The first time my younger sister roasted a whole chicken she called me up with a lot of questions. She had been following a recipe online that talked about how to season the bird, and gave a generic roasting time but there was a lot that wasn’t covered. For example, how slimy a chicken can be, or the fact that there’s blood sometimes. She also didn’t have a meat thermometer at the time and was feeling unsure about whether the bird was done or not.
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This all resulted in me helping as best I could over the phone from a grocery store parking lot. And in the end she was successful! But it got us both thinking that I should write a post covering all the weird and slightly less glamorous stuff about roasting whole chickens.
Following a recipe from a blog is great, but if you aren’t confident about what the bird should look or feel like when it’s raw and while it’s cooking it can seem overwhelming. Which is quite a shame, since roasting whole birds is a great way to save money, and get into meal prepping.
Hopefully with this post I can walk you through some of the things you’ll encounter when you go to roast your first chicken. I haven’t included a recipe as such, since I’m going for absolute basics, but I’ll cover cooking times based on weight and how to go about seasoning the bird in different ways.
gather everything you’ll be using. Once you’re covered in chicken juice you don’t want to be touching too many things and it gets annoying to wash your hands more than necessary. The things I organize for dealing with a chicken are:
- A large cutting board
- A pair of kitchen shears
- Paper towel
- Any spices I’ll be using (salt, pepper, oregano etc.)
- Any aromatics I might be using (lemon, garlic, onions etc.)
- Fats I’ll be using (for me this is normally butter, or bacon fat)
- A tea towel that I’m okay with getting chicken-y
- Your roasting pan
- A sharp knife
- Oven mitts
Next, take a look at your bird.
Note the weight to decide on roasting time later. Most grocery store chickens are about 2.5-4lbs (1,133g-1,814g) and are usually trussed. Trussed means tied up. It refers to the slightly stretchy string that holds the chickens legs closed. Lay your bird on a cutting board and give it a once over. You don’t want to be unfamiliar with what you’re working with. So pick it up, look inside, check if its wings and legs are intact, and remove any organs that might be inside the cavity. This is also a good time to snip the string.
So what are you looking at here? It’s slimy, it’s weird, there’s flaps, and bones. Okay! The easy stuff first, on the front of the bird is the breasts. Around the sides you’ve got the two big legs, and in between those is the cavity.
That’s where all the organs would have been, it’s a bit bloody looking, and you can see ribs and spine if you look inside. Don’t be alarmed by any dark brown or blackish gooey bits inside the cavity. Sometimes there is bruising or there’s leftover blood. Gross, but true.
Up at the top of the bird you’ll see the two little wings, and between those you’ll be able to see the neck. Usually the neck isn’t super visible and even for this bird, I had to pull back the skin to show you in the picture.
Also visible on this bird is a bruise on one of the wings. I actually picked this one specifically because of this bruise, so I could show you lovely folks. Bruising happens sometimes in the slaughtering process, and it’s nothing to worry about. When an animal (or human) is bruised there is a rupture of blood vessels under the skin. That’s how the bruise forms. Because this happens right as the chicken is killed, it won’t heel and the mark remains.
On the wing like this, I simply won’t eat that wing. If it was in a different section like the leg or breast, I would trim it off. There’s nothing wrong with eating bruises but they tend to taste a bit like iron. Feel free to give the whole bird a rinse in nice cold water if you want to make it less slimy. Pat it dry inside and out with paper towel.
Patting your chicken dry with paper towel is also important for getting the skin to become crisp while you’re roasting. So regardless of whether you rinse it or not, the next thing you should do is make sure it’s dry all over. Wet chicken skin will end up steaming itself and will become soggy.
Under the Skin
Some recipes call for putting fat under the skin of the bird. For that, lay the bird on its back with the cavity facing you. At the bottom of the breast, find where the skin ends. Using a finger or two, gently separate the skin from the breast meat. There’s a membrane that you will need to break through, but it shouldn’t need more than a bit of pressure. Once your finger is under you can move it around to open up a pocket between the skin and the meat. Now you can