Long long ago (which in this digital age means a few decades prior to now) people used to eat chicken for fancy Sunday suppers. After a day at church, the family would gather around the dinner table. Bobby, with his favorite baseball cap set next to his dish, and Sue, with hair in pigtails, claimed the drumsticks. Meanwhile Mother in her apron and Father in a button-down shirt had their fill of the breasts or thighs. After dinner, Ma would collect the remainder of the chicken — carcass, drippings and all — so she could make a nice soup or meat pie later in the week. Doesn’t that sound homey, and well… quaint?
Well, in the modern-day equivalent of this scenario, this is my house on a Sunday (although insert a morning reading the New York Times instead of church, bickering kids who roll their eyes at their parents for the mild-tempered Bobby and Sue, and jeans with t-shirts and sweaters for the clothes. Oh, and toss in a crazy dog and a messy house). I’ve also been known to make a whole chicken on a Tuesday or Thursday (or, as you’ve probably picked up by now, any day of the week). So although my version of this American tale is a little different, the premise remains the same: I bake a whole chicken for one dinner, and then wrap up everything (and I mean everything) that is left for another meal (or two) later in the week.
Although my method for cooking chicken was once de rigueur in America, it now seems old fashioned. Chicken, however, is more popular than ever. According to the USDA, “Chicken consumption more than doubled between 1970 and 2004, from 27.4 pounds per person to 59.2 pounds.” Yet during this time of increased chicken eating, the tradition of baking a whole bird for a family dinner has almost disappeared.
Most poultry eaters these days simply pick up a package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts at the grocery store (and that’s only if they’re actually cooking dinner instead of picking up take-out). They think that not having to deal with those bones makes cooking easier (a notion I will argue in a second). Plus most people are also more interested in the breasts because they have less fat than those delicious thighs and legs. But if you’re cooking from scratch (that is, not purchasing something pre-cooked with a ton of fat, salt and starches added to it) one leg or thigh will not clog your arteries or make you fat, especially if you eat it with a large serving of vegetables. According to the Daily Plate (a food calorie site), a thigh has 237 calories, while a grilled skinless breast has 120 calories; sure the calorie count is almost double, but 237 calories for a main part of your dinner is quite good when you consider that a chicken burrito has 334 calories in it. Also, if you eat that chicken breast lightly breaded and fried (as many people will), you jump up to 247 calories with 133 fat calories (the baked thigh has only 12 fat calories). That thigh is no longer looking so fattening, is it?
Now I realize that many people don’t like to make a whole chicken because they think it’s difficult and time intensive. But, just like pudding and pancakes, nothing could be further from the truth. Unlike boneless and skinless breasts, which often need to be dolled up in a pan with other ingredients because they become dry and a bit tasteless when baked on their own, a whole chicken is a simple endeavor that has juicy results. In the name of full disclosure, I need to admit that baking a chicken takes about an hour and a half, but other than the first 5-7 minutes of prep work, this is all baking time.
Making a whole chicken is also a great way to stretch your food dollar as it will bear two to three meals for your family. After our roasted chicken dinner, I often make a soup out of the carcass, chicken pot pie with gravy (which I’ll cover next week), or creamy chicken and rice casserole. If I get an especially large chicken or if I make baked potatoes with the first meal (which fills everyone up) I then usually have enough chicken left over for a third meal where only a minimal amount of meat is required, such as tacos, quesadillas, or stir fry.
Here are some general directions for baking a chicken. I am not providing a recipe because this meal is so easy that strict instructions aren’t necessary. Give it a try and you’ll see how good this traditional family meal can taste, while also saving you a few bucks later in the week when you’re eating some delicious pot pies.
How to Bake a Chicken
Preparing Your Chicken
Remove the offal from the chicken (I like to cook these up for my dog, but you can do whatever you like with them, which includes sticking them in the compost bin) and rinse out the bird, including the inner cavity. Set your chicken in a baking pan and pat dry with paper towels. You want to keep the skin fairly dry so it’s crispier later.
Decide what type of fat you want to use to flavor your chicken. Now is the time to get creative. I’ve used olive oil mixed with lemon zest, fresh rosemary and garlic; butter; and even a bit of bacon fat (only about a tablespoon for the entire bird, which ends up tasting pretty amazing, by the way). Whatever you use, be sure to also season with salt and pepper (less salt if using bacon grease), as well as any herbs you like (I usually go with thyme). Spread everything all over the chicken and also under the breast skin.
Place a chopped half onion inside the cavity. This will help flavor the chicken as well as the drippings. You could also add a half lemon, herbs, or an apple.
Baking the Chicken
I bake my chicken in a 375 degree convection oven. If you don’t have convection, just bake at 400 degrees. Be sure to get the oven nice and hot before you place the chicken in it.
The key to baking a great chicken is to cover it for about 60 minutes and then finish it off, uncovered so the skin gets crispy, for another 20-30 minutes or until clear juices run from the meat (the USDA recommends cooking until the chicken is 165 degrees). The larger your chicken, the more time you’ll need to bake it. Don’t be afraid to use a meat thermometer. Better to be safe than sorry.
You can use a pan with a top (such as a Le Creuset Dutch oven) or you can simply tightly cover a standard baking dish or large cast-iron pan with aluminum foil. I’ve tried both methods with equally succulent results. Either way, covering the bird will keep the juices from evaporating in the hot oven. You’ll also get some nice pan drippings that you can use later in the week for a soup or chicken pot pie gravy base.
If your chicken drippings start to dry out once you uncover your pan, simply add between ¼ and a ½ cup of water or chicken stock to the pan. This will keep your drippings from burning. Don’t worry about the extra moisture in the oven. I’ve done this numerous times and the skin on my chicken was still crispy.
Serving the Chicken
Carving a chicken can seem a bit daunting, but once you see how easy it is (below) you’ll hopefully feel ready to conquer the job. I found this great video on You Tube (what would we do without You Tube?), which stars Norman Weinstein of the Institute of Culinary Education giving instructions on how to carve a chicken. Well done, Norman!
Saving the Leftovers
Be sure to save EVERYTHING that is left over from your scrumptious chicken dinner. This means stick the carcass, leftover meat, wings, drippings and even the fat into a big container to be used later. Next week I’ll show you what to do with all this; in the meantime, happy chicken eating.