I've roasted a few birds in my time, but have often been disappointed with the results. Despite my best efforts -- basting in butter, basting in oil, turning it from side to side, etc. -- there was something I was missing. Oh, they were all juicy enough, and usually perfectly cooked, but I found them lacking in the flavour department and the skin not golden or crispy enough.
Well last night in cooking class we roasted chickens, and I have to say that thanks to a few tips from Chef, this was without a doubt my best effort yet! Here's what I learned:
1) Don't rub the bird's skin with butter or oil before putting it in the oven. Salt and pepper it well all over though, including inside the cavity. Rub the salt and pepper in, making sure it's adhering. Any butter you use at this point (I didn't) should be placed under the skin, next to the breast. It's relatively easy to loosen the skin in this area.
2) Even if you're not stuffing the chicken, put something in the cavity to help flavour it. I quartered an onion, added a few chunks of unpeeled carrot, a celery stalk broken into three pieces, some parsley stems (not the leaves), and a few sprigs of thyme. A couple of whole cloves of garlic would've been nice as well.
3) Sit the chicken on a bed of rough chopped mirepoix (50% onion, 25% carrot, 25% celery) in your roasting pan. The fat will drip onto the vegetables, which you'll use at the end to make a lovely, flavourful jus (way better than gravy!).
3) Roast the chicken at 400C for about 30 minutes, until it starts to turn golden, and then take it out and baste it with butter. Pop it back in the oven for another 30-40 minutes. Take it out, baste it with butter again, and return it to the oven for another 10 minutes or so. Take it out, baste it again, then sit the bird on a cutting board, breast side down, to rest. Tent foil over it.
NOTE: These instructions are for a 3-4 lb bird, and keep in mind that ovens vary so you'll have to judge doneness on your own. All in all you should baste it three times over the course of the cooking process.
4) Testing doneness: There are a few ways to do this. You can plunge a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh - if it reads 165C to 170C, it's done. You can also wiggle the leg to see if it moves easily in the socket and pulls away from the rest of the bird. If it does, it's probably done. If it's not moving easily it may need more time. Thirdly, you can pierce the thickest part of the thigh with your knife to see if the juices run clear. Be patient though - they may run clear initially but turn pink after a few seconds. If you see pink, back into the oven!
5) Making a jus: When the bird is resting, use the pan juices to make a jus. A jus, unlike a gravy, doesn't have flour. It's essentially concentrated pan juices reduced down, deglazed with chicken stock and white wine, and with the addition of butter, olive oil, salt and fresh herbs at the end. It should look deep brown in colour and be extremely rich in flavour. With Chef's help, I cranked the gas burner and got the pan juices and softened mirepoix sizzling. The juices reduced down by about half and at that point the vegetables began browning on the bottom and the whole pan started collecting browned, cooked bits on the bottom. At this point, I removed the vegetables, keeping the liquid.
I added the white wine (3/4 cup) and deglazed the pan, bringing up all the brown bits (called the "fond," French for bottom). After a few minutes, I added some chicken stock, and kept stirring and deglazing. I continued to reduce the liquid, again, by about half. Then I added a hunk of butter (about a heaping tablespoon's worth), and whisked it in quickly off the heat, making sure it was fully incorporated and didn't break in the sauce. I then added some olive oil, salt, and fresh parsley. At this point the sauce was dark brown and wonderfully flavourful. Quite honestly, better than any gravy I've ever tasted.
And remember, after you've roasted the chicken, save the carcass for stock! It's one of the easiest things to make and you'll use it for everything, from risottos, to pasta dishes, to soup, to sauces.
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