Let’s talk turkey, shall we? Or rather, poultry – which includes domesticated fowl like turkey, quail, chicken, duck and goose. Roasted until golden brown, with crispy skin and juicy flesh, fragrant with fresh herbs and citrus and garlic, and a protein that easily lasts through multiple meals – humans have been enjoying poultry for thousands of years. But in the last decade, as most of us are aware, poultry – and in particular, chicken – has developed a (deservedly) bad reputation. This is unfortunate because the majority of the hazards associated with eating poultry stem not from the bird itself, but from cruel large-scale factory farming practices, over-prescription (or, more accurately, blanket application) of antibiotic medicine, and unhygienic processing and handling. Naturally, I am wary of mass-produced poultry, for both ethical and practical reasons.
However, we are lucky to live in Montana, which has consistently been ranked in the top ten on the Locavore Index, which calculates the overall availability of local food to the average person through benchmarks like the number of farmers markets, facilities that distribute local foods, school districts with farm-to-school programs, and more. Adam and I purchase organic poultry, raised humanely on a local farm and sold by our organic grocer (and occasionally through Costco, which sells two organic roasters for the price of a single local bird). We primarily buy only whole birds – no prepackaged thighs or breasts, and especially not boneless!
I typically roast a chicken once every week or two, and we enjoy the mix of light and dark meat over the course of several meals. We typically eat a portion of the bird straight out of the oven with the crispy skin intact, served with roast vegetables or greens and a pan sauce made from the drippings. Then we will strip the rest of the meat from the bird, and store in the fridge for use in soups, curries, tacos, quesadillas, frittatas – anything requiring shredded or smaller bits of chicken. The offal (heart, liver, and gizzards) that comes in the small pouch inside the bird can be used for incredibly nutritious pâté or as a full entrée (served with sour cream and dill, for example). The carcass goes into a Ziplock and frozen until I am ready to make chicken stock (alternately dubbed the more trendy “bone broth”); depending on the size of the bird, I wait until we have two or three carcasses, and then put them in the crockpot with some onion, carrot, celery, and garlic for a day or two. The stock produced is then used in soups, sauces, or to drink straight as hot broth. The Nourished Kitchen – a veritable treasure trove of information regarding traditional foods – has this wonderful article justifying the cost of a locally- and pasture-raised bird – and my resident budget analyst (Adam) can certainly attest to her cost-benefit analysis. 😉
There are as many different ways to prepare a whole chicken as there are languages in the world. This is our method, a blend of techniques from Jamie Oliver’s Perfect Roast Chicken, Tosca’s Roast Chicken, which first introduced us to the unbelievably revolutionary (for us) concept of a dry brine, and whatever fresh herbs happen to be in our refrigerator at the time. This is the method that has worked the best for us, resulting in a crackling, crispy skin and tender, juicy flesh. Enjoy!
Roast Chicken with Lemon + Fresh Herbs
Inspired by Jamie Oliver’s Perfect Chicken and Tosca’s Roast Chicken with Crisp Toasts + Ricotta
1 whole organic, pasture-raised chicken
2-4 tablespoons sea salt
Olive oil or softened butter, to coat the bird
1-2 lemons, halved
Handful fresh herbs, including but not limited to rosemary, thyme, sage, Italian parsley, tarragon, or marjoram
1-4 cloves fresh garlic (optional)
Roasting pan or cast-iron skillet
1. Remove the chicken from packaging and pat dry with a paper towel (discard immediately). Rub dry sea salt all over the bird, both the outer skin and inner cavity. Place in a dish or pan and leave, uncovered, in the refrigerator overnight. I use a cast-iron skillet for both the overnight dry brine and the actual cooking, mostly for convenience and ease. Alternately, feel free to use a separate baking dish for the dry brine and then a roasting pan for the cooking, which can be heated to ensure a crispy bottom to your bird.
2. The next day, remove the bird from the oven an hour before you plan to roast the bird. Bring to room temperature. The skin should be completely dry. Preheat the oven to 425°F. (If using a separate roasting pan, place the roasting pan in the oven.)
3. Rub the bird all over with olive oil or butter. Olive oil will result in a light, thin, crackling skin; butter will result in a richer crispy skin, almost reminiscent of fried chicken. If you desire, you may strip a few bits of fresh rosemary, thyme or Italian parsley, chop finely, and rub onto the skin of the bird.
Two of our favorite combinations are lemon, fresh sage and thyme, and lemon with rosemary, thyme and Italian parsley.
4. Place lemons into the cavity of the chicken, along with sprigs of fresh herbs and cloves of garlic, if choosing to use them. Tie the legs of the bird together with kitchen twine.
5. Using a sharp knife, create two or three thin slits in the thighs of the bird. This allows the thighs to cook slightly faster than the breasts, resulting in thighs that are not undercooked (slimy) without drying out the breasts. You can also cook the bird upside down and achieve similar results.
6. Place the bird in the oven and cook for thirty minutes. At that point, baste the chicken. Cook another five minutes, and baste again. Check the temperature. Chicken must be cooked to at least 165ºF, but often the bird will need another minute or five to ensure golden brown, crispy skin. Cooking time will depend on the size of your bird.
7. Remove the chicken and tent with foil for 5-10 minutes to reabsorb the juices. Eat hot, while the skin is still crispy!
A note about buying and preparing poultry: Poultry (and other meat) labeling can be tricky, with many shoppers not realizing that “natural” does not necessarily ensure healthful and humanely-raised. This list of definitions by the USDA clarifies all meat and poultry labeling terms, and is invaluable in determining what exactly you are putting into your body. This factsheet provides additional information on the “organic” designation itself. And, remember that organic poultry can often be cross-contaminated with the antibiotic-resistant bacteria present on non-organic poultry, so use the same caution in preparing organic birds that you would any raw meat – washing hands and food prep surfaces with hot soapy water, and cooking the chicken until 165°F, at least.