Julia Child used to say that you can judge the quality of a restaurant by its roast chicken.
Her point: It’s so simple, with just a few ingredients. But there are endless ways to do it. How well you can execute that one dish shows a lot about what kind of cook you are.
A fast, minimalist cook just wants to throw a chicken in a pan and shove it in an oven. A fusser needs to baste, brush and turn. An artist slides herbs under the skin just so. A control nut ties that chicken up tight.
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To see what the masters can teach us about something so simple, we took three famous roast chicken recipes: chef Thomas Keller’s brined, roasted chicken, San Francisco chef Judy Rodgers’ salt-rubbed chicken from “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” and Julia Child’s butter-brushed version from “The Way to Cook.”
We followed their recipes with just one change in the choice of our chickens. While Child called for a larger chicken, sometimes called a roaster, both Keller and Rodgers suggested smaller, 2 1/2-pound chickens. In her classic 2002 book, Rodgers, who died in December, wrote that smaller chickens have more skin per ounce of meat, so they roast quickly and evenly while staying succulent.
You used to see that size frequently in stores, labeled “broiler-fryers.” But these days, most of those are cut into parts. Whole chickens, labeled fryers, usually are larger, around 4 1/2 to 5 pounds. That’s what we went with. While you can get smaller chickens from local farms, we wanted to conduct our test with supermarket chickens that anyone could find.
The result of our test? All three methods resulted in good chickens. Keller’s sweet brine resulted in a chicken with very dark skin, Child’s butter-basted chicken had delicious skin but slightly less flavorful meat, while Rodgers’ salt-rubbed chicken took the most time but had the moistest meat.
The main difference was in time, which is a good way to make your choice: If you have a couple of days, go with the Zuni Cafe chicken. If you have a day, try Keller’s version, And if you’re in a hurry and just need to get on with it, try Child’s recipe.
The main thing to remember is this thought, from Nigella Lawson:
“You could probably get through life without knowing how to roast a chicken, but the question is, would you want to?”