Judy Rodgers, Chef over at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, inspired the phenomenon of dry-brining and high-temp roasting to get the most succulently tender bird you’ve ever eaten. It’s way better than those ready-roasted chickens sitting under a heat lamp at your local Shaw’s or Busch’s or H-E-B or whatever, and it also happens to be pretty simple once you get going. So, the details:
Dry brining: A brine is like a marinade who got an A+ in science class. The salt in a brine tenderizes the meat by breaking down the protein structure. Then, just to show off, it makes the meat extra juicy through osmosis. Now, dry brining does the same thing, but without the sloppy, stinky saltwater mess hanging out in your fridge for a few days. You massage the salt into the bird, the bird absorbs it and then actually brines itself in its own juices. Brilliant, no? (Look, just go read the cooking for engineers article already. I think they have PhDs.)
High-temp roasting: So we’ve got the juicy but still raw bird. That’s where the science happened. Now we turn it into a juicy and crispy edible bird. That’s where the magic happens. The chicken gets patted all around with some paper towels, dried off after his brine, slipped into a hot cast iron pan and slid into a hotter oven. The skin crisps up quick, locking in the moisture, and an hour later: Voila.*
Roast chicken, Judy’s way
adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook
1 small chicken (ideally between 2.5 and 3.5 lbs, no bigger than 4 lbs)*
4 basil leaves
4 strips of lemon peel, no pith
3/4 tsp salt per pound of meat (e.g. a 3 lb bird requires 2-1/4 tsp salt)
1 tsp freshly-ground black pepper (if using pre-ground, use 1/2 tsp)
Season and brine the chicken: One to three days before you plan to roast the chicken (longer for a bigger bird), remove the giblets/liver/guts package from the interior cavity. Save for your stock pot, or toss. Rinse the chicken well, inside and outside, and dry very thoroughly with paper towels, inside and out.
Starting at the end of the chicken breast nearest the cavity, slide your fingers under the loose skin, being careful not to tear it. Move your finger around to open a pocket on both sides of the breast. Now slide your fingers down and around to open a little pocket between the skin and meat of the thickest part of both thighs. Slide a basil leaf and strip of lemon zest into each pocket.
Massage the salt and pepper over the chicken, seasoning more heavily on the fatter parts, and making sure to get a little inside the cavity. Wrap the chicken loosely and stow in the fridge until you’re ready to cook.
Roast the chicken: Preheat the oven and your 12-in cast iron pan (or small baking dish) to 475F and remove chicken from fridge 30 minutes before roasting. Pat chicken all over with paper towels until it is very, very dry, inside and out. Place chicken, breast side up, in the preheated cast iron pan and place in oven. The skin should start turning golden and crispy, but if it begins to char, or your oven is smoking, reduce temperature to 450F.
After 30 minutes, flip the chicken. Insert a large serving fork or spatula into the cavity of the bird and turn breast side down with the help of a second spatula, making sure not to pierce or tear the skin. (You shouldn’t have a problem with the chicken sticking to the pan if you dried the bird very thoroughly and preheated the pan.) Return to the oven for another 10-20 minutes, or until a thermometer stuck into the thick part of the thigh (but not touching bone) reads ~170F. Flip the bird one more time and cook for 10 more minutes, or until the thermometer-in-thigh reads 180F.
Remove from oven, tent the bird with foil and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes before slicing and gobbling it up. As always, slide the carcass into a freezer bag to be used for your next chicken stock.
Note: To prevent your oven from smoking profusely, use a pan or baking dish barely big enough for your bird. This will minimize grease splatter. For extra measure, line the oven rack below the roasting chicken with foil or parchment paper. Not only does this prevent errant chicken fat from burning on the oven floor, it also makes cleanup very easy.
*This works best, obviously, on smaller birds (i.e. under 4 lbs). If its bigger, you will have a very crisp looking bird with still-raw meat – not very magical. So if it’s a big guy, turn the heat down from 475F to 400F after the first 20 minutes, cook until the thickest part of the thighs registers at around 170F, then jack the heat back up for the last 10 minutes.