting, but before cooking, he has you rub the inside of the chicken with lemon juice, seal a chunk of butter inside, and sew the chicken shut.
Alton Brown suggests building a “stone oven” from fire-safe tiles inside your real oven, heating it up with the oven cleaning setting, then enclosing the chicken in the tile box to roast it. (Yeah, right after I get up off the floor from my chicken-yoga exercise, Alton.)
The lemons-in-the-cavity idea originates with Marcella Hazan. In her recipe, however, you don’t toss the fruit in haphazardly. You must roll a pair of lemons on the counter and prick their skins all over with a skewer, then pack them into the cavity as tightly as commuters on the 5:25 train. As the chicken cooks, the lemons heat up and spray the inside of the bird with hot lemon juice. Apparently, this is a good thing.
Heston Blumenthal trumps all others for length and complexity. He has you brine the bird for six hours, then rinse and soak for an hour, changing the water every fifteen minutes. You bring a pot of water to a boil and prepare an ice bath. Dunk the chicken into the boiling water for 30 seconds, then into the ice water. Repeat, as if you’re trying to sober up a drunken sailor. Put your recovering bird to bed on a rack and cover it with muslin, letting it dry out in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, preheat the oven to 140°F and cook the bird for four to six hours, or until a thermometer in the meat reaches 140 degrees (by some accounts this can take even longer -- there are tales of cooking for twelve hours). Let it sit for an hour. Then brown the chicken all over in oil in a heavy skillet. Meanwhile, you've chopped up and cooked the wing tips in 100 grams of butter. The final step is to inject this chicken-flavored butter into the bird in several places.
Every cookbook author in the world, it seems, has a special way with roasted chickens. Some have more than one -- Thomas Keller is on record with at least four methods, from “salt it, truss it, throw it in a hot oven” (wherein he says, “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”), to the Ad Hoc version of roasting the bird on a bed of vegetables -- after rubbing it with oil. What? If Keller can’t make up his mind about how to roast a chicken, what hope do we mere mortals have?
In the French Laundry Cookbook, Keller says, “. . . even a perfectly roasted chicken will inevitably result in a breast that’s a little less moist than one you would roast separately, which is why I always want a sauce with roast chicken . . .” Had he ever taken a logic class, he would have recognized the inherent contradiction in that sentence. For what he’s said is this: “even a perfectly roasted chicken is not perfect.”
And there we have it: there is no method that results in perfect roasted chicken. It’s the philosopher’s stone of the modern kitchen. All the lemon-stuffing, trussing, turning, basting, and temperature manipulation in the world won’t change that. Blumenthal spends two days brining, rinsing, boiling, chilling, drying, cooking, and searing -- and he still has to inject butter into the chicken meat. Lie down on the floor and become one with your chicken, build a citrus Jacuzzi inside your bird, or massage it with butter like a pampered spa client. At the end of the day, you still won’t have gold.
All those chefs know the reasons why. First, chicken thighs and breasts need different treatment, and any method that cooks them the same way, at the same temperature, for the same time, risks overcooking and thus drying out the breast by the time the thighs are done. Second, treatments designed to keep the breast meat moist, such as brining or cooking at lower temperatures, result in disappointing skin. And of course, the main point of roasted chicken is the crisp, brown skin. But you need to achieve it without ruining the rest of the chicken.
They know this and we do too, if we’ve put much effort into roasting chickens. Yet we persist. We keep trying to roast these birds whole, trussing and turning, brining and basting. Why?
It’s the size. Chickens are small. Along with turkeys, they’re the only whole animal most of us will ever cook in a modern kitchen.
If cows were the size of chickens, would we roast them whole, wondering all the while why those legs are so tough and the loins all dried out? Maybe so; maybe if cows were chicken-sized, we’d find a familiar myriad of misdirection: stuffing them with lemons, trussing them up, starting them on their stomachs, then flipping them udder-side up, swerving from high to low heat and careening back. But cows are not the convenient two- to four-pound size of chickens, so we cut them up and treat the parts appropriately.
