My Goals

  • Moist, well-seasoned, crispy-skinned chicken

  • Bread with a mix of soft, crispy, and chewy textures

  • Balanced but not fussy salad

  • Chicken flavor in every bite

Few dishes are as beloved and crowd-pleasing as roast chicken. Perhaps no one knew this better than the late, renowned chef Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café in San Francisco. When she put her roast chicken with warm bread salad on the menu in the late '80s, it was a real hit. Now, some 30 years later, it still is.

I recently prepared Rodgers's recipe from The Zuni Café Cookbook (2002). The chicken was beautifully executed: the skin deeply bronzed, the meat juicy and well seasoned. And the salad? The bread itself was a lovely mix of crunchy, fried, chewy, and moist pieces, all tossed with savory chicken drippings. Currants, pine nuts, just-softened scallions and garlic, salad greens, and a sharp vinaigrette completed the salad. Served with the chicken, it was a perfect meal.

But the recipe for this rustic dish is anything but simple. It's a meticulously detailed four-page essay that calls for preparing the chicken and bread separately (the latter in two stages), so their cooking has to be coordinated, as do the salad's many components, including vinegar-soaked currants, sautéed aromatics, and toasted nuts. This could all be tackled easily in a professional kitchen, but at home it seemed taxing.

Zuni Café opened its doors in 1979; in 1987, the late Judy Rodgers became the head chef. On an average day, the restaurant serves about 100 of its whole chickens with warm bread salad.

Roast Chicken Rules

Before I did anything else, I wanted to nail the chicken cookery. I butterflied a chicken by snipping out the backbone and then pressing down on the breastbone to help the bird lie flat.

Rodgers called for salting her chicken overnight, which is a trick we often use as well. The salt draws moisture from the flesh, forming a concentrated brine that is eventually reabsorbed, seasoning the meat and keeping it juicy. I lifted up the skin and rubbed kosher salt onto the flesh; I then refrigerated the bird for 24 hours. This would give the salt time to penetrate the flesh as well as dry the skin so it would brown and crisp more readily.

Salting ahead of time ensures that the meat is juicy and flavorful and draws moisture from the skin so it can readily brown and crisp in the oven.

The next day, I placed the bird skin side up in a 12-inch skillet (rather than a large roasting pan, so the juices could pool without risk of scorching) and slid it, brushed with oil to encourage deep browning, into a 475-degree oven. Because the chicken was butterflied, I was pretty sure I could roast it at a high temperature without the breast and thigh meat cooking unevenly. Sure enough, 45 minutes later I had a mahogany brown, crispy-skinned, succulent chicken.

Breaking Bread

On to my favorite part: the bread. What makes Rodgers's bread salad unique is its mix of crisp-chewy textures, achieved by removing the crusts from a rustic loaf, cutting the bread into large chunks, coating the chunks with oil, and broiling them. The bread chunks are then torn into smaller pieces and tossed with currants, pine nuts, cooked scallions and garlic, broth, and vinaigrette. Finally, the mixture is baked in a covered dish so that the bread emerges, as Rodgers described it, “steamy-hot, a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle wads, and a few downright crispy ones.”

The star of Zuni Café’s bread salad is the bread itself, with a mix of chewy and crunchy chicken-y pieces. We cube the bread and cook it beneath the chicken so the pieces can soak up flavorful drippings as the bird roasts.

I wondered if I could streamline things by cooking the bread with the chicken, which would also allow the bread to directly soak up all the bird's juices and fat. The test kitchen has recipes that call for butterflying poultry and draping it over stuffing prior to roasting, and I thought a similar technique could work well here. The pieces touching the skillet would crisp just like Rodgers's broiled bread, and the chicken juices would keep the remaining pieces moist.

Rodgers called for an open-crumbed loaf such as ciabatta; I wanted something sturdier to hold up under the chicken, so I opted for a denser country-style loaf, which I cut into 1-inch pieces and placed in the skillet before arranging the butterflied bird on top. When I removed it from the oven, I was pleased: The bread beneath the chicken was saturated with savory chicken juices on one side and was deeply golden, crispy, and fried on the other side where it had been in contact with the pan. The only problem was that the pieces around the edges of the pan that had not been tucked under the chicken had dried out and burned slightly. Plus, a lot of the bread had stuck to the pan.

