A roasted chicken is one of the most homey and childhood-memory rich dishes you can prepare. For me, it calls back long Sunday afternoons of family gatherings, fun times, tears before bedtime, too much wine (not me, I was too young) and eventually, burnt gravy.

You can easily replicate these memories (hopefully without the tears and burnt gravy) by cooking your own roast chicken at home. It is simple to prepare, extremely satisfying and makes you feel incredibly grown up that you aren't eating take away Chinese food in between rounds of counterstrike.

I was at first hesitant to include this recipe, thinking that it was way too simple and you most likely have a one stashed aside anyway. I read a few lines today however, that changed my mind. They were in a book outlining the correct procedure for writing recipes. The chapter was entitled "Never overestimate your audience" and somewhat derogatorily referred to some recipe readers as "culinary illiterates". The book was referring to mostly younger people, in the 18-35 demographic, that never had the pleasure of standing by in the kitchen during their formative years watching meals being prepared. They could be called the "Take Out" generation. Well, I sincerely hope this was not your case, but if so, cook this recipe and memorize it. Then one day, in the distant future, cook it with your kids. I can assure you they will appreciate it more than you would imagine.

There are a few simple things to remember when roasting a chicken to make sure you open the oven door to success. First and foremost is the bird itself. You may at some stage have heard your grandparents mention that chicken doesn't taste like it used to. Well they aren't simply getting doddery, they have a valid point. Once chicken was considered a very rare treat. It was way too expensive to eat on a regular basis, because rearing chicken for the table properly was an expensive business. Mass produced table chicken is now readily available and cheap, but it has its downsides. I don't really need to expand on the cruelties of battery farming, but from a flavour point of view these birds just aren't the same. The meat you eat is muscle and for muscle to gain flavour requires two important things. Activity and diet. If a chicken is caged up, unable to roam and fed ghastly chemical laden pellets, then you can guess the flavour outcome. Sure they are cheap, but I think I would rather be vegetarian, thank you.

What you need to buy is free range or open range chicken. It is worth the extra expense. Beware of some Corn fed chickens. They are often fed with beta-carotene supplements, or even worse, simply dyed yellow before sale and end up looking like some sort of Big Bird parody. In Australia, the chickens to look for are sold as Barossa Valley Chooks, Thirlmere Poultry or any birds from Glenloth Farms.

Here are some other points to keep in mind. Always fully pre-heat your oven before roasting. If your chicken is frozen, defrost it fully and properly before cooking - that is, in the refrigerator on a kitchen towel lined plate for 24-36 hours. Remove your chicken from the refrigerator for a few hours before cooking and keep it well covered. Roasting the bird from room temperature ensures even cooking. Chickens in Australia are sold by number sizes. A size 15 chicken weighs 1.5 kg (3 lb) a size 20 chicken weigh 2.0 kg, and so it goes. I will give instructions for a size 18, 1.8 kg chicken, as that is a fairly common size these days. It will feed 4-6 with accoutrements.

Ingredients

Optional

Method

Pre-heat your oven to 220 C (440 F). Choose a good size roasting pan that will comfortably fit the chicken. Find a cake rack, or similar cooking rack that will fit inside the roasting pan. Rub the chicken all over with the oil (don't get too excited while you do this). Season well with salt and pepper, on the outside of the chicken, along with inside the cavity. Place the garlic cloves inside the cavity, along with any or all of the optional flavourings. Place the chicken sitting on its side, on top of the rack. To the base of the pan add 2 cups (500 ml) water and the onion.

Place in the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Remove the chicken from the oven, turn on its other side, with the aid of tongs and replace in the oven, turning down the temperature to 200 C (390 F). Roast for another 30 minutes and remove from the oven. The skin should have browned nicely and there should be wonderful smells of herbs and garlic. Test to see if the chicken is cooked. Insert a skewer into the thickest part of the thigh. It is the meaty part just above the leg (drumstick). This is the part of the chicken that always takes the longest to cook. Once the skewer is removed, bubbling juices will come out of the entry mark. If the are clear, the chicken is cooked. If they run a little pink, place back in the oven for another 10 - 15 minutes.

Once the bird is cooked, remove from the oven, cover with aluminium foil and set aside for 30 minutes. This is called resting and helps to relax the meat of any roasted dish, so it ends up really juicy. It also gives you time to prepare any accompaniments. Have a look here for some ideas.

When ready to serve, you can try to carve the bird ceremoniously, like in the olden days, but it tastes just as good if you just joint the chicken with kitchen scissors, or a large, sharp cook's knife.

