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Updated: Feb 20, 2023

I used to dread roasting whole chicken because I just couldn’t quite get it right. But this HYBRID method is pretty darn close to foolproof.

Two golden brown halves of roast chicken in a roasting pan with slices of roast onion surrounding them.

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Remember how I told you that turkeys aren’t really designed to be roasted whole? (See Thanksgiving, Part Two) The same reasoning applies to chickens. But rather than separate white meat from dark meat for two different cooking techniques, for chicken we halve it lengthwise to eliminate the inner cavity. Before we start cooking, let’s review some terminology–

HENS & ROOSTERS– unless specified otherwise, all the chicken we purchase to cook and eat are sexually immature and can be either male or female. Mature female chickens– those capable of laying eggs– are hens, and mature males are called roosters.

“BROILER” refers to a chicken bred for its meat, processed at about 9-12 weeks and weighing about 3 pounds. Smaller Broilers are called FRYERS (2.5–4.5 lbs.) and larger Broilers are called ROASTERS (5–7 lbs.)

“ROCK CORNISH GAME HEN” is a USDA-approved moniker for hybrid-breed Broilers processed at 4 weeks and weighing 1-1.5 lbs. Is it worth the extra money per pound for the fancy name? Definitely yes, and you might want to buy a larger one so you can elegantly serve exactly one half per person.

POUSSIN are even smaller than Rock Cornish Game Hens, processed at no older than 28 days and barely bigger than a tennis ball. Though elegant to behold on the plate, eating one in a civilized fashion requires the skills of a surgeon, either to bone it beforehand (a cool idea for the ambitious cook!) or to disassemble at the dinner table.

At the other end of the spectrum, STEWING HENS are fully-mature, “retired” laying hens that require a long, slow, and moist cooking method to tenderize.

The CAPON is a testament to the ingenuity of our ancient Roman forebears. After Rome forbade the “fattening of hens” during drought years, clever farmers castrated some of their roosters and fed them well, thereby fostering the development of ample, tender, and downright sweet meat. Capon is still commonly enjoyed on European holiday tables and is available– usually frozen– in the US.

Mature uncastrated males– “COCKS”– aren’t particularly valued for their meat, which is generally tough and stringy. However, the ever-resourceful French long ago perfected “Coq au Vin,” a slowly-simmered recipe with a tender and delicious result. HERE is a great take on Julia Child’s famous version.

HERITAGE BREED refers to chicken of older genetic lineage, i.e., before chicken was scientifically bred for efficient mass production on giant factory farms rather than for superior flavor and quality. Older breeds are definitely worth trying if you can find them, particularly because by definition they come from smaller farms. As with beef and pork, the conditions in which our food is raised is at least as important as its particular breed.

And finally, AIR-CHILLED indicates that freshly-slaughtered chickens are quick-chilled with cold air rather than immersion in a chlorinated water bath. (Pro Tip: Air chilled is better.)

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So, for our recipe, first buy a chicken (or two)– Fryer, Roaster, or Cornish Game Hen; organic and/or air-chilled, if practicable… certainly a Heritage-breed bird if available and affordable, but maybe not the first time you try this recipe. With your sharpest chef’s knife, split the bird(s) lengthwise by slicing open the breast and then down each side of the exposed spine. Save the spine and the wingtips for later. Rinse and dry the halves and chill them on a roasting rack in your fridge while you make the marinade in a medium mixing bowl–

1½ Cups Pure (NOT Extra Virgin) Olive Oil

⅔ Cup Balsamic Vinegar

Zest & Juice of 1 Lemon

¼ Cup Brown Sugar

¼ Cup Kosher Salt

6 Cloves of Garlic, Finely Chopped

2-3 Shallots, Sliced

2 TBSP Paprika

1 TBSP Chopped Fresh Rosemary

1 TBSP Ground Black Pepper

1 TBSP Dijon Mustard

Whisk all ingredients well and add to a pyrex dish. Add chicken halves and toss about to thoroughly cover. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Marinate chicken for a few hours or even overnight; remove from fridge an hour before cooking. Pat excess marinade from chicken and clean the dish. (Resist the temptation to save the gorgeous marinade. Because raw chicken…) Preheat the oven to 350ºF and layer the pyrex dish with sliced onions. Add the chicken halves along with the backbone and wingtips. Insert into the thickest part of the breast the digital roasting thermometer that I keep nagging you to purchase.

Roast until the thermometer reads 160ºF. Remove from the oven and tent with foil for 15-20 minutes and serve. I like to make a stock from the onions, backbone & wingtips, and the bones from our dinner… and then use this (frozen) stock to make a sauce the next time we make this delicious dish. To adjust the color toward a little darker, stop the roasting at 150ºF and remove from the oven as you warm up your broiler. Place the chickens under the broiler and check frequently. If color is a big concern, the tricky part is getting it just right while simultaneously achieving the proper internal temperature.

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So… Is this dish really “Foolproof?” Yes, mostly. The only problem I’ve encountered stems from this marinade acting like a brine and leaving the meat a bit pinkish-red near the bones even though it is thoroughly cooked. To counter this I’ve progressively lowered the roasting temperature from 425º to the present 350º through several trials. Allowing the meat to rest for the prescribed 15-20 minutes instead of eating it right away also helps.

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