A good roast chicken is truly one of life's simplest yet greatest pleasures. From the way it fills your kitchen with the smell of comfort to the way the golden brown skin crackles as you cut through it to the way you need little more than a salad and some crusty bread to create a perfect meal, roast chicken is, quite simply, a dish you must have in your repertoire.
Every chef has her (or his) preferred way to roast a chicken, and I can safely say that I've tried them all. What follows below is the method that has worked nearly perfectly for me every single time and in every single kitchen in which I've attempted it. From commercial kitchens with the fanciest ovens to my home kitchen with a tiny oven to various vacation rentals with kitchens of varying sophistication.
There are two keys to this roast chicken recipe: (1) spatchcocking the chicken and (2) the 24-hour buttermilk brine. Let's start with spatchcocking the chicken. There are various stories of the origins of the term "spatchcock," but you're not here for a history lesson, so I'll just state that the term simply refers to removing the backbone of the bird so that it can be flattened out for cooking, resulting in more even cooking and crispier skin. If you're a visual learner like I am, check out this short video...
Then there's the buttermilk brine. Buttermilk, with its perfect combination of fat and acid, does double duty in this recipe by both breaking down the chicken's protein structures (making it more tender and moist) and lending a subtle tang to the flesh that somehow makes the chicken taste more like, well, chicken.
Finally, this recipe technically requires nothing more than a chicken, some buttermilk, and some kosher salt. You can, however, season the chicken just before roasting it with your favorite spice blend, making this recipe endlessly adaptable to whatever kind of flavor profile you're craving. Looking for something bright and citrusy? Try Lemon Pepper or Four-Citrus Mojo. Want something more on the herbal side? How about Herbes de Provence, Greek Island, or Ranch? Curious about Middle Eastern flavors but not sure what to do with them? This is a perfect opportunity to try Ras el Hanout, Za'atar or Spicy Turmeric. Want something a little spicy? Check out Jerk Spice or Five-Chile Relajo. Need the food equivalent of a big, warm hug? Try Italian Countryside. You get the idea.
So, with that out of the way, let's get cooking, shall we?
My Favorite Roast Chicken
Serves 4 (assumes a 4-5 pound chicken)
1 whole chicken, giblets removed
1 quart buttermilk
About 3 tablespoons kosher salt
About 2 tablespoons of your favorite spice blend (optional)
Lay the chicken breast side down on a large cutting board. Using kitchen shears, remove the backbone by cutting down either side of the backbone through the ribs. Turn the chicken over and flatten it by pressing down on the breasts and dislocating the hip joints. Congratulations. You have just spatchcocked a chicken.
Place the chicken in a large ziplock bag and add the buttermilk and salt. Seal the bag and rub the contents all around to spread the salt around. Place the bag in a large mixing bowl and transfer to the refrigerator to rest for 24 hours. Turn the bag over occasionally if the chicken isn't fully submerged in buttermilk.
About an hour before you are ready to cook, remove the chicken from the fridge. Preheat the oven to 425 F with a rack positioned in the center of the oven. (Note: If you have a convection oven (where there is always a fan running), reduce the heat by 25 degrees and check on your food more often. This is true for any recipe, as the air circulation in a convection oven makes things cook faster.) Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment and set aside.
Remove the chicken from the buttermilk, scraping gently to remove excess buttermilk. You don't need to be fussy about this, but you also don't want a giant puddle of buttermilk on your baking sheet.
Lay the chicken down on the baking sheet skin side up. Tuck the wings up and behind the breasts in what we call the "sexy chicken" pose. This allows the skin on the breasts to brown more evenly and keeps the wing tips out of the way. Season the chicken all over with your desired spice blend (if using), getting in all the nooks and crannies as well as the underside.
Transfer the chicken to the oven with the thighs pointing toward the back where it is hotter. Cook for 20 minutes and then check to see if the skin has started to brown. If not, cook another 5-10 minutes. Once the skin has started to brown, reduce the heat to 400 F (375 F if you're using a convection oven) and rotate the baking sheet so that the breasts are toward the back of the oven. Cook for 20 minutes and then check to see if the skin is brown and has started to crisp. If so, grab a thermometer and check to verify that the temperature in the thigh meat is at 165 F. If the skin hasn't crisped up yet and/or the thigh meat hasn't reached 165 F, cook another 5-10 minutes until it does.
Remove chicken from the oven and transfer to a cutting board to rest for 5-10 minutes. Slice chicken into desired pieces and serve.
Suggested wine pairing: With its endlessly adaptable seasoning options, this recipe can easily be paired with virtually any white, rose, or lighter red wine. A sure bet in any situation, however, would be a crisp Chardonnay (like this one from Artesa Winery in Napa) or Rhone white blend (like this one from Tablas Creek Vineyards in Paso Robles) or bright Grenache (like this one from Andrew Murray Vineyards in Santa Ynez).