Lemon and Herb Roast Chicken: A Warm Blanket on a Cold Evening
Comfort food comes in many forms for me, and Roast Chicken is one of them. It is a comfort because of the time, smells and memories that are present while the chicken is roasting and the warm, caramelized flavors that linger while eating. A reassuring and healing meal, one I often prepare for friends in need.
Roast chicken needs to be planned ahead, there is no rushing around here. Work and errands are done and activities are completed. Life slows down and in my case it means everyone is home. When my kids were younger I often prepared roast chicken when the weather was bad, and we were comfortably housebound. Once the chicken was roasting in the oven, we could relax together. The smell of the herbs and roasting chicken fills the house and is like being swaddled in a warm blanket on a cold blowy, winter evening.
The very first main course entrée I made, completely on my own, was roast chicken. I was 16 years old. My dad, two brothers and I had to fend for ourselves while mom was away. Naturally, I volunteered to cook dinner, and without blinking, I decided on roast chicken. It is amazing how ignorance is bliss. You don’t know what you don’t know, and it never occurred to me that I could not do it.
At that time, my mom prepared her chicken in a Rӧmertopf clay pot. In the 70’s these clay pots were all the rage. They produced wonderfully moist chicken with a lot of chicken juices. Naturally, I followed mom’s method, adding a little of this and a bit of that and not following a recipe for my first solo meal. What I do remember, though, is that I was not subtle in my flavoring of the roast chicken. I added the juice of at least one whole lemon, (if not more), and several big glugs of white wine to the pot. I was intent on there being an abundance of pan juice with this chicken.
This recipe memory is reinforced by the distinct taste memory of that roast chicken. Upon first bite, I had a sudden involuntary reaction. My eyes popped out and my checks sucked in making me look like a goldfish. I clearly remember thinking, “Wow that packs a sour punch.” Despite the frazzled taste buds, I consider the meal a success. The chicken was cooked all the way through, not dried out, and no one got sick. An important lesson was learned on that first solo venture: be cautious when combining lemon juice and wine together. Less is more.
Roast chicken can be whatever you want it to be, simple or sophisticated. Simple in that one could plop the bird down on a cast iron skillet sprinkled with salt and pepper and let it roast in the oven until done. Sophisticated by developing a silky sauce with the pan juice, wine, stock, herbs and butter after roasting. The pan juice marries with the meat, yielding an umami sense as the tastes mingle in your mouth.
By itself, chicken has a mild flavor and is a perfect vehicle for absorbing the flavors of herbs and spices. Garlic and lemons are favorite standby options, as I always have them on hand. The fresh herbs depend on what is available at home or in my garden. I love rosemary and sage with roast chicken. Their flavors infuse the meat and add more depth.
When I use a roasting pan, I like to fill the bottom with vegetables as it serves two purposes: One, the chicken can rest on the vegetables so I do not need a rack, and two you get wonderfully roasted vegetables to serve as a side dish with the chicken and flavor the pan sauce. Be careful to use a pan that is not too large as the juices will then dry up while roasting.
There are many reasons to love roasting poultry aside from taste and preference. I can get three meals from that one bird: Roast chicken the first night, endless options, for leftovers, i.e.-tacos or chicken pot pie, another night, and third chicken stock. What’s not to love?
Read about my preference for salt and measuring salt here.
Lemon and Herb Roast Chicken
Chicken Prep Ingredients
- 1- 4 lb 1.8 K roasting chicken
- 4 fresh sage leaves
- 3 Medium cloves of garlic peeled and sliced in half lengthwise, remove green germ
- 1½ - 2 Tsp Kosher salt do not substitute with table salt
Vegetables for roasting
- 2 celery ribs cleaned, dried and chopped across the rib into 1 inch pieces
- 2 carrots peeled and chopped across the width into 1 inch pieces
- 2 onions peeled, sliced in half lengthwise and each half sliced into quarters
- 2 russet or sweet potatoes peeled and chopped into 1 inch pieces
- 3 TBS fresh rosemary finely chopped
- 1 TBS fresh thyme finely chopped
- 2 lemons divided, (zest of 1 lemon/ reserve other lemon for later)
- 3 TBS melted butter
Ready for roasting
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- Collected juice from roasting pan
- ½ cup 125 ml white wine (Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio are good wine choices or use stock if you do not want to use wine)
- 1 - 1½ cup 250 -375 ml chicken stock (homemade or low sodium store bought)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
24 hour in advance chicken prep
Remove jewelry. Clean hands thoroughly before handling the chicken and after touching poultry.
Have all your pans, ingredients and utensils ready before handling the chicken.
Remove the neck and organs from the chicken cavity. Discard or reserve for another use. Rinse the whole chicken with cold water, inside and out, and thoroughly pat dry with a paper towel. Place the chicken in a baking dish large enough to accommodate the whole chicken, inspect the chicken for any pin feathers and remove them using your fingers or tweezers.
Carefully loosen the skin of the chicken away from the meat by sliding your fingers under the skin beginning at the neck end and slide them toward the opposite end. Continue sliding your fingers all around the meat and down at the thigh and drumstick to loosen as much skin away from the meat without ripping the skin.
Insert one sage leaf under the skin of each breast and each leg: a total of 4 sage leaves. Insert the garlic cloves under the skin over each breast and leg. Divide the 6 garlic halves evenly between the chicken parts.