If you are a sucker for roasted vegetables; potato, pumpkin and the like, just cut them into large chunks, no need to peel, toss into a separate roasting pan with olive oil, unpeeled garlic cloves, herbs, sea salt and pepper and start roasting 10 minutes before you cook the chicken. They should be nicely roasted by the time you are ready to serve.

In a typical (and, to me, flattering) case of parallel evolution, my own recipe for roast chicken is in many particulars similar to sneff's above. There are however some ingredient and in particular method differences that make me think it's worth putting up here in its own tight. Maybe someone will try both and write a comparative critique!

The main difference between the two recipes is that while sneff recommends roasting the chicken at a high temperature, my preference is for a slow roasted bird cooked at lower heat to achieve a melting, falling-off-the-bone texture and deeper flavour. A more quickly cooked chicken will be crispier and the flavours sharper (because the garlic & onion will not have time to mellow out), but don't make the mistake of thinking it will be dry; it is the slower cooking method that requires additional fluid to keep the breast meat moist (we hates dry white meat, precious).

Here in the UK we don't have Australia's sophisticated sizing system; chickens come in small, medium or large. A medium chicken is in the 1.5-2kg range and would be enough to feed 4-6 people with side dishes. I'm with sneff in strongly urging you to go for broke and get the best quality chicken you can afford. Having said that, I know that getting a quality bird in a UK supermarket is an often impossible job. If certified (by the Soil Association) organic chicken is not to be got, check whatever is there for the following danger signs to at least help you eliminate the worst produce:

  • Look at the chicken's legs at the point where the feet have been lopped off and the lower part of the leg tucked into the cavity: can you see small black marks there? If so, walk away in a hurry; this is the worst of the worst. The black marks are ammonia burns intensively farmed birds get from essentially living their whole lives kneeling in their own corrosive excrement. This is a result of the confined conditions but also the growth hormones which make them reach full size before their bones are strong enough to support their weight. Check a few of the chickens on the shelf - if one or two have the marks, it's likely the whole batch were raised in the same conditions.
  • "British" chickens should have a clearly stated place of origin. Check the small print - quite often meat that is marketed as British is only packaged here, and sourced from unregulated farms elsewhere in the EU. In such a case any claims to being free range or corn fed are to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.
  • "Barn raised" or self proclaimed "free range" chickens are more often than not just the same old intensively farmed birds which are reared not in batteries, but all in a heap in a huge, dark hangar. To qualify for the free range label they only need to be given access to the outdoors; in reality most of them never see the light of day.
  • At the end of the day, you get what you pay for: a Tesco's Basic chicken for 99p per pound is a bad bet from the outset. Not that the more expensive stuff is always so much better, but at least you can spot the sure-fire stinkers.

OK, now that I'm done scaring you and you have hopefully chosen a decent enough bird that you're happy with, here is what you will need:

  • A casserole with a lid
  • 1 chicken
  • 1 large or 2 small onions
  • 2-4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1-2 sprigs fresh
  • 1 lemon
  • Salt & pepper
  • 1 cup white wine (or chicken stock if you're a teetotaller)

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C and place the casserole in it. Wash the chicken well and, using a sharp paring knife, go over it thoroughly and remove any loose bits of goo left on the inside, unplucked feathers and all that sort of gack. If the bird is really badly plucked, use the gas fire or - much more fun - a chef's blowtorch to singe off the remaining feathers.

  2. Rub the chicken all over with olive oil; make sure you get some under the skin over the breast as well. Season all over. Place the lemon, quartered, into the cavity with the garlic cloves, about half the onion in wedges and the thyme if you're using fresh sprigs. If you only have dried thyme, sprinkle it over the top of the chicken once it's on its back in the cooking dish, along with any remaining olive oil and onion wedges.

  3. If you don't have a casserole big enough but only a normal roasting tin, don't despair. You can accomplish the first stage of the cooking inside a tin foil tent, as you would with a turkey. Cook the chicken, covered, for 1 hour, during which you can go and put your feet up and enjoy the delicious smell spreading through the house.

  4. After an hour remove the chicken from the oven and increase the temperature to 200C. Take off the lid or foil and add the wine, then turn the bird over so it's face (and breast) first in the pan, and back it goes for another 15 mintues. The final stage is to then turn it right side up again and brown the breast and top of the bird.

  5. I don't trust the skewer through the thigh method because it's let me down in the past, so my recommendation would be to cut into the skin in the join between the thigh and the carcass, and see if any pink juices are gathered there. If so, give it another 10 minutes, then remove, rest, and serve with - again my preference - mashed potato and scrummy peas and carrots. A traditional meat & two veg meal to savour, and much less work than a proper Sunday Roast... Enjoy!

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