How to Make the Perfect Roast Chicken (Hint: Pre-Salting)

Categories: Recipes
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Is there any food more delicious, more comforting, more soothing to the soul and taste buds than a perfectly juicy, succulent, crisp and golden-skinned roasted chicken? 

In a word, no. 

Unfortunately, finding that perfectly juicy, succulent, crisp and golden-skinned roasted chicken is about as easy as finding a slab of blood-rare prime rib at a PETA convention.

Well, what if I told you that the bird of your dreams is as close as your own kitchen, that if you have a few sprigs of fresh herbs, a couple-three teaspoons of kosher salt, several grinds of black pepper and a working oven you can produce a fowl so fair as to make even professional chefs fall to the floor and gnaw on their toques? 

Honest, it's really that easy. 
The secret comes from Judy Rodgers, chef-partner of the Zuni Café in San Francisco. She calls it "pre-salting." Russ Parsons, the estimable food writer for the Los Angeles Times, has given it the rather grander title of "dry brining." 

Whatever. The process is so simple, so painless, and the resulting bird is so ridiculously tasty, you can call it anything you like. At the restaurant, Judy serves it with her equally delectable bread salad (for the exact recipes for both, including comments and more details, go here). But here's the general idea. 

Buy your bird at least 24 hours and preferable 48 hours before you plan to cook it. (An organic, free-range is best but an ordinary supermarket chicken is quite acceptable.) Unwrap it, dry it off and then separate the skin from the breast, leg and thigh meat with your fingers, being careful not to tear the skin. 

When that's done, stick one sprig of the herb of your choice (I use rosemary) beneath the skin on each breast and leg-thigh. Then take ¾ of a teaspoon of kosher or sea salt per pound of chicken and scatter it all over the bird, most heavily on the thicker, meatier sections. Give it a few grinds of black pepper all over, cover loosely with plastic wrap and stash it in the fridge until you're ready to cook.  

One or two days later, take the chicken out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature while you preheat your oven (or even better, a gas-fired outdoor grill) to 475 to 500 degrees. Place the bird in a shallow roasted pan (don't remove any of the salt and pepper) and slip it in the oven. For a 3½-pound chicken it takes about an hour. Roast it 20 minutes breast side up, 20 breast side down and the final 20 minutes breast side up again.

That's it. Don't baste it, don't touch it. Just let it cook. (Be advised that it will splatter your oven like crazy and probably set off your smoke alarm, good reasons to cook it on an outdoor covered grill if possible.) 

When the chicken is done, take it out of the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes or so, then carve. Unless you're truly the world's most clueless cook or the culinary gods have it out for you, you'll have a bird with ineffably moist and tender meat and golden-brown skin as brittle as glass. 

The pre-salting/dry-brining is what does it. The lengthy salting process not only seasons the meat more deeply than it would if you salted it just prior to cooking, it also makes it more tender and juicy, in much the same way as traditional wet-brining.

And now you'll never be without a perfectly juicy, succulent, crisp and golden-skinned roasted chicken again

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