Sprinkle Kosher salt all over the entire chicken, the back, breast, legs and cavity. Slide salt under skin as well. Use up to 2 teaspoons of kosher salt for a 4 lb bird, about a half teaspoon per pound.
Clean hands thoroughly before moving the chicken to the refrigerator and touching anything other than the chicken in your home. Put the chicken in the refrigerator, loosely covered with plastic wrap, for up to 24 hours. This advanced preparation and salting helps season the chicken and bring out the flavor. See note.
Next day, Cooking prep
Preheat oven to 425°F/ 220°C / Gas Mark 7. Take the chicken out of the refrigerator and place it on the counter to allow the chicken to come to room temperature, at least 30 minutes.
Prepare the vegetables
Combine the chopped onions, celery, carrots and potatoes, (if using), in a flame proof roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet, large enough to accommodate the chicken and vegetables. You do not want the pan to be too big or the pan juices will dry up and burn. A 9" x 12" (23 cm x 30 cm), or slightly larger, pan works well.
Drizzle 1 TBS olive oil and 1/4 tea of Kosher salt over the prepared vegetables. Using your hands, toss the vegetables until evenly coated with olive oil and salt. Spread the vegetables evenly across the roasting pan. Set aside.
Prepare herb mixture
Combine the finely chopped fresh rosemary and thyme in a small bowl. Zest the rind of one lemon and add the lemon zest to the herbs. Gently stir the lemon zest and herbs until evenly combined. Add the melted butter to the herb and zest mixture. Stir to combine. Set aside.
Putting it all together
Have all items and ingredients in place and ready to use before handling the uncooked chicken: the prepared vegetables, the lemon zest, herbs and butter mixture, fresh herbs and garlic, the lemons, basting brush, and kitchen string cut to long enough to truss the chicken.
Insert 3 garlic cloves, rosemary, thyme and sage sprigs in the cavity of the chicken.
Cut the unused lemon in half and lightly squeeze half of the lemon juice into the cavity. Put both lemon halves into the chicken cavity with the garlic and herbs.
Using a basting brush, or your clean hands, spread the melted butter and herb mixture all over the skin of the chicken; breasts, legs, back, wings, every surface. Slip some of the buttery mixture under the skin as well. Tuck the wing tips under the back of the bird so they do not burn.
Take the kitchen string and tie the chicken legs together so that the tips crisscross each other. Wrap the string around the drumstick ends and secure with a square knot. Trim ends of the string if necessary.
Place the prepared chicken in the roasting pan with the vegetables and sprinkle some freshly ground black pepper over the chicken. Using the zested lemon, squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the chicken. Place the roasting pan with the chicken and vegetables in the oven and begin roasting for 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes turn the oven temperature down to 190°C / 375°F / Gas Mark 5 and baste the chicken with any pan juices. Continue to roast for another 20 minutes and baste again. Repeat this step every 20 minutes until chicken is done.
Begin checking to see if the vegetables are done after they have been roasting for 30 minutes. The vegetables will cook faster than the chicken, so continue to monitor the vegetables. The vegetables are done when they are soft when pierced with a fork. Use a slotted spoon to remove the roasted vegetables from the roasting pan and put them in a heat proof serving dish. Don't worry about retrieving all the vegetables directly under the chicken. Cover the dish with foil and keep warm. Continue to roast the chicken as needed.
Check the chicken for doneness about an hour after the start of cooking. I usually figure around 15 - 20 minutes per pound.
The chicken is done when the juices run clear when the meat is pierced with a fork and the internal temperature of the deepest part of the thigh meat is 165°F (74°C) on an instant read thermometer. The breast meat should be at 170°F (77°C) at its deepest part. Make sure the thermometer is not touching bone, as well. See Note
Once the chicken is done, take it out of the oven and rest the bird on a carving board for 15 minutes
While the chicken is resting, remove the vegetables from pan if you have not already done so.
Pour the accumulated pan juices in a fat separator and let the juices rest so that the fat and the pan juices separate. The fat will rise to the top and the delicious pan juices will rest underneath. If you do not have a fat separator spoon off as much of the excess fat from the juice by skimming a spoon across the top of the pan juice; the fat will look oily and the pan juices will be on the bottom layer and have a nice golden color. Discard the fat, and pour the juices back in the roasting pan.
Place the roasting pan over a burner on the stove and turn the heat up to medium.
Pour 1/2 cup (125 ml) of dry white wine into the roasting pan. Using a wooden spoon, scrape up any browned bits and deglaze the pan. The wine and juices will get blended and the pan bottom looks clean.
Pour the chicken broth into the deglazed pan and bring the liquid to a gentle boil. Continue to gently boil the liquid until it
has reduced by half. Occasionally stir the liquid so that it does not stick to the bottom of the pan.
Taste the sauce for seasoning and add Kosher salt and ground pepper if needed. Pour into a container to serve with the chicken.
Carve the chicken and serve with the roasted vegetables and pan juices. A dark green vegetable, like green beans or a green leafy salad are great accompaniments. Enjoy
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman is one of my go to references for information and recipes. He has an internal temperature reference table at the last page of his book. It is so convenient to refer to whenever I am in doubt of an internal temperature for properly cooked meat. He also included an USDA Internal Temperature Chart as they recommend slightly higher temperatures. Getting the chicken cooked just right is challenging at first. Remember, you do not want the chicken meat to look pink or raw when you cut into it, and red juices when pierced with a fork
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