I always thought that the rules for achieving perfectly juicy, bronzed and crisp-skinned roast chicken were simple: pat it very dry, and blast it in a very hot oven. It’s the only way… right? Yet it seems out of step with so many other kinds of roasts that benefit from longer, lower-temperature cooking times. Curious, I gave it a try on a cold, lazy weekend afternoon, and what emerged from the oven a couple hours later defied all of my expectations. Not only did it have deeply bronzed and very crisp skin, it was also the most succulent, juicy chicken I have ever eaten. My pickiest child couldn’t stop eating it. The pickiest adult (that’s me, and I prefer the term “skeptical,” thank you) couldn’t, either. This is now the method I wish everyone would try, because nobody can make a bad roasted chicken this way.
I’ve put all sorts of things under and around my chicken over the years — potatoes, mixed vegetables, just onions, and even cabbage — but croutons cooked slowly in salty drippings until they’re part burnished and crisp, part tender, rich and schmaltzy, was the one that got me a “Don’t you dare use anything else, ever again.” If you’ve ever had the Zuni Café roast chicken, you’ll know that the best thing to eat with chicken, and chickeny croutons, is a bright salad. The one you make here is both bright and crunchy, balancing the richness. If you come over for dinner this fall, you know what we’re eating.
From “Smitten Kitchen Keepers: New Classics for Your Forever Files” by Deb Perelman. Copyright © 2022 by Deb Perelman. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
For the chicken:
- 1½ pounds (680 g) bread (sourdough, miche or sturdy country loaf)
- olive oil
- 6 medium garlic cloves (but who’s counting), unpeeled
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4-pound (1.8-kg) whole chicken
- 1 lemon
- a few sprigs fresh thyme
For the salad:
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tsp smooth Dijon mustard
- 4 Tbsp (50 g) olive oil
- ¼ cup (125 g) roughly chopped green olives
- 1 small fennel bulb, sliced very thin
- 4 ounces (115 g) firm, leafy lettuce, such as escarole
- Heat the oven to 325°F (165°C).
- For the croutons: Cut the bread into 1-inch-thick slices. Coat a 9-by-13-inch roasting pan or baking dish with olive oil. Arrange the bread snug in the bottom, cutting the slices into small pieces as needed. (Tetris-heads, this is our time to shine.) Nestle the garlic cloves between the bread pieces throughout the pan. Drizzle the bread with 2 Tbsp olive oil, ½ tsp kosher salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper.
- For the chicken: Sprinkle the chicken with 2 tsp kosher salt, black pepper, finely grated zest from the lemon and the leaves from a couple of thyme sprigs. Cut the lemon in half and toss it, and any additional thyme sprigs, into the bird’s cavity. Place the chicken on top of the bread and — this is essential to keep the bread from drying out until the chicken releases any juices — sprinkle the exposed pieces of bread around the chicken with ½ cup water. Roast for about 2 hours-2 hours 20 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast reads 155°F, or 165°F for the thigh.
- Finish the croutons: Transfer the chicken to a cutting board, but before you do, take a look at the croutons. If they’re very dry, tilt the bird over them, drizzling juices that have collected inside the bird over the bread to moisten it. If they are not yet dried out, you can skip this. In all cases, use a spatula to flip the croutons, and return them to the oven to cook for about 15-20 minutes, or until they’re largely crisp and golden brown, while the chicken rests. The amount of time this takes depends on how dried out they were going in; they sometimes need longer.
- Meanwhile, prepare your salad: Combine the lemon juice and Dijon mustard in a large bowl, and whisk in the olive oil in a thin stream. Season well with black pepper and more salt. Add the olives and fennel, and toss to combine. Set aside until right before serving; then add the salad greens, and toss to coat them. Season salad with additional salt and pepper.
- To serve: Remove the pan with the croutons from the oven, and transfer them to a serving platter. Shmear the garlic cloves over the toasts, discarding the peels. Heap the salad on top. Carve the chicken, and arrange the pieces on top of the salad and croutons. Pour any juices from the cutting board over the chicken, and serve immediately.