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Holiday ... chicken?

Coming to you a couple of days early this week, just in time for Thanksgiving Day festivities in the U.S., let's consider a tasty alternative to the traditional turkey.

Not just for special occasions, a golden-brown roast chicken does full justice to a holiday dinner, but works just as well turn any winter evening into a feast.

I've been roasting chickens for quite a while in pursuit of the perfect technique, and flatter myself that I came pretty close to hitting the mark with a good-size bird the other day, treating ourselves to a pre-Thanksgiving dinner so I could pass along the results.

First, let's go through a few roast-chicken tips. Then I'll outline the surprisingly simple technique.

 Don't skimp on quality. This dish showcases the chicken in its natural goodness without much adornment, and the finished dish will reward an investment in first-rate poultry. I went with a roasting hen from Bell & Evans, a locally available brand of all-natural, "free-to-roam" chickens. If you want to know, the company explains the difference between this and "free-range" on its Website,

 Start with a good-size bird. I chose a seven-pound bird, which is huge by chicken standards, for a couple of reasons: The bigger bird roasts longer, building in flavor and tenderness. And it makes lots of delicious leftovers (or, if you prefer, will feed a crowd).

 High heat or low heat? I've tried just about every variation: High heat all the way through makes a wonderful crispy skin, but it can be difficult getting the interior done before the chicken chars; and it puts your smoke detectors to the test. Low heat all the way through fosters tenderness but doesn't do much to give you that tasty (if calorific) potato-chip-crisp skin. I've had the best success with high heat to sear followed by low heat to tenderize, and will describe that approach below.

 Stuffing? Basting? Trussing? Short and sweet, I don't do either. Cooking stuffing inside the bird increases cooking time, fills the stuff with grease, and raises a slight possibility of health issues if the center doesn't cook through. Basting isn't necessary to crisp the skin, as this technique demonstrates; and it wastes heat every time you open the oven to do it. And since we're not stuffing the bird, there's no need to "truss" it by tying its legs together with string.

What's more, by keeping preparation simple, we save a lot of time and effort, making this one holiday-style meal that doesn't keep us in the kitchen all day.


1 large (6- or 7-pound) roasting hen
1 tablespoon olive oil
Coarse sea salt
Black pepper
Several sprigs rosemary, a whole onion or a lemon


1. Preheat oven to 450F (225C).

2. Rinse and dry the chicken inside and out, removing any innards (neck, liver, etc.) that may be stashed in the cavity. Tuck the wingtips under its shoulders so they'll stay in place. Put the rosemary sprigs, onion (cut in half) or lemon (ditto) into the cavity. Rub a little olive oil all over the bird, press a bit of sea salt and black pepper all over it, and put it breast down on a rack in a shallow roasting pan.

3. Put the bird in the oven for 15 minutes. Take it out, and flip it over (breast up), taking care not to burn yourself on the hot fat. This step is not absolutely necessary - you can just put the chicken on its back at the beginning and leave it that way - but this approach seems to result in juicier breast meat.

4. Put the breast-up bird back in the 450F oven and roast for another 15 minutes. Then reduce heat to 350F (175C) and continue cooking for about one hour more, for a seven-pound bird. For a smaller bird, reduce cooking time a bit, bearing in mind that it's best (and safest) not to eyeball doneness but use a meat thermometer to check for a 160F (70C) temperature deep in the breast.

Don't over-inspect, but check skin color once or twice during cooking, reducing the heat a bit if it seems to be getting too dark too soon. At this heat, however, you should not need to baste or to protect the breast by covering it with foil. "Keep it simple" is always a good rule.

It's not a bad idea to take the chicken out of the oven and let it rest on a plate for a few minutes before serving. It will be easier to handle, and easier to carve.

WINE MATCH: It is difficult for me to think of a dry or off-dry wine, red or white, that won't make a lovely match with roast chicken. We enjoyed it with a fine California Cabernet from a tiny producer (H. Gray 2000 Yountville Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which I'll report in detail one day soon), but anything from a Riesling to a Zinfandel to a White Burgundy to a Beaujolais Nouveau will serve it well.

Discuss this recipe in our online forum:
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Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives

Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Pounding chicken (Nov. 20)

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Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2003
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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