Edible Basics: Roast Chicken with Onion Pan Juices


Photo by Michael Piazza / Styled by Catrine Kelty

I roast a lot of chickens in the cooler months. Between the tender little hens included in our meat CSA and the more robust, meaty birds raised by a friend, we almost always have a few in the freezer. It’s one of the best meals we have each week: salty and sticky and rich, usually paired with peppery greens slicked in a sharp, mustardy dressing and some good bread for wiping our plates. Roasting a chicken is like money in the bank—with minimal prep time and about an hour in the oven, you can make a beautiful meal one night and have enough left over for sandwiches or soup on another day. And once the carcass is bare, throw the bones in a stockpot, add a carrot, some onion and celery, cover with water and simmer into a light broth to freeze for a rainy day.

Serves 4 plus leftovers

1 small chicken (3-4 lbs), preferably organic and local
Kosher salt
1 small bunch herbs, whatever you like (thyme, tarragon, rosemary, sage)
2 tablespoons softened unsalted butter
2 small onions
½ organic lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
½ to 1 cup white wine or apple juice/cider

At least 30 minutes (but up to a full day) before you plan to cook the chicken, take it out of its wrapper, remove the giblets and salt it all over with plenty of kosher salt. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature on the counter, or in the fridge if salting more than a couple of hours before cooking.

Preheat oven to 450°F. Using your fingers, separate the breast meat from the skin, getting all the way up to the top of the breast. Insert a pat of butter into each pocket between the skin and meat and squish the butter down into an even layer using your hands from the outside. Push some whole leaves of your chosen herb in with the butter under the skin. Cut one onion in half and push it into the cavity of the chicken along with the lemon half and the rest of the herbs. Grind some pepper all over the bird and give it one last light sprinkle of salt.

Heat an ovenproof skillet (cast iron preferred) on the stovetop until very hot. Put the chicken into the pan (it will make a sputtering noise—this is okay!) and immediately put it into the oven with the legs facing the back of the oven.

Roast for 15 minutes at this high heat.

After 15 minutes, take the pan out of the oven, reduce the heat to 400°F, and pour the wine or apple juice into the bottom of the pan. Swirl the wine around, tilt the pan so some of the juices from the cavity spill out into the wine, then spoon the wine-butter-juices mixture over the bird. Slice the remaining onion and toss it into the juices around the chicken. Put the pan back into the oven (legs facing the back again) and roast, basting every 15 minutes or so, for an additional 40–45 minutes. The chicken will be ready when you can wiggle the leg joint easily and the skin is nicely bronzed and golden, and when a meat thermometer inserted into the thigh registers 165°F.

Remove the pan from the oven and let the chicken sit for at least 10 minutes while you finish making the rest of your meal, then carve. Use a whisk to emulsify the pan juices (or pour them into a jar and shake vigorously) and serve the chicken with the juices spooned over.

Local Chickens

The key to an excellent roast chicken is to start with the best bird you can find. Here in Eastern Massachusetts we have many local farms raising chickens and selling to the public either on the farm, through a CSA program, or at farmers markets.

Here is a list of where to find them:

Balance Rock Farm—Berlin
Caledonia Farm—Barre
Chestnut Farms—Hardwick (CSA or farmers markets around the Boston area)
Clark Farm—Carlisle
Grass Roots Farm—New Braintree (also at farmers markets around the Boston area)
Green Meadows Farm—Hamilton
Lilac Hedge Farm—Berlin (CSA and farmers markets around the Boston area)
Many Hands Organic Farm—Barre (pick up on farm by pre-order only)
Mayflower Poultry, Live Chickens Fresh Killed—Cambridge
Meadow Mist Farm—Lexington
Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds—Concord (pick up on farm by pre-order only)
Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm—Hardwick (farmers markets around the Boston area)
Tendercrop Farm—Newbury

This story appeared in the Fall 2014 issue.