Chicken done right? It's all about the bird

One of the best testaments to a good roast chicken is if, no matter how much you ate from your dinner plate, you’re compelled to slip into the kitchen to snag the perfect piece of crispy skin still attached near the thigh, or to pluck some last bits of meat from along the breast bone.

You do know, hopefully, about the two little nuggets of dark meat that sit in indentations where the thighs meet the back of the bird. Sometimes called the “oysters,” these are two of the best bites on the bird, perfect for a kitchen nibble and most often left behind after carving.

Roast chicken is one of those dishes that couldn’t be simpler — ultimately it’s just a seasoned bird that sits in the oven for a spell. There doesn’t seem to be much to it, but this humble fare provides profound, comforting satisfaction when done well. The key to a prefect roast chicken isn’t complex; it's a matter of bringing out great chicken flavor. But with so few steps, each element of the recipe becomes ever more important.

San Francisco’s Zuni Café in is known for a benchmark Caesar salad and crisp wood-fired pizzas, but the hands-down hallmark dish is the Zuni roast chicken with bread salad. With it, chef/co-owner Judy Rodgers raises the basic roast chicken to high art. Though her recipe in “The Zuni Café Cookbook” looks involved, none of the steps is complicated. Her signature technique — which includes salting the bird a day or two in advance — simply requires planning ahead.

Splurge on a high quality bird for roasting. It may mean a trip to a specialty shop or special-order request, but you’ll be rewarded with a boost in flavor. Rocky the Range chicken (averaging 5 pounds) was the first chicken to be USDA certified free-range; Rocky Jr. chickens weigh in at the 3 to 3 1/2 pound range. Both are outstanding candidates for roasting, available in stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.

Judy Rodgers is a big fan of small birds, noting in her book that “small chickens, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 pounds, flourish at high heat, roasting quickly and evenly … they are virtually designed to stay succulent.” But in the long run, size doesn’t matter that much relative to other factors.

Up for debate

There are many other details up for debate. Cooks argue whether to baste or not to baste, whether or not to turn the chicken during cooking, whether high temperature (the Zuni method calls for a robust 475 degrees) is better than a more moderate oven. Certainly there are nuances to each option. But for roasting that assures tender evenly-cooked flesh and browned, crispy skin, it’s hard to do better than roasting the bird at 375 degrees and just leaving it alone until time to check for doneness — about an hour and a quarter later for a 4-pound chicken.

Salt and pepper are de rigueur when it comes to seasoning. And when you’ve got a great bird to start with, those alone can suffice. For a little panache, replace the standard salt with simple herbed salt or a sprinkle of truffle salt.

Other natural candidates include garlic, herb sprigs, quartered lemon and onion. Most of these should go in the cavity where the flavors can directly permeate the chicken meat. You can scatter whole unpeeled garlic cloves around the chicken, which will be delectably soft to eat alongside.

For the purest, best roast chicken, don’t go overboard with seasonings. Sure, you could embellish with harissa or cumin powder, but subtler flavorings will go far to make the bird shine. And it helps prove that chicken can be dazzling without needing to be dressed up. Matter of fact, the most perfect roast chicken is often the simplest.

Cynthia Nims is a food and travel writer based in Seattle, where her plat du jour is frequently simple roast chicken. She is the co-author, most recently, of “Rover's Cookbook.”

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Makes 2 to 4 servings
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