Whether you need dinner on the table in a hurry or have time to pull out all the stops, we'll guide you to the best results.
What You'll Learn
- How to Shop for Whole Chicken
- How to Safely Handle Raw Chicken
- Pretreating Chicken: Salting Versus Brining
- Extra Steps for Extra-Crispy Skin
- Three Favorite Ways to Roast Chicken
- How to Know When Chicken Is Done
- How to Carve Chicken
- What to Serve with Roast Chicken
How to Shop for Whole Chicken
Choosing the best bird has never been more complicated. Not only do supermarkets carry a multitude of brands that range widely in price, but you need a degree in agribusiness to decode packaging lingo like “all natural,” “free range,” “organic,” and “vegetarian fed.” We sampled dozens of birds and decrypted the labels to figure out what tastes best when you strip away the sales pitches.
Read Labels Carefully
Many claims cited on poultry packaging have no government regulation, while those that do are often poorly enforced. Here’s how to evaluate which claims are meaningful—and which are full of loopholes or empty hype.
Not Just Hype
Air Chilled means the chickens weren’t water-chilled in a chlorinated bath, so they didn’t absorb water during processing, which dilutes flavor, makes the skin harder to crisp, and factors into the per-pound cost of the bird. Air-chilled meat is typically more tender, possibly because the slower cooling leaves time for enzymes in the meat to tenderize muscle tissue.
USDA Organic poultry must eat organic feed that doesn’t contain animal byproducts, must be raised without antibiotics, and must have access to the outdoors (how much access, however, isn’t regulated).
Raised Without Antibiotics and other claims regarding antibiotic use are important; too bad they’re not strictly enforced. Only the USDA Organic seal ensures rigorous enforcement of this claim; otherwise, poultry is only randomly monitored for antibiotic residues.
Natural and All Natural mean only that the bird was minimally processed with no added synthetic ingredients. Producers may thus raise their chickens under the most unnatural circumstances on the most unnatural diets (which may include ground up chicken feathers, animal byproducts leftover from slaughter, and commercial bakery leftovers) and still put this claim on their packaging.
Hormone-Free is empty reassurance, since the USDA does not allow the use of hormones or steroids in poultry production.
Vegetarian Fed and Vegetarian Diet may sound healthy, but the terms aren’t regulated. That said, the producers of our winning chickens assured us that their definitions mean a diet of corn and soy.
Our Favorite Supermarket Chickens
Mary's Free Range Air Chilled Chicken (also sold as Pitman's)
Air chilling plus a higher percentage of fat (compared with the more diluted water-chilled chicken) added up to a bird that tasters raved was “clean,” “sweet,” “buttery,” “savory,” “chicken-y,” and “juicy,” with “richly flavored” dark meat that was “so moist” and “tender.” In sum: “Really perfect.”
Bell & Evans Air Chilled Premium Fresh Chicken
Thanks to almost three hours of air chilling, this bird’s white meat was “perfectly moist,” “rich and nutty,” and “concentrated and chicken-y,” and its dark meat “silky-tender” yet “firm.” Several tasters remarked that it seemed “really fresh” and “clean-tasting.” Also helpful to flavor: It had the highest fat percentage of any bird in the tasting.
Click here for complete results of our supermarket chicken tasting.
How to Safely Handle Raw Chicken
How to Freeze and Thaw Raw Chicken
Freezing: Wrap each chicken part securely in plastic wrap, place inside a zipper-lock bag, and press out the air. Freeze the items in a single layer. We don’t recommend freezing for more than two months because we’ve found the texture and flavor suffer.
Thawing: Don't thaw frozen poultry on the counter; this puts it at risk of growing bacteria. Thaw it in its packaging in the refrigerator overnight (in a container to catch any juices). Count on 1 day of defrosting in the refrigerator for every 4 pounds of bird.
When handling raw poultry, make sure to wash hands, knives, cutting boards, and counters (and anything else that has come into contact with the raw bird, its juices, or your hands) with hot, soapy water. Be especially careful not to let the poultry, its juices, or your unwashed hands touch foods (like salad ingredients) that will be eaten raw.
Don't Rinse Raw Poultry
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) advises against rinsing raw poultry under cold running water; this applies to both whole chickens and chicken parts. Doing so will not remove much bacteria, and the splashing of the running water around the sink can spread bacteria found on the surface of the raw chicken.
Pretreating Chicken: Salting Versus Brining
We’re big proponents of pretreating your chicken by either salting or brining it before roasting. Both techniques season and enhance juiciness in lean meat like chicken. Which method you use depends on how much time and space you have, and how much you prioritize really crisp skin. Refer to our guide for salting and brining chicken for a breakdown of each method.
To avoid constantly washing and rewashing your hands—and to greatly reduce the risks of cross-contamination—make sure to portion and set aside any seasonings, such as salt and pepper, before you start handling the meat.
