Let’s not call it “engagement chicken.” Let’s call it “anytime chicken” because roast chicken is one of the most flexible and forgiving meals out there. It’s not even so much of a recipe as a framework, which can be adapted to use the ingredients you have on hand.
And while you can’t beat the convenience of a supermarket rotisserie chicken, homemade roast chicken is even juicier and gives you the same “cook once, eat twice” benefits. Save the leftovers for tacos or burrito bowls later in the week and use the bones to make stock. (Don’t stress. We’ll help with that. Keep reading.)
Truly, you only need one piece of equipment to roast a chicken: a deep pan that’s large enough to hold the chicken comfortably and is safe to use in the oven as well as on the stove. A Dutch oven or a high-sided cast iron skillet is perfect. You don’t need a special roasting pan or a roasting rack; instead, use vegetables to keep the chicken off the bottom of the pan. They’ll add flavor and prevent the chicken from sticking and burning.
If you want to be 100% sure the chicken’s not under- or overcooked, get a digital thermometer. An inexpensive probe-style thermometer is ideal because the beeping function means you won’t need to keep opening the oven door to check the temperature.
As for ingredients, the absolute minimum you’ll need includes:
- onions and optional celery and/or carrots to place under the chicken
- liquid for a pan sauce: stock or broth, wine, or even water in a pinch
- Optional: Additional aromatics like smashed garlic cloves, chopped leeks or shallots, along with fresh citrus and herbs, will make your chicken more flavorful.
The foolproof method for roast chicken
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. In the bottom of your pan, place thickly sliced onion rounds, along with one or two celery stalks or thick carrots if you have them, as a base for the chicken.
2. Remove the giblet bag from the cavity of the chicken and discard. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels.
3. Stuff the cavity with ingredients from one, two or all of the following categories, depending on what you have: aromatics; fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme, parsley, marjoram, bay leaves or sage; and halved citrus fruit like lemons, oranges or limes.
4. Place the chicken on the vegetable base and sprinkle generously with kosher salt and any other seasoning blend you like, such as regular black pepper, BBQ rub, adobo seasoning or other poultry blends.
5. If you want to roast any other vegetables with the chicken, cut them into bite-size pieces and toss them lightly with olive oil, salt and pepper, then arrange them around the chicken without crowding. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash and parsnips work particularly well, especially when paired with members of the allium (onion) family like sliced leeks, halved shallots, or more quartered onions.
6. Should you roast the chicken breast up or down? It’s a matter of personal preference. Roasting the chicken breast-up lets the fat and juices from the back and thighs drip down into the bottom of the pan, basting the vegetables and giving them rich flavor. It also gives you crispier chicken skin.
7. However, roasting breast-down bastes the white meat in the fat and juices, ensuring moistness and preventing overcooking. You’ll sacrifice crispy skin with this method, but it’s up to you as to which way you want to go. (There’s no wrong choice.)
8. If you’re using a probe thermometer, set it to beep at 165 degrees Fahrenheit, stick it into the meaty part of the chicken where the breast meets the thigh, making sure not to hit the bone. Place the chicken in the oven.
9. Let it roast, let it roast — then hold it back a few minutes more
10. How long should you roast your chicken? A general rule of thumb is that whole chickens cook for about 20 minutes per pound, so a 4.5-pound chicken will cook in approximately 90 minutes.
12. Remove any extra vegetables like potatoes and squash and set aside. Place the pan in which you roasted the chicken on a stove burner over medium heat and add about a 1/2 cup liquid — wine, broth or water.
13. With a silicone spatula or wooden spoon, stir to scrape up and dissolve the browned bits, adding more liquid as needed if it evaporates too quickly. Serve the sauce as you would gravy alongside the chicken.
Bonus: Make homemade chicken stock
Don’t throw away the carcass once you’re done savoring every last bite of roast chicken. Making homemade stock is as easy as boiling water — though you won’t want to bring it quite to a boil here.
On the stove: Place the chicken carcass in a stockpot deep enough to cover the chicken with water by 1 inch. Bring to a very low simmer and cook for 4 hours.
In a slow cooker: Add the chicken and enough water to cover and cook for 8 hours on Low.
In an Instant Pot: Add the chicken and enough water to cover and cook for 30 minutes on High Pressure. Allow the pressure to release naturally.
Once the stock is cooked, remove the chicken bones and strain through a mesh strainer into jars or other containers. Refrigerate for up to 5 days or freeze for up to 6 months.
Casey Barber is a food writer, illustrator and photographer; the author of “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” and “Classic Snacks Made from Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats”; and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.