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The Search for the Perfect Roast Chicken Recipe

By Alana Chernila / Photography By James Ransom | October 13, 2015

I feel about “perfect” roast chicken as I do about God: Everyone has a different way of getting there and I’m pretty sure that everyone is mostly right. Each of the kitchen masters who have taught me how to cook from the pages of their cookbooks has had a recipe that claimed perfection, and one chicken at a time, I’ve tried them all.

It began with Nigel Slater. A friend gave me his book Appetite, and the roast chicken was the first recipe I made. "Don't believe any of the smart-arse recipes you see for roast chicken," Nigel told me. "This is the one." He had me rub the whole bird with butter (no quantity included in the recipe, so I assumed it was lots), even putting "a walnut-size piece inside the bird." There was an entire head of garlic cut across its equator to make two flowers, and then there was the lemon—one half in the pan with the garlic and the other shoved into the cavity of the bird. I'd been raised by vegetarians, so going wrist deep and running my hand over the boney insides felt new and thrilling and a little bit wrong. Then the whole pan went into a hot oven, and I was to baste it or not—Nigel didn't really care. The end result was crispy and juicy and of course, perfect.

But then there was Laurie Colwin. "As you approach your bird," she warned "you will realize that there is controversy on the subject of roasting time." There was a little paprika on the skin—lemon, garlic, and, if you're feeling fancy, grapes inside the cavity—and three hours in a 250° F oven. I was to baste this chicken "constantly" which was impossible, but I wouldn't want to disappoint Laurie, so there was a whole afternoon of opening the oven, deeply inhaling, and spooning juices over the bird. The paprika made the skin a deep smoky red, and the meat was so tender it nearly dissolved. To this day I've never met a Laurie Colwin recipe I didn't love, and her chicken is, in fact, perfect.

More: The roast chicken Kristen deemed genius.

Oh, but who can say no to Ina? The collared shirt, the reassuring tone, the casual elegance! Her bird sat on a throne of roast vegetables and demanded both an exact and exorbitant amount of thyme (1 bunch plus 20 sprigs). I had no kitchen twine for the mandating trussing but used something from my kids' art supply drawer, string that smoked and crackled in the 425° F oven. Still? Delicious.

Judy Rodgers' roast chicken was one of those recipes that passed through the internet like a wave at a hockey game. I resisted. I didn't want to loosen the skin and salt and herb several days before roasting. I couldn't think about anything that far in advance. I knew my kitchen would fill with smoke as it roasted that bird at 475° F, and I already knew how to make perfect roast chicken.

And yet.

My friend Andrew worked at Zuni Café for years. The night he cooked for me there, he sped around the open kitchen, making sure he laid eyes on each dish that came to me. He was manning the brick oven that roasted the chickens, and I sat at the table just beyond the oven, close enough to watch the dry and salted skin of each little bird turn gold each and every time. And the chicken that he brought to my table was... well, as Deb Perelman put it, Zuni Café chicken is "something of a religion for people." If chicken and God were to align together in some way, I think it would be on that plate at Zuni, and in the marriage between the skin, the meat, and the vinegary tang of the bread salad. 

So I made it. I planned days in advance, I used a tiny bird (three pounds is the maximum, as any larger will cook unevenly), and I sizzled that chicken in my cast iron skillet. It was almost as good as the bird Andrew had made for me. Almost.

There was something in Thomas Keller's tone that finally inspired me to buy a roll of kitchen twine. His recipe (no butter, hot oven, butter on the meat after cooking) was a variation on those I'd made before, but he seemed to feel strongly about binding up those legs. It appealed to my inner girl scout, although the legs kept slipping out of their knots. Still I prepped a la Keller, doing my best to "rain salt over the bird." The chicken was as good as any other, and, true to Keller's instruction and that moment from the movie Amelie, I ate one oyster from the backbone and gave the other to my daughter.

More: Merrill's best roast chicken.

Of course it didn't stop there. There was the spatchcocking, which of course I had to do just to use the word. There was a brief moment where I considered the Modernist Cuisine at Home method, but the thought of injecting brine into the chicken (not to mention the blanching, the patting, the waiting, the resting, the flipping) made me tired before I even began. If you try that one, tell me how it goes. But for the most part, each "Perfect Roast Chicken" recipe has seduced me and I find that each chicken really is wonderful. There are minutely varying degrees of dryness, varying tastes depending on the source or happiness-while-living of my chicken. But really, roast chicken is perfect. And even if it’s not, there’s nothing that a little extra gravy won’t fix.

More: Or, make it without a recipe.

Photos by James Ransom

We know you have one; what's your favorite roast chicken recipe? 

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