By Ronnie Fein
There’s no rule that says Jews are required to eat chicken on Shabbat — that is, no rule was ever handed down from a rabbi or written in the Torah. But it is a long-standing practice for many Eastern European Jewish families to serve roast chicken on Friday night.
Why did it become the iconic Shabbat dinner? Probably because meat is considered a luxury, and therefore a fitting centerpiece for the most sacred meal of the week. While chicken may not have the cachet of beef or lamb, maybe that’s the point: It is sumptuous, and yet much more affordable and more widely available than other kinds of meat.
A family in the shtetls might own a cow, but who would ever think to slaughter an entire cow and the precious source of milk and cheese? On the other hand, there were always a few chickens clucking around the yard. Chickens mature and reproduce quickly, assuring an ample supply of eggs and also a plump bird for a Shabbat dinner.
There’s this, too: Chicken is flavorful but mild. It takes to almost any seasoning. It’s hard not to like because you can cook it so many ways. The great Julia Child — who could cook anything — said it was her favorite dinner. “Roast chicken has always been one of life’s great pleasures,” she said.
But how do you make perfect roasted chicken? It is one of those deceptively simple recipes, not elaborate or difficult, and more about what not to do. You can season it the way you like, stuff it or not, baste it or not, make gravy or not — just don’t overcook it. Overcooked chicken is dry and chewy — “a shame,” according to Child.
First, begin with a plump, at least 4-pound, preferably kosher chicken (because they are brined and immensely flavorful). Keep it whole, because that helps keep the meat moist. There is such a thing as a true “roasting chicken” — which is an older, more flavorful bird — but most markets simply sell a whole chicken. It could be a broiler-fryer or a roasting chicken and you simply can’t tell. A good butcher will know the difference between a roasting bird and others, and you can always ask.
Rinse the bird, discard any debris inside the cavity, and remove the package of giblets (which you can cook with the chicken or save for stock).
Next, dry the surface, rub the skin with vegetable oil or olive oil, and season it with spices of your choice (my master recipe keeps the seasoning simple). You can stuff the bird if you wish, but if you do, increase the cooking time. I don’t bother trussing the legs together. That may make finished chicken look better, but it keeps the dark meat from cooking as quickly and the white meat may dry out before the dark is done.
To help keep the skin crispy, use a pan that holds heat well: metal, ceramic or Pyrex, as opposed to disposable aluminum. In addition, place the chicken on a rack. A rack allows all surfaces to be exposed to the dry heat and also prevents the chicken from sitting in its own rendered fat. If you have a vertical poultry roaster, use that.
Start the roasting at 400 (F) degrees, which helps set the skin to proper crispness. Turn the heat down after some initial cooking, otherwise the meat can dry out too quickly.
Basting isn’t necessary; it doesn’t make the meat moister, but it does add flavor. Use whichever basting fluids suit your fancy (stock, wine, fruit juice). Let the bird cook for about 20 minutes before the first basting, so the seasonings will stay on the skin, then baste every 20 minutes or so until about 20 minutes before you expect the bird to be done. Basting after that point will make the skin soggy.
Roasting time for chicken depends on the bird’s weight. I suggest using a meat thermometer to be sure the chicken is fully cooked. Place the thermometer into the thickest part of the inner thigh. The USDA recommends cooking chicken to 165 degrees (F).
To lock in the bird’s delicious natural fluids, let it rest for 15 minutes before you cut it into pieces.
For the master roast chicken:
1 whole roasting chicken, 4-6 pounds
1-2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
Salt, black pepper, garlic powder and paprika
1 cup liquid such as stock or juice
For the lemon-oregano roast chicken:
1 whole roasting chicken, 4-6 pounds
1/3 cup lemon juice
¼ cup olive oil
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried oregano)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the Master Recipe:
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Remove the plastic bag of giblets from inside the bird. Wash the giblets if you want to roast and eat them. Put them in the roasting pan.
3. Wash the chicken inside and out; dry with paper towels. Place the chicken on a rack in the roasting pan.
4. Rub the surface with the oil. Sprinkle the chicken with salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprika. Place the chicken breast-side down on the rack.
5. Put the chicken in the oven. Roast 15 minutes. Reduce the oven heat to 350 degrees. Roast for 30 minutes, basting once or twice during that time with stock or juice. Turn the chicken breast-side up. Continue to roast the chicken for about 45-60 minutes, or until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees (F), or when the juices run clear when the thigh is pricked with the tines of a fork. Do not baste for the last 20 minutes of roasting time. After you take the chicken out of the oven, let it rest for 15 minutes before you carve it.
For the Lemon-Oregano Roasted Chicken:
Follow the roasting procedure directions for roast chicken, but do not prepare the chicken with vegetable oil and spices and do not use the stock, white wine or juice. Mix the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, oregano, basil and salt and pepper in a bowl. Either marinate the chicken for at least one hour before cooking or pour over the chicken when you put it in the oven and use the pan fluids for basting.