Julia Child, the doyenne of American writers on French cuisine (Mastering the Art of French cooking, Albert A. Knopf, New York 1961), wrote; “You can always judge the quality of a cook or a restaurant by roast chicken” (revised 34d printing, 1991, page 240). She is right that the execution of simple dishes is a good base to test a cook with higher culinary ambitions.
Her “heavenly bird” was seasoned with salt and pepper and the skin was rubbed with butter, which means that her bird was rather fat, as are many of the recipes in her cookery bible that were written in a time of unprecedented economic growth and before people started worrying about diseases of affluence, such as obesity, high cholesterol or blood pressure.
In France and Italy, roast chicken is a Sunday classic and the birds are often bought at special “rotisseries”; roasting outlets on markets or in shopping streets, with some potatoes and “sauce” or gravy.
I tend to go light on fat. For me a good roast chicken is a matter of taste, texture and tint. The taste depends to a large degree on the quality of the bird and the texture is up to the cook – is should not be too dry nor too tough. This is complicated by the fact that the legs cook more slowly than the breast.
For taste, you can add lemon or vegetables and herbs to the chicken and serve them apart or just use them to add to the flavour. But a well-reared free-range chicken already has a very nice taste of its own and pepper and salt suffice.
If you want to avoid as much fat as possible, you would cook the chicken at a low temperature (70 °C) for a long time (about three hours for a 1.4 kilo bird) and then remove the skin which has remained pale.
You can also keep the skin, set the bird aside about 15 minutes before the end (say when a meat probe indicates 60 °C) and then, about 20 minutes before serving, you reheat the chicken at 175 °C degrees while turning it around so that the skin gets a brown colour. Let it cool down a bit and serve.
Some people add honey, soy sauce or a colouring agent (sauce Patrelle) to enhance the brown appearance. It is not the colour that makes the taste but we are “used” to brown roasted chicken, almost veering to the black, and it plays a role in the overall sensory experience. For some, the crackled skin itself, and the sound of the crackling, is a delicacy going back to childhood. (Honey or soy sauce also add a taste, not just colour)
At the time of Julia Child there were gas ovens, the Aga cooker and standard electric ovens. Heat circulation ovens appeared on the professional market in the 1980s.
The “original” roast chicken was spit roasted on, or near, a wood fire. I still believe that a spit roast, with the heat behind the bird and not above so that the dripping fat does not burn, gives the best result because it allows the meat to “recover’ slightly from the heat intensity before it comes back to the heat source.
I do not have a spit roast. I use a heat circulation oven. I start at 240 °C for pre-heating and turn it back to 200 °C for the first 30 minutes, then 170 °C for the rest. I turn every 15 minutes starting with the breast down and for the last turn that the breast is up, I cover it with aluminium foil to mitigate the cooking there while the legs continue.
You could also use streaky bacon for that, which will add to the taste but also hide the pure chicken taste.
I also keep some water in the oven dish to prevent the fat from burning and to keep the oven moist so that the meat does not dry out too much. I add salt at the start and pepper at the end. The chicken is done at an internal temperature of about 82 °C. A rule of thumb is to cook for five minutes for every 100 grammes. It is ready when clear juice runs out of the bird when pricked, not red (blood) or yellow (fat)
Yet another way is to put the bird with some liquid in a special roasting bag and then cook it for an hour or so at 180 °C.
This way the skin will hardly colour either.
I often read recipes that call for the addition of herbs, such as thyme, to roast chicken. But I would say that these herbs may help disguise a lower-quality chicken – that is a chicken with hardly any taste of its own – but do not improve a good chicken.
My kind of chicken roasting does not produce a gravy or sauce. If you aim to use gravy with your chicken, you can put slices of potato and unpeeled cloves of garlic in the bottom of the oven dish – with some water – and roast the chicken on top. This way the potato and garlic will cook in the liquid and fat and you will have gravy at the bottom of the dish after you have removed the potatoes and garlic (you could also add onion and carrot and many other vegetables provided the dish is large enough and you add sufficient liquid – water or wine – for the vegetables to cook).
There is also pot-roasting where the chicken is cooked in hot fat in a pan and needs regular turning to avoid burning. I find this far less satisfying for a simple roast. I do use this method as a preliminary browning step for more complicated chicken dishes such as “coq au vin” or other recipes where the browned chicken pieces continue cooking in a liquid, with added ingredients.
But that is more ambitious, here we just roast a chicken.