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The secret to the perfect roast chicken is butter — and lots of it

Over the years, I have found that whether it’s called poulet roti or gospel bird, a perfect roast chicken is a must-have recipe in any cook’s arsenal.
Jessica B. Harris at home with her roast chicken (poulet roti).
Jessica B. Harris at home with her roast chicken (poulet roti).TODAY / Kara Birnbaum

Dr. Jessica B. Harris is an award-winning culinary historian, cookbook author and journalist who specializes in the food and foodways of the African diaspora. With this column, "My Culinary Compass," she is taking people all over the world — via their taste buds — with recipes inspired by her extensive travels.

Compass points: 48.51 degrees north, 2.20 degrees east. Paris, France.

The ingredients for Harris' roast chicken are few and simple.
The ingredients for Harris' roast chicken are few and simple.TODAY / Kara Birnbaum

It might seem strange that I have placed a simple roast chicken in Paris. But Paris, more than anywhere else in the world, is where I where I learned that sometimes the simplest thing is actually the most difficult thing to do. Roast chicken is a basic dish, one that turns up in the culinary repertory of many countries. Sometimes the chicken is roasted in a clay pot. Other times it may be turned on a spit until done. However, preparing it is not as simple as it may seem. The breast must not be dry and overcooked, and the dark meat thighs and legs must be cooked through. I come from a long line of people who have had arguments at the Sunday dinner table over the gospel bird if they found a bit of pink at the joints, so I know just how important that is.

Harris rubs butter under the skin of the chicken.
Harris rubs butter under the skin of the chicken.TODAY / Kara Birnbaum

I learned many of the basics from my mother. Some of them have changed and are now outdated or decried by today’s standards of hygiene. First, the giblets had to be removed from the bird and saved for stock, gravy or to add to the frying pan when there was fried chicken. We were also chicken washers and gently laved the bird to make sure that it was clean inside and out, a holdover I am sure from the days when the chicken had to be plucked and plumed before it was cooked. This is seriously frowned upon these days as washing might cross contaminate things. Then, any feathers that were left had to be burned off and I must confess though, that the smell of singed pinfeathers still makes me a bit nostalgic. A seasoned onion was placed into the bird’s cavity and there was only one seasoning that was admitted: Bell’s Poultry Seasoning. Just looking at the turkey on the box can make my mouth water. It was in France, however, that I learned one of the secrets of a perfect roast chicken, there called "poulet roti": butter.

Harris rolls the onion in the butter mixture and then in the spice mixture, then stuffs it into the chicken.
Harris rolls the onion in the butter mixture and then in the spice mixture, then stuffs it into the chicken.TODAY / Kara Birnbaum

That is where I move beyond mom and insist on butter — and lots of it. I season the onion by bathing it in butter before rolling it in the poultry seasoning and salt and tucking it in the bird’s cavity, shove more butter under the breast skin, and pour some melted butter on the top of the bird before sprinkling it with whatever remains of the seasoning and salt mixture from the onion. Occasionally, I jazz it up with various additions — a bit of chutney tucked under the breast with the butter or a bit of preserved lemon for a Moroccan touch. I seem to find endless ways of ringing in the changes and love to experiment with additions to the basic recipe.

Harris' chicken, ready for the oven.
Harris' chicken, ready for the oven.TODAY / Kara Birnbaum

Even though I live alone and usually dine solo, I find that roast chicken is a perfect dish because, even though I usually hate leftovers, there are so many variations I can prepare once the chicken is done. There’s second-day cold chicken and chutney, third-day chicken salad and final-day chicken soup. If I have company, it's an easy way to entertain because roast chicken is a shove-it-in-the-oven-and-leave-it dish. If cooked with some garlic bulbs and some sweet potatoes roasted in the same pan, it’s a complete meal with the addition of a green salad, and there’s only the roasting pan to wash. Over the years, I have found that whether it’s called poulet roti or gospel bird, a perfect roast chicken is a must-have recipe in any cook’s arsenal.

Get the recipe:

Roast Chicken (Poulet Roti)

Roast Chicken (Poulet Roti)

Dr. Jessica B. Harris