Extra Steps for Extra-Crispy Skin
If you’re looking for the crispiest skin on your roast chicken, follow these three simple steps.
1. Cut Channels and Poke Holes
Creating escape routes for rendered fat and juices helps the skin dry out and thus crisp.
Place chicken breast side down on cutting board. Using tip of paring knife, make four 1-inch incisions along back.
Using metal skewer, poke 15 to 20 holes in fat deposits on top of breast and thighs.
2. Apply Baking Powder with the Salt
This rub works in two ways. First, it draws moisture out of the skin, concentrating flavor and leaving the skin ready to crisp up fast while it cooks. Second, the alkaline baking powder helps proteins in the chicken skin break down as it rests. Broken-down proteins crisp and brown more readily than intact ones, so the upshot is crackly, flavor-packed skin.
3. Air-Dry Overnight
Refrigerating the salt-rubbed chicken for at least 12 and up to 24 hours dehydrates the skin so that it will crisp and brown.
Three Favorite Ways to Roast Chicken
The biggest challenge when roasting chicken is getting the white and dark meat to finish cooking at the same time, since breast meat dries out above 160 degrees while the dark meat isn't even done until it reaches at least 175 degrees. But there’s more than one way to get great results. Here are three of our favorite roast chicken recipes that offer a range of seasoning and prep methods as well as roasting techniques.
A combination of brining, applying butter under the skin, rubbing the bird with vegetable oil, and flipping it during cooking produces moist, well-seasoned meat and golden-brown skin.
When you have time to pull out all the stops, rubbing the bird with a mixture of salt and baking powder and then air-drying it overnight, delivers ultra-crisp skin.
Brining and salting are great tools when you have the time. But this unusual skillet technique doesn't use either salt treatment, and delivers tender meat, golden brown skin, and a deeply savory pan sauce in about an hour.
Is Basting Really Worth It?
In a word, no. In tests, we found that it adds time and effort, but not much moisture.
How to Know When Chicken Is Done
Don’t rely on those little pop-up thermometers that comes pre-inserted in chickens; they’re unreliable and can lead to under- or overcooked birds. And don’t believe the myth about cooking a chicken “until the juices run clear.” The most accurate way to gauge the doneness of a chicken is to take its temperature with an instant-read thermometer.
How to Take the Temperature of a Chicken
Breast: Insert the thermometer from the neck end, holding it parallel to the bird. (Avoid hitting the bone, which can give an inaccurate reading.) It should register 160 degrees.
Thigh: Insert the thermometer at an angle into the area between the drumstick and breast away from the bone. It should register 175 degrees.
Rest Chicken to Maximize Juiciness
Don’t give into the impulse to slice and serve chicken the second it exits the oven. Doing so will cause the flavorful juices to gush out of the bird and onto your cutting board, making a mess and leaving the meat dry. Resting the chicken for about 20 minutes allows the meat to draw moisture back in, so that it’s juicy and appears more tender.
How to Carve Chicken
Rather than carving the bird tableside, we recommend tackling this messy job in the kitchen. After your chicken has rested for about 20 minutes (uncovered, to keep the skin crisp), gather your chef's knife and your carving board and follow these directions to carve like a pro.
- Start with Leg Quarter: Cut chicken where leg meets breast.
- Separate Leg Joint, Remove Leg Quarter: Pull leg quarter away from carcass. Separate joint by gently pressing leg out to side and pushing up on joint. Cut through joint to remove leg quarter.
- Separate Drumstick and Thigh: Cut through joint that connects drumstick to thigh. Repeat steps 1–3 on chicken's other side.
- Remove Breast Meat: Cut down along side of breastbone, pulling breast meat away from breastbone as you cut.
- Slice Breast Meat: Remove wing from breast by cutting through wing joint. Slice breast crosswise into slices. Repeat with other side.
What to Serve with Roast Chicken
The rest of dinner can be as simple as a green salad and a baked potato. But if you're looking for more inspired ideas, give these roast chicken dinners a whirl.
Weeknight Roast Chicken Dinner
- Weeknight Roast Chicken
- Thyme–Sherry Vinegar Pan Sauce
- Herbed Rice and Pasta Pilaf
- Skillet-Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Mustard and Brown Sugar
Roast Chicken for Company
- Arugula Salad with Figs, Prosciutto, Walnuts, and Parmesan
- Crisp Roast Chicken
- French Mashed Potatoes with Cheese and Garlic (Aligot)
- Sauteed Green Beans with Smoked Paprika and Almonds
- Olive Oil Cake
Roast Chicken Dinner, Peruvian-Style
- Peruvian Roast Chicken with Garlic and Lime
- Spicy Mayonnaise
- Twice-Fried Plantains (Tostones)
- Quinoa Pilaf with Olives, Raisins, and Cilantro
- Salad with Herb Vinaigrette
- Orange-Cardamom Latin Flan
Cold Weather Chicken Dinner