Dear reader, I have a confession to make. I have never roasted a chicken. Quite how I’ve managed to avoid such a classic dish my entire adult life is a feat that surprises me, but roasting a bird has always seemed like a culinary step too far. I have, thus far, felt ill equipped to tackle such an endeavour. There are so many ways to slip up, I’ve never had the gumption to give it a go. “You can always judge the quality of a cook by roast chicken. A juicy, brown, buttery, crisp-skinned, heavenly bird requires a greed for perfection,” says Julia Child. No pressure then.
“Some of the most glorious French dishes have been created for chicken – the most important aspect is that you procure a good, flavoursome bird,” advises Julia. “If you buy on price alone you’ll often end up with something that tastes like the stuffing inside a teddy bear”. The Holy Grail of the poultry world is Poulet de Bresse – a breed of chicken from eastern France revered for its rich depth of flavour and tender flesh. While chickens have been eaten as far back as 600BC, they didn’t become a staple until the Middle Ages, when spit roasting came into fashion.
In 16th century Britain, before steam and clockwork, spits were turned by small dogs that were bred specifically for the task. The clever canines were taught to run on a wheel that turned the roasting spit in cavernous kitchen fireplaces. How they were kept from devouring the meat is remarkable. The first thing that surprised me while hunting for a bird was how inexpensive they are. As I was only cooking it for myself, I sought out the smallest chicken I could find, which cost just £3.
Having struck upon a selection of petit poulets, I arranged them in a row in a bid to choose the prettiest bird, which sounds absurd, but they varied quite dramatically in shape, so I went for the neatest looking one. Having grappled with chicken livers for my last blog post, coming face to face with a whole chicken felt less gruesome, though seeing the pair of neck bones jutting up where its head once resided made me feel a little queasy. Bird home, before I got to work prepping it I felt I ought to do my research. While this was probably a good idea it sent me down a rabbit hole.
There is no single way to roast a chicken – the options available to the novice cook are dizzying. I ended up feeling so confused by the contradictory recipes that I putt of cooking it for a day. This worked in my favour, as I was able to experiment with a ‘cheffy’ technique – dry brining. In the quest for crisp skin, I patted the bird dry then doused it in salt to draw out the moisture, leaving it in the fridge overnight. Keen to get ahead, I made my roast potatoes in advance, adding a teaspoon of baking soda while parboiling them to crisp up their skins even further.
While olive oil is far healthier, I opted to slather my spuds in beef dripping, giving them a shuffle every 20 minutes to ensure an even roasting, and flinging in a few sprigs of rosemary towards the end for a herbal hit. They emerged gloriously golden and satisfyingly crunchy – if I ended up cremating the chicken then at least I’d nailed the roasties. You’re supposed to take your bird out of the fridge an hour before putting it in the oven. I forgot, which was the start of my downfall.
Then there’s the fiddly business of trussing, which requires the dexterity of a sailor to do successfully. Lacking butchers twine, I had to make do with thread. Tying its legs together and keeping its wings in place is said to result in a more even roast. Having generously seasoned it the night before, I was tempted to smear the bird in butter, as Julia suggests – she even massages it into the cavity – but moisture is the enemy of crispy skin and Thomas Keller advises against lubrication of any kind.
To prop the chicken up, you’re supposed to lay it on a bed of veg. All I had to hand was a bag of carrots that were on the turn, which I hoped would do the trick. The Keller recipe gives the bird a short blast of heat at a very high temperature (230°) – in an hour I was promised a golden bird with crisp skin and moist flesh. It sounded too good to be true. Cranking up the heat, I lay my bird on its bed of browning carrots, slid it into the oven and hoped for the best. Basting fanatic Julia would have been horrified that I didn’t regularly reach into the oven to moisten the bird.
“One is under compulsion to hover over the bird and see that it is continually basted”, she said. My fuss free recipe meant I could squeeze in a Joe Wicks workout while the oven worked its magic. After an hour I retrieved my prize and stuck a thermometer in its thigh. It shot up to 180° – higher than required. The skin had crisped up nicely – it looked like I was on to a winner. But after hours of agonising over the recipe and an anxious wait for the results, my appetite had disappeared. Just as well it had, as when I ripped off one of the legs, the flesh was pink inside.
Treating the exercise like a science experiment, I conducted a post mortem. As Keller promised, the flesh throughout was moist, but much of it was far pinker than I would have been comfortable eating. The breast meat just beneath the skin was swan white and beautifully tender, but the sight of so much pink meat put me off trying it. Roasting a chicken is a fine art I’ve yet to master. I’m looking forward to experimenting with different techniques. My next bird is getting slathered in butter and a lemon up its bottom. I may also, in Julia’s honour, give it a good basting.