Undoubtedly, roasted meat cast a strong spell on the omnivorous clan of the human race. Domestic propriety is judged by a person’s ability to render a slaughtered animal into crispy perfection. Bookstores showcase entire sections devoted to the art of slow-cooking animal flesh. Even the Food Network caters much of its programming to the topic. However, this wealth of information has never been useful in my carnivorous sojourns because roasting meat is just as much voodoo as it is technique. Even if you follow exactly what Jacques Pepin says, you aren’t guaranteed a sublime chicken. Such as it is, I was conflicted about whether or not to even blog about the process. Thankfully, I’ve never proclaimed this space as a solely instructional one.

Pundits will tell you that quality ingredients are the key to these deceptively simple recipes. I’m inclined to believe them. After all, a manky chicken full of veins and that god-forsaken, stomach-turning, holyshitI’llnevereatchickenagain flavor will ruin an otherwise good evening. I’ve heard that kosher birds are the best, but can’t find one for the life of me. I don’t belong to the organic/free-range camp. Nor do I subscribe to the Perdue chicken cult. In fact, the mankiest bird I ever cooked was of the latter brand. No, picking a chicken is always a gamble and reliable sources are handed down in super secret meetings among enthusiasts. There are some general guidelines though.

Freshness

You can always ask the butcher, but I frequently find that they don’t know when the bird was killed. In Chicago, the butchers often don’t speak English and you may find yourself in an existential call-and-response where they repeat the word “soup,” which is of no help whatsoever. Since we are ultimately alone in the meat wilderness, we must rely on our survival instincts. Pause for a minute and examine the carcasses empirically. (If little old ladies start elbowing you, don’t hesitate to hold your ground. You’re taller and stronger than them anyway.) A decent bird will have pale yellow skin, clear pink flesh and no broken bones. Deep purple blooms under the skin or on the tip of the leg indicate fractures. You don’t want this because it means blood has seeped into the flesh after the initial draining. That makes it manky. Some feathers are okay, but too many indicate a lack of craftsmanship. Careless slaughter indicates, again, blood seeping into the flesh, which makes it what? (Manky.) The package shouldn’t be too drippy as this indicates dehydration (i.e. rot). The smell should be sweet, but not too much with the high notes. The goo should not be overly slimy. Put the hen in your basket.

Preparation

This is the part where real arguments take place. To oil or not to oil? Butter? Stuff or not to stuff? Vegetables in the tray or separate? Everyone will swear to heaven and back that “their way” produces an evenly-cooked, crisp-skinned, well-seasoned chicken. If, in trying their method, you fail to produce a perfect bird, it is somehow your fault. I would typically write this off as snobbery if it wasn’t for the fact that “their way” does work as long as you have dinner at their house. Finding “your way” is very much so a personal journey. “My way” goes as follows:

1) Let the chicken sit out of the fridge for a little bit (10-20 minutes max). Taking the chill off it ensures even cooking. I haven’t killed anyone yet. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

2) Rinse and dry the bird, inside and out. Herbs cling to dry skin better. Plus, dry skin crisps instead of steams. Also! Don’t forget to take out the organs! This is usually done for you in pre-production, but one can never be too sure. Always check for the organs or the little white bag, which has the organs in it.

3) Rub salt and pepper inside the cavity.

4) Slice up some garlic cloves. Slip them under the skin. This can be tricky because you don’t want to compromise the skin’s integrity by cutting it up. Compromised skin = loss of fat. Loss of fat = dry bird. If you lift up the skin on either end, you should be able to tear a small passage. Insert the garlic there and massage it up and around to your liking.

5) Massage olive oil onto the skin.

6) Massage herbs and spices onto the skin. I typically do fresh rosemary, a little oregano, garlic powder, a little diced garlic, salt, pepper. Take some of the rosemary sprigs and put them in the cavity and under the skin, through the same small hole you made for the garlic.

7) Truss. You absolutely must truss the bird. I lack kitchen string and, to be honest, classic trussing techniques leave me cold. I just don’t get it. Instead, find the flaps of skin hanging around the main cavity opening. Slit a 1/2 inch hole in either side. Left leg goes in right slit. Right leg goes in left slit. They will be crossed in the end.

(8) Place bird breast side up in a pan, pan in oven. Go hang out for about an hour.

Finishing

You will know a done bird by its signs.

1) Evenly crisped skin. It should be a nice tawny color.
2) Liquid in the pan. You should have about 1/2 inch. This means that all juices have cooked.
3) Exposed leg bones. When a chicken is cooked thoroughly, the skin will have pulled away from the knobs of the leg bones. Congrats! You won’t run into veins.

If you still can’t tell or aren’t sure, poke the thickest part of the thigh with a fork and press it. The liquid should be clear. If you have crisped skin, but pink fluid, lower the heat to 375 degrees F and cook for another 15 minutes. Alternatively, you can stick a meat thermometer in the same part. I think it’s done at 180 degrees F. What do I know about such technology?

Once the bird is out, let it rest for 5-10 minutes. It’s totally worth the wait, I promise.

Serve with a “nice salad” or whatever seasonal side tickles your fancy.

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