Need a low-effort, supremely satisfying dinner? Roast a chicken. The oven does a terrific job of browning the bird and, with a little know-how, can also help produce deep puddles of umami-packed pan drippings. Here’s my method.
I start by heating the oven to 400 degrees, which is the optimal temperature for a couple reasons. First, it’s hot enough to deliver deeply browned skin while maintaining moist, juicy meat. At the same time, it’s cool enough to prevent smoke from clouding the oven (see “To Prevent a Smoky Oven, Set the Dial to 400°”). Finally, at this temperature, there’s no chance of the pan drippings overreducing or burning; they’ll just brown to mahogany perfection. That’s important because those drippings—which are more intensely chicken‑y than any broth you can buy—are the secret to bringing savory depth to an accompaniment that rounds out the meal.
Plentiful Pan Drippings
Ensuring that the jus is abundant and full-flavored requires just a few strokes of a knife. After trimming away excess fat and skin from the cavity, I make small incisions in the skin just above and below each thigh. These openings allow juices exuded by the bird during roasting to drip into the pan, where they brown and develop concentrated poultry flavor. Without these slashes, the juices would collect beneath the skin and be lost to the carving board.
Next, I brush melted butter, which contains proteins and sugars that improve browning, onto the skin and rain salt and pepper over all the broad surfaces and into the cavity.
Release Drippings to Flavor a Side Dish
1. Lift 1 drumstick and use paring knife to cut ½-inch slit in skin where drumstick and thigh meet.
2. Turn chicken on side so breast faces edge of counter. Cut ½-inch slit in skin where top of thigh meets breast. Repeat both cuts on opposite side of chicken.
With the chicken prepped, I heat a touch of vegetable oil in a 12-inch skillet. When the oil is shimmering, I arrange the bird breast side up in the pan and slip it into the oven. Recognizing the anatomy of the bird is important here: Placing the dark meat against the hot skillet jump-starts its cooking, so the legs finish at the same time as the more delicate breast.
After about an hour, when the breast registers 150 to 155 degrees, I pull the chicken from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes. Removing it at this temperature allows it to climb to a safe 160 degrees via carryover cooking, ensuring juicy results.
To Prevent a Smoky Oven, Set the Dial to 400°
When the oven temperature is too high, a roast chicken can turn into a smoke-producing beast, leading to a hazy kitchen and a trashed oven. That’s because as the watery juices that leak from the bird hit the hot fat in the pan, they instantly expand into steam, creating tiny explosions that splatter fat onto the hot oven walls. Then, as the oil droplets break down, the troublesome smoke begins. So what’s the magic oven temperature? Four hundred degrees: It’s hot enough to produce a gorgeous, golden-brown chicken (as well as nicely browned pan juices) yet still cool enough to significantly reduce vigorous bubbling and splattering, thereby preventing a smoke-filled kitchen.
The Plus Side
Back to those pan juices. While the chicken rests, I whip up a quick-cooking starch such as quinoa, couscous, or bulgur. With their small shapes and absorptive qualities, these ingredients are tailor-made for soaking up the savory chicken juices and can be complemented by any number of vegetable mix-ins.
Whichever one I choose, I always start by sautéing an allium (and sometimes a spice) in a small amount of the rendered chicken fat before adding the grain or seed. Then I deglaze the pan with the defatted chicken jus, which is so concentrated that it actually needs to be diluted with a splash of water.
After that, it’s just a matter of layering the vegetables on top and letting them steam until they’re tender. (I match quinoa with earthy Swiss chard, nutty bulgur with sweet peas, and couscous with vibrant roasted red peppers.) Finally, an acid—vinegar or fresh lemon or lime juice—balances the richness.
Once the bird is carved, I enliven the dish with a handful of fresh herbs or a smattering of citrus zest. Dinner is served—and the chicken isn’t the only thing that’s golden.