Back to Basics Roast Chicken

Serves 4-6 24 October 2019 Dairy Free Gluten Free
“Keep it simple” might be the most banded-about phrase in my kitchen. While it is a brilliant lesson for life in general, it’s an especially useful reminder when assembling a dish or a meal. Keeping the ingredients simple, the method simple and delivery simple just makes the process more enjoyable and allows everything to flow easily.

So, after a little hiatus, I’m going back to basics and a return to sharing recipes. Here is a simple yet delicious roast chicken which comes from one of my California food heroines, Judy Rogers. This method cooks the whole bird in just under an hour, delivering the crispiest skin, juiciest flesh and medal worthy pan juices. If you ever have the honour of eating at Judy’s restaurant, Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, it’s an unwritten rule you must order her roast chicken.

Basic in its preparation and cooking, simple in its appearance, this wins all the prizes for the people’s favourite roast chicken. The only real trick is to buy your chicken the day before you cook it to give you time to salt it overnight (AKA dry brine) to dry it out. If you don’t have all night, do not fear and still make this chicken, just take it out of the fridge and allow the salt to sink in for an hour before you put it in the hot oven.  It really does help with the crispy skin situation. 

Don’t be alarmed by the high cooking temperature or short cooking time. It’s safe. And it works. Judy makes hers with a whole chicken, but I prefer a spatchcocked chicken for maximum skin exposure. I gingerly add a cut lemon underneath the chicken, because mainly I add lemon to everything. Obviously feel free to make it naked as per my heroine. 

Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken

I like to make this with a spatchcocked chicken.  If you are using a whole chicken, place the half lemon inside the cavity of the chicken.  Also, when cooking a whole (not spatchcocked) chicken, it’s a good idea to warm your cast iron skillet or roasting tin in the hot oven so that it is searing hot.  Judy also recommends cooking the chicken breast side down for the first 30 minutes before turning it over to finish cooking.  

Counter-intuitively, there is no need to add any extra oil to the chicken before cooking as I do in just about every other recipe. The hot oven, quick cooking time, ample salt and the natural fat in the chicken’s dried out skin renders perfectly crisp golden exterior. (And extra oil will contribute to an even smokier oven).

Please make sure that your chicken has had some time to sit in the fridge, salted and out of any plastic wrapping to allow the skin to dry. This ensures maximum crispiness.

This is best cooked in a shallow sided pan barely larger than the chicken.  I cook it either in a small roasting tin or in a sauté pan or cast iron skillet.

Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken

  • 1 medium sized chicken
  • malden salt
  • 4 sage leaves (or rosemary or thyme or tarragon)
  • pepper
  • 1/2 lemon

Prep the chicken the day before you cook it. Pat the bird dry both inside and out with kitchen towel.  Carefully slide your finger under the skin of the breasts and the thickest parts of the thighs of the chicken, creating a little pocket without breaking the skin.  Push each sage leaf (or other herb of choice) into the pockets.

Liberally salt the chicken all over and place on a rack over a dish that holds it comfortably (raising the chicken allows the air to circulate and the skin to dry out), cover loosely with some paper towels and put it in the fridge.  

An hour before you are ready to cook the chicken, remove from the fridge to bring it to room temperature.  

Preheat your oven to 250C (500F)

(If you are cooking your chicken whole and not spatchcocked place your pan of choice in the oven to warm).

When the oven is piping hot, place the half lemon underneath the spatchocked chicken, cut side down (this will help with the pan juices).  If you are cooking a whole chicken place the lemon half in the cavity.

Pop into the oven and cook for 45 minutes to an hour (depending on the size of your bird).  If the fat starts to smoke, turn the oven down very slightly.  

When it is cooked, remove from the oven, tent with foil and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes before carving.  When ready, remove the chicken onto a board, pour off any fat at the top of the pan juices and add a tablespoon of boiling water to release any of the delicious sticky bits at the bottom of the pan.   

This is delicious simply served with a green salad and some crusty sourdough to mop up the pan juices. And obviously the leftover chicken and salad are delicious stuffed into a fresh pita bread for an emergency lunch or mid afternoon snack………

Have you made this dish?

Let me know what you think, share your efforts and any tweaks you made to the recipe on Instagram, don’t forget to tag #BuildingFeasts or email me on