A Roasting Odyssey: Perfecting the home cook's holy grail

"A chicken in his pot every Sunday,” was the wish of King Henry IV for his peasants in 17th century France. More than 300 years later, the Republican National Committee attached the same phrase to the presidential campaign of then-candidate Herbert Hoover, conveying that a vote for Hoover was a vote for prosperity. Back then, chicken was a sign of wealth, of booming times during which a family’s greatest hope was not only attainable, it was just an arm’s reach away.

Of course, Hoover’s election led not to prosperity but to the market crash of 1929 and eventually the greatest economic downturn in our country’s history. In 1932, President Hoover lost his run for a second term – and with it, the respect of the American people. But when did the righteous chicken forgo its street cred?

These days, chicken is no more interesting than a burnt-out ‘90s punk band – uninventive and unexciting, with all of its best days behind it. “I think some people are afraid that it’s boring and, to a degree, when you’re a fine-dining restaurant, you can be treading that line,” said Gerard Craft, chef-owner of the Niche family of restaurants, all of which offer some form of chicken.

Craft’s bird-on-every-menu philosophy, though, is a bit of an anomaly. A roast chicken doesn’t deliver enough of a “wow factor” to appear on every fine-dining menu, but that doesn’t mean it’s seen the same reprieve with the home cook. Take the bird out of the commercial kitchen, and chicken takes on a whole new meaning. Just as the omelet is the true measure of a great chef, the roast chicken is the home cook’s holy grail. But what is it about roast chicken that makes it so profound, so comforting, so instantly satisfying? Maybe it’s the utter simplicity. Consisting only of ingredients the average cook keeps in the fridge, roast chicken is easy enough for anyone to master, right?

Not so fast. “It’s a question of 100 different things,” said Franco executive chef Chris Williams. “To make them all individually perfect is tough.”

And so I set off on a quest to perfect each of those elements. Using the culinary prowess of some of the area’s most renowned chefs, I would seek to create the ultimate roast chicken recipe – one that, when times are tough, made us all feel rich just for getting a piece.

The first stop was to Williams, who offered another reason why many restaurants don’t roast a whole bird. “The legs, thighs, breasts all have to be properly cooked. To dry out the breast, it’s a cardinal sin. If you’re going to do it, you should have the equipment, the time, the space, the ability to make that happen.” To avoid just such a culinary faux pas, Williams brines his birds overnight. “It just results in such moister, more flavorful, more properly seasoned meat.” It was a sentiment conveyed by almost every chef I talked to – if you have the time, be sure to brine.

And so I did, with three birds, all for different lengths of time. The first, brined for just five hours, had good saltiness throughout, not just the crackled flecks atop the skin – a telltale sign that the liquid’s flavoring agents had been absorbed into the meat. But the real “aha” moment occurred at the overnight point. The meat was flavorful and nearly oozing with juiciness (yes, even the breast), a factor taken into truly heavenly territory when given a two-day dip in the tub.

While most chefs agreed on the brine, what to put in that brine varied as much as their menus. To Williams, brines should sway with the seasons. But for Craft, a self-deemed minimalist when it comes to cooking chicken, brines should be a humble mixture of salt and water. “I usually use a knife to make small razor incisions in the cavity before I season the inside of the chicken,” he said, taking care to emphasize the importance a few plucked-from-the-soil aromatics can have once the brining process is over.

Which led me to the next point to ponder: attaining that magically crisp skin. Craft, who has toyed with everything from roasting the bird under a brick to butterflying it to achieve that crowd-pleasing crispiness, let me in on his secret. “There’s enough grease in the skin itself to really crisp up, so you’re trying to get rid of moisture of any sort. No butter, no oil,” added Craft, who has experimented with blanching and even hanging birds to proximate the Chinese method of preparing duck.

Wait, what do you mean by no oil? No butter? What about just a little, you know, on the vegetables and potatoes, to make sure they get all crisp and caramelized? As far as I was concerned, that’s at least half the reason for roasting the chicken in the first place. Thankfully, Amy Zupanci, executive chef at Vino Nadoz in Brentwood, calmed my fears. “I keep the bird relatively dry but a little oil in the pan is needed,” said Zupanci, adding a reminder to use a neutral-flavored oil like grapeseed or canola rather than reaching for the bottle of extra virgin. When cooking at such high temperatures, she explained, it’s not only a waste of money to use olive oil but will likely impart a slight bitterness on the bird.

The other trick to conquering the crispy crucible – and this was one of those two-sided lessons: high heat. “The faster you can cook that bird, the more chance you have of getting it juicy,” Craft said. “That goes against a lot of principles, especially when you’re cooking beef or something of that nature where you want to cook it nice and slowly. But the quicker you cook that chicken, the better it usually ends up.”

And once again, it did. Though the skin was missing that familiar golden hue so fawned-over on magazine covers and movie sets (which has more to do with the fat spread upon it than its crispiness), it was crackling, brittle with every bite. All thanks to the Reverse Golden Rule.

Next, I headed to Five Bistro, hoping chef-owner Anthony Devoti could fill in any blanks I still harbored – a task he was thrilled to take on, considering roast chicken is one of his favorite things to eat. While he confirmed much of the other techniques I had already placed in my bag of tricks, he shed light on a piece of the puzzle I had overlooked: size. Devoti’s birds are typically 3½ pounds, significantly smaller than the 4- to 5-pounders with which most home cooks – and even several of the chefs I spoke with – are used to working. Sure, they cook faster and more evenly, but Devoti’s real reason for picking a smaller feather had nothing to do with technique. “Those little tiny birds are killer,” he explained. “They’re just sweeter and full of flavor.”

Flavor was also top of mind for Devoti’s next dose of culinary medicine on choosing the best bird. “Anything that’s going to be fed on grains and corn and things isn’t going to have as much flavor as something that’s eating dirt and mud and earth,” Devoti said. “The legs tend to have a little more texture to them. It should taste like earth, ground, dirt, like good wine. It should have a relative sense of terroir and where it’s been living and what it feeds on.” For Devoti, that’s the free-range, antibiotic-free flock of Bennes Best Meat, a small sustainable farm in Saint Charles. But for me, it was an organic, pasture-raised rooster from the local store. And it made a world of difference.

And so, with a smattering of new culinary tricks up my sleeve, it was time to render the recipe I had been waiting for. Crispy skin, juicy meat and a bird that made you feel special just for being a part of it. Did I do it? I think so. One thing was for sure: I felt damn lucky just to have a seat at the table.