How to roast a chicken

Food & drink
How to roast a chicken

There are many ways to roast a chicken.  Everybody has a tweak, an opinion, a little trick or two.

This is how I do it.

I prefer a roast chicken to be simple.  I’ve tried all sorts of ways, including a heart-stopping version involving nearly a pound of butter, garlic, thyme and a lot of bacon, mixed together and carefully stuffed between the breast and it’s skin.

It was the stuff of legend.

That’s not for a mid-week evening though, the kind of evening where you don’t want to ‘cook’ but you do want to eat well.

All a chicken really needs is salt and pepper, sprinkled into the cavity and rubbed into the skin with some olive oil.  This will give you a perfectly good roast bird, with some salty, crunchy skin.

This may be all you need to do, but small variations can lead to big differences.

Loosely stuffing the cavity with herbs, garlic and lemon will flavour the bird from the inside out and add punch to the meat and the pan juices.  Hardy, woody herbs – rosemary, thyme, bay – work best, although subtler herbs such as parsley, oregano or marjoram have a place too.  If you can get hold of it, fresh tarragon will be sublime.

Cooking is straightforward.  200c, twenty minutes per 500g and an extra thirty minutes on top of that.  A ‘standard’, 1.6kg chicken will take about an hour and a half, but less in a fan assisted oven.  This is one of those times when you need to know your own oven.

The result will be very good indeed.  The meat will be soft and juicy, the skin crisp and irresistible.  There will be some meagre juices in the pan to be poured straight onto the plate or to be used as the base for a quick sauce, let down over a high heat with a glass of white wine.

When you’re cooking something as simply and plainly as this, quality is all important.  A lot has been written about the ethics of chicken farming and the quality and welfare of the fowl, and I don’t want to add to the canon.  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken Out! campaign is a good place to start if you want to know more.

I buy free range birds only, occasionally organic.  I do this as much for myself as for the chicken – a free range or organic bird does taste better and it will certainly have had a longer and happier life than its shed reared cousins.

That happiness transfers to the plate, but you pay dearly for it.

This chicken was from Abel & Cole and weighed in at just over a tenner.  All Abel & Cole’s poultry is free range or organic, and the free range birds are labelled as ‘rainforest friendly’, an unusual claim to make for a humble chicken from Devon.  Chickens need protein to develop, and they normally get that from soya, much of which is sourced from South America, where farming it is responsible for huge amounts of deforestation.  Able & Cole’s birds are fed with an alternative feed containing high levels of British peas and beans, along with rape, sunflower and wheat, a low rainforest impact feed, if you like.

£10 for a chicken may seem a lot, but it goes a long way.

We ate the chicken fresh from the oven last night, but there was plenty left.  Some went into a stir fry for the kids’ tea, the rest will go into sandwiches with bacon, tomato and mayonnaise tomorrow, and the carcass will go into the freezer to be made into stock when I’ve got a couple more to go with it.  Some was eaten sneakily straight form the fridge at 1:30am this morning.  I couldn’t sleep.

Everything in life has some sort of choice attached to it, a decision to be made.  Eating chicken is no different.  My decision is that we’ll eat better chicken less often, and we’ll get as much out of it as we can.

A well-reared bird deserves nothing less.

Full disclosure:  this bird was given to me by Abel & Cole for the purposes of this review.  It was extremely good, and, believe me, I know a good chicken when I see one.  I’ve eaten more than my fair share of bad ones, after all.  Many thanks, Abel & Cole, your chickens are excellent, and I’ll buy the next one.