For my next batch, I moistened the bread with ¼ cup of chicken broth. I also spritzed the skillet with vegetable oil spray and stirred a little olive oil into the bread before arranging it in the skillet. I hoped this would help the edge pieces fry and crisp without sticking. Finally, I didn't trim away any of the bird's excess fat or skin. This way, I would be capturing every last drop of the drippings—arguably the most flavorful element a chicken has to offer. These were good moves: The bread boasted a mix of textures and tasted intensely chicken-y, and nothing burned or dried out. That said, the crusted pieces were still tough.

I started anew, this time removing all the crust so I was left with only the soft inner crumb. This eliminated the tough parts, but now the bread had no structure and collapsed into a single mass.

We tested different treatments for the bread cubes before finding a way to get all the textures we wanted for our bread salad: crunchy, chewy, moist, and fried.

I prepared another loaf but this time removed only the thick bottom crust. So they would be sure to soften, I arranged the remaining crusted pieces directly under the bird, crust side up. To say it worked well would be an understatement: This bread offered a little of everything: crunchy, fried, chewy, and moist pieces. There wasn't a tough piece in the mix. It was time to pull the dish together.

Salad Days

Associate editor Annie Petito uses a bright and full-bodied vinaigrette to balance the richness of the chicken-y bread cubes and peppery arugula.

As I examined the salad components, I decided to make a couple of adjustments: Instead of sautéing thinly sliced scallions with garlic, I decided to skip the garlic and keep the scallions raw, mixing them, along with sweet currants, into a sharp dressing of champagne vinegar (Rodgers called for this type, and I liked its bright, balanced flavor) and extra-virgin olive oil. For body and more punch to cut the dish's richness, I added a spoonful of Dijon mustard. And because the bread would provide plenty of crunch and richness, I left out the pine nuts, too. Finally, I poured the accumulated chicken juices into the dressing before tossing it with the bread and a heap of peppery arugula. Instead of arranging the carved chicken on top of the salad, which caused the greens to wilt, I served it alongside.

My streamlined rendition of the Zuni Café chicken and bread salad hit all the right notes: salty, savory, sweet, fresh, and bright. I only hope that it will be as memorable and enduring as the original.

We think the roast chicken in this recipe is terrific, but the crispy, chewy, ultrasavory bread is our favorite part of the dish. Here’s how we make it so great.

1. Choose a Sturdy Loaf

Use country‑style bread, which has heft and can stand up to cooking. Remove bottom crust but leave top crust attached for some chew.

2. Stack It Up

Roast untrimmed butterflied chicken on top of bread so juices and fat can be absorbed.

3. Position It Right

Arrange bread with crust side up so tougher parts are beneath moist chicken.

4. Avoid the Burn

Add oil and broth to bread so it stays moist and crisps nicely without drying, burning, or sticking.

Keys to Success

  • Moist, well-seasoned, crispy-skinned chicken

    We butterfly the chicken so it will cook quickly and brown evenly in the oven; salting it overnight ensures that it will be tender, juicy, and well seasoned and have crispy skin.
  • Bread with a mix of soft, crispy, and chewy textures

    We remove just the bottom crusts from a country-style loaf, cube it, and then toss the bread cubes with oil and chicken broth so they stay moist. Cooked under the chicken, the bread turns soft and chewy on one side and fried and crispy on the other.
  • Balanced but not fussy salad

    We omit the garlic and pine nuts from the original recipe. We mix currants and raw scallions into a sharp vinaigrette made with champagne vinegar and Dijon mustard.
  • Chicken flavor in every bite

    To make sure that each component of the recipe tastes of savory chicken, we toast the bread beneath the chicken so it absorbs the drippings. We also pour extra drippings into the vinaigrette we use to dress the greens.