I come to you today, June 13th, a fine summer’s day on which you probably have no desire to turn on the oven, to talk about roasted chicken. More specifically, I want to talk about Thomas Keller’s Favorite Simple Roast Chicken, which I prefer to call TK’s Hot Buttered Chicken.
I have long been a devotee of the Zuni Cafe recipe for roasted chicken. I imagine many of you feel the same way. Zuni’s recipe, which Judy Rodgers wrote with a rare and reverential thoroughness – may she rest in peace, and may more cookbooks be written like hers – relies on three things: using a small-ish bird, salting it a day ahead, and cooking in a crackling hot oven, first breast-up and then flipped breast-down and then breast-up again. It was the first roasted chicken I ever made, and when I get all the elements right, it is the best roasted chicken I will ever make. However. I forget to salt the bird ahead. Or I put it off, because getting involved with raw chicken takes resolve. Or I don’t plan dinner until the afternoon of, and then it’s too late for advance salting. Or maybe I manage the advance salting, but then I don’t feel like messing with the beast once it’s in the oven – remembering to flip it and flip it again, dodging splatters of hot fat, etc. Roasting a chicken the Zuni way is not hard, but sometimes I want to make easy things easier.
Thomas Keller’s chicken recipe has been floating around for more than a decade, but I first tried it only last month, after two different friends in two different cities happened to mention it to me within a week of one another. Both are energetic cooks, not likely to balk at a complicated recipe, so when they recommended something so straightforward, so lazy, even, I went out and bought a chicken.
Like Rodgers, Keller calls for a small-ish bird, two to three pounds, and he too cranks up the oven. But he salts the chicken just before cooking, and once it’s cooking, he leaves it alone. And when it’s done, he slathers the meat with butter and serves it forth, with Dijon mustard* on the side. Slathers it with butter and serves it with mustard! SLATHERS IT WITH BUTTER! SERVES IT WITH MUSTARD! I will make TK’s Hot Buttered Chicken.
I’m rarely at home for lunch, and if I am, I’m a sandwich-or-leftovers-lunch cook. I am not a hot-lunch cook. But one Tuesday, late-morning – because Tuesday is my Sunday – I salted a chicken, TK-style, and put it in the oven. While it quietly roasted – so independent, this chicken! – I managed to yank up a bunch of weeds in the yard-slash-jungle out front, and June played in the car, her favorite activity, flicking switches and turning nobs and stealing the emergency animal crackers I keep in the glove compartment, eating half of three of them, and hiding the remains in the console. When the timer went off, we went inside, and I carved and buttered the chicken. I steamed some broccoli and squeezed a lemon over it, and we sat down to lunch.
The chicken was golden and taut-skinned, juicy and glistening. June picked at it, because that’s what she’s doing this week – toddlers! Always doing toddler things! I scooped mustard onto my plate, and we sat and talked, eating and not eating**, and one of us sang, because when you’re not eating, you sing. I wiped up the last smear of butter with a fingertip, cleared our plates, and then Tuesday was already halfway over, easy, and there were leftovers for tomorrow.
Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Dry the chicken very well with paper towels, inside and out. Salt and pepper the cavity, then truss the bird with twine. Trussing is not hard, and you really can wing it – or you can watch the videos here, or elsewhere on the Web. In any case, the idea is that the wings and legs stay close to the body, and the meaty part of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out. I am not a pro trusser, but as long as I tie the legs together and keep them tucked up tight, I figure I’m fine.
Now, salt the chicken. Thomas Keller likes to “rain” the salt over the bird, so that it has a nice uniform coating that will result in a crisp, salty, flavorful skin. He uses about 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. I didn’t measure mine. You should use enough that, when it’s cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin. Season to taste with pepper, if you want. I don’t usually pepper my roasted chickens.
Place the chicken breast-up in a sauté pan or roasting pan. Slide it into the oven. Keller says to leave it alone — no basting, no added fat. Roast it until a thermometer stuck in the meatiest part of the thigh registers 165°F, 40 to 60 minutes. (I use a Thermapen: not cheap, but a little bit life-changing.) Remove it from the oven, and add the thyme, if using, to the pan. Spoon the juices and thyme over the chicken, and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board.
Remove the twine. Carve or cut into pieces, however you like. The preparation is not meant to be fancy. Slather the still-hot meat with butter. Serve with mustard on the side.
Yield: enough for 2 to 4 people