[Note: This recipe got some fresh photos in 2019.]
I recently realized that I didn’t have a single recipe for a whole roasted chicken on this site which seemed wrong somehow, coming from a nice Jewish girl such as myself. I know the real reason I don’t — which is that I don’t like 75 percent of the roasted chicken I eat (not yours, of course; promise!). Mostly, I find the pieces too big, the meat overcooked and the entire thing kind of like pressed sawdust… um, not that I need to learn to form an opinion or something. Sticking to dark meat helps a bit, but not as much as just bypassing the roasted chicken altogether.
There is only one home recipe for roasted chicken I have ever wanted to try and it is from the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. Google “zuni cafe roasted chicken” and you’ll see — quickly — that this is something of a religion for people; they are mad for it. And yet, the technique, which hinges on three things, isn’t actually that crazed, and can be easily replicated at home. Win-win!
The first is the size of the bird, which should be small.”Don’t substitute a jumbo roaster,” they warn, “it will be too lean and won’t tolerate high heat, which is the second requirement of the method.” They reason that small chickens flourish at high heat, roasting quickly and evenly, and, with lots of skin per ounce of meat, are virtually engineered for succulence. This is like music to my ears, people.
The last requirement is salting the bird at least one day in advance. They insist that it improves flavor, keeps it moist, and makes it tender, and I am not one to argue with people who value this as I do. They don’t bother trussing the chicken — the idea is to get as much skin as possible to blister and color. And they don’t add any extra fat to it, trusting the skin to provide enough. Which it does, mmm….
Nevertheless, it might sound a little fussier than your usual roasted chicken but I can tell you this: It is one-hundred-thousand-percent worth it. I was as proud as a newlywed presenting her first crown roast to a holiday table pulling that evenly-bronzed, shiny gorgeous bird out of the oven Friday night. I was waiting for the heavens to open up and angels to begin singing hallelujah as never before has a more beautiful chicken emerged from an enclosed heating compartment, but then remembered, once again, that I was Jewish and instead happily settled for this:
“It’s like butta, Deb. Like butta.”
Zuni Cafe's Roasted Chicken
- One small chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2-pounds
- 4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 inch long
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 to 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- A little water
Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough — a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown.
Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.
Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t otherwise worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.
Prepare your oven and pan: [Day of, total time is 45 minutes to 1 hour]
Preheat the oven to 475°F. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle (we used a 12-inch cast iron frying pan for a 3 1/2 pound chicken). Preheat the pan over medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.
Roast the chicken: Place the chicken in the pan in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over — drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking. Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.
Rest the chicken: Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the clear fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it.
Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. You can let it rest while you finish your side dishes (or Bread Salad, below). The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.
Serve the chicken: Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two.
Tilt the roasting pan and skim the last of the fat. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Taste — the juices will be extremely flavorful.
Cut the chicken into pieces, spread on the warm platter (on top of the Bread Salad, if using).
Capitalize on leftovers: Strain and save the drippings you don’t use, they are delicious tossed with spätzle or egg noodles, or stirred into beans or risotto. You can also use them, plus leftover scraps of roast chicken, for a chicken salad.
Zuni Cafe's Bread Salad
As I noted above, I’ve trimmed down the steps for this recipe significantly so it doesn’t resemble the original recipe a whole lot. But it remains equally delicious.
- Generous 8 ounces slightly stale open-crumbed, chewy, peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
- 6 to 8 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
- Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 tablespoon dried currants plumped in 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar and 1 tablespoon warm water for ten minutes or so
- 2 tablespoons pine nuts
- 2 to 3 garlic cloves, slivered
- 1/4 cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions), including a little of the green part
- 2 tablespoons lightly salted chicken stock or lightly salted water
- A few handfuls of arugula, frisée, or red mustard greens, carefully washed and dried
Toss them with just a tablespoon or two of olive oil, lightly coating them, and broil them very briefly, just to lightly color the edges. If you’d like to toast the pine nuts (recommended) you can put them on your broiler tray as well, but watch them very carefully — they cook quickly!
Combine about 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the Champagne or white wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss about 1/4 cup of this tart vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl; the bread will be unevenly dressed. Taste one of the more saturated pieces. If it is bland, add a little salt and pepper and toss again.
Heat a spoonful of the olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and scallions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened. Don’t let them color. Scrape into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plumped currants and fold them in, along with the pine nuts, if they were not already mixed with the bread scraps from the broiling step. Dribble the chicken stock or lightly salted water over the salad and fold again.
Taste a few pieces of bread — a fairly saturated one and a dryish one. If it is bland, add salt, pepper, and/or a few drops of vinegar, then toss well.
If you’re going to serve the salad under the roast chicken (recipe above), you can pile the bread salad on the serving dish you want to use and tent it with foil. If you want to serve it separately, do the same, but in a 1-quart shallow baking dish. Hang onto the bowl you mixed it in — you’ll use it again.
Place the salad in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time, for about 5 to 10 minutes.
Tip the bread salad back into the salad bowl. It will be steamy-hot, a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle-wads, and a few downright crispy ones. Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of the pan juices. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and fold well. Taste again.