On the other hand, if chickens were the size of cows, we’d know how to handle them. We’d butcher them and cook the various parts the way they deserve. We wouldn’t roast a whole one. We’d put that search for the poultry philosopher’s stone behind us.
I know what you’re saying. “But a perfect roasted chicken is not impossible. I had one in 1997.” I myself have had two roasted chickens that -- if not perfect -- were so close to perfection as to be indistinguishable from it. One was at Alain Ducasse’s Essex House restaurant in New York. It was one of the special French chickens with blue feet (or so it said so on the menu; it arrived at the table footless). It had shaved black truffles under the skin. It was breathtaking. The second I actually made myself. A friend showed me how to use the charcoal grill that had been abandoned in the backyard of my rental flat, and also showed me how to cut out the backbone to spatchcock the bird. Brined and grilled, it was flawless.
But a major scientific principle is that results have to be replicable to count. If you can’t get the same results from an experiment after the first time, then -- scientifically speaking -- your results might as well have never happened. And that’s where all these philosopher-stone attempts fail. Yes, that first chicken I spatchcocked and grilled was awe-inspiring. But the next time? It was good, but there was no comparison. I kept trying, but I never again reached that pinnacle. Anyone who’s had a roasted chicken that neared perfection knows what I mean.
Oh, sure. You can fool yourself that because the chicken you had back in 1997 was perfect, it must have been the cooking method, and you can religiously follow that method for the rest of your life. You can pretend that all the subsequent chickens cooked by that method are as good as that first one. But you’d be lying. Perfect roasted chicken is more than the bird itself. It depends on a confluence of elements that only happens once. My ADNY chicken was perfect not just because of the quality of the bird and the truffles under the skin; it was perfect because I had it at my first visit to a really high-end restaurant, because I was with wonderful friends, because we stayed at the table for four hours while servers doted on us. My grilled chicken was perfect because for the first time in my life, I mastered a charcoal fire and spatchcocked a chicken by myself.
So, maybe you have had a perfect roasted chicken. Dream about it and count your blessings, but don’t ever expect it to happen again.
We live in the real world. Perfect roasted chicken moments may happen, but rarely more than once, and not to all of us. What are the rest of us supposed to do if we want roasted chicken?
Paul Simon said it best: The answer is easy if you take it logically.
Think of a chicken as a four-pound cow with wings. Get over the idea that roasting a whole chicken is a worthwhile pursuit and recognize it for the philosopher’s stone that it is. Save your time and sanity: roast thighs, which really are easy, or breasts, which take a little more care and preparation but are still not difficult. Before you try lemons, trussing, butter, fire bricks, or a two-day brining-dunking-drying-cooking-searing-injecting binge, take a deep breath. Cut that chicken up and don’t look back.
Get yourself free.
That ADNY bird was incredible. So was my first grilled chicken. They weren’t figments of my imagination. What’s more, I made one of them. Why shouldn’t I be able to do it again? It wasn’t that difficult, really. Just brine, then remove the backbone. Start a fire.
Yes, I know what I said. The second time the magic was gone. But what if I’m just forgetting something, or what if one little change would elevate my next chicken to those heights? I’m sure I can do it. Maybe I could buy a blue-footed chicken and a truffle.
No. I won’t get obsessed. Besides, simpler is better. I know that. I’ll do what I did before, but I’ll pay more attention to the temperature and the time, and that’s it. If that doesn’t work, I’ll go back to roasting thighs.
Wait, I know -- I could rub some butter under the skin. Everyone swears by that. But that’s all I’ll do. I’m not going to get insane over this.
But maybe I could dry it overnight so the skin stays crisp. What if I put some butter and herbs inside the chicken and then trussed it?
I have some lemons . . .
Janet A. Zimmerman (aka JAZ) is a food writer and culinary instructor based in Atlanta, Georgia, and a Bert Greene award winner for her Daily Gullet article "Any Other Name." She is an eGullet Society manager.