Simple roast chicken

Oct. 3, 2019

Is there any more beautiful, aromatic bird to come from the oven than a perfectly roasted chicken, its brown the color of a Capuchin’s robe, its scent of all the perfumes of the hearth? Perhaps the Thanksgiving dinner turkey is up there in deliciousness, but that’s only once a year. Roast chicken is able to be the proverbial every-Sunday dinner.

While there may be many ways to cook a chicken, there is only one way to roast a chicken to ensure that its skin is crisp.

cooking the perfect roasted chicken
Nothing says great Sunday dinner like the perfect roast chicken. Photo: Getty Images

That way is to avoid excessive moisture — steam, say, or any bubbling liquid — while the chicken is in the oven. If too much moisture in the oven presents itself, no crisp skin.

To avoid moisture in the oven while roasting a chicken, use high heat, in the neighborhood of 400 degrees. You may roast a chicken for a long while at a lower heat, of course, and achieve that terrific-ness of meat falling off the bone. But the skin won’t be as crisp as it arrives if from under the fire of high heat.

Some recipes for roast chicken say baste, but don’t, even though it’s a common assumption that basting “causes” chicken skin to crisp. It does not; it moisturizes it, just as lotions made up of oil and broth moisturize your skin. Face it, water-plus-nutrients is a broth.

Other recipes say to secrete butter under the breast skin that you’ve just gently lifted from the chicken’s flesh before placing the bird in the oven. But as soon as that butter melts, it gives off its water and will steam under that skin and prevent crisping.

Don’t add vegetables such as onions to the pan in the hope that they will caramelize and flavor the eventual gravy. They will indeed do that, but they also will release their abundant moisture (onions have tears, too) and turn the oven into a steam bath.

And do not add chicken broth to the roasting pan with the same aim of boosting the flavor of the gravy-to-come. In this instance, not adding water to a roasting chicken in hopes of crisp skin is a no-brainer.

Now, some moisture is present in any roast chicken recipe, even the simplest. But the idea is to burn off most of that little moisture (some of the chicken’s itself, a rub of butter or olive oil, perhaps a flavoring inside the cavity) in order to achieve a very low-moisture and high-heat oven.

Finally, two schools of practice fight for the high ground on whether to truss the bird or not. I favor tying it up. Trussing makes for a comelier package when the roast is over. It also raises the legs up and onto the breast, in a sense shielding the breast meat from the heat of the cooking and helping to keep this more fragile portion of the flesh from overcooking and drying out.

When carving the roast chicken, do not fail to find and pull out the two small “oysters” of meat that you’ll find on the chicken’s back, just below the neckline (where we’d locate our shoulder blades).

They are perhaps the most succulent of pieces of any cooked whole fowl. The French have a delightful name for them; they’re called “sot l’y laisse,” roughly translated as “You’re a fool if you leave them there.”

Simple Roast Chicken


1 4-5 pound chicken, “air chilled” if possible

1 lemon

1 head garlic, unpeeled and halved at its equator

Large sprig fresh thyme

3 tablespoons butter, unsalted and at room temperature

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon kosher salt


Take the chicken out of any packaging, rinse it well inside and out, drying it with paper toweling inside and out. Place it on a cooking sheet and let it sit in the refrigerator, overnight and uncovered, so that the skin dries off.

To prepare: Heat the oven to 425 degrees. On the cutting board or counter, firmly roll the lemon under the palm of your hand and pierce through its skin overall with sharp fork tines. Place the lemon in the bird’s cavity along with one of the garlic head halves and the thyme.

If the chicken’s skin is not too thin and fragile, insert a finger underneath it, atop the breast region and gently pull the skin away from the flesh. This creates a bit of an air pocket and helps crisp the skin a great deal.

Truss the chicken by tucking the wing tips under the neck area and bringing kitchen twine under the neck flap, over the drumsticks in a tight line against the breasts, under the thighs, looping together the ankles of the legs and tying them together high and tight against the breasts.

Assure that that chicken’s skin is dry and slather the butter all over it, including on and under the thigh meat. Place the chicken on a low rack in a shallow roasting or sheet pan (or merely on the pan’s surface) and liberally pepper and salt the bird.

Roast the chicken, without basting it, for 60-90 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thigh meat (being careful not to touch the bone) reads 165. Remove the chicken, place it on a cutting board, and let it rest, uncovered, for at least 15 minutes (and up to 25 minutes) before carving it, being sure to include as much of the crisp skin as possible.

Reach Bill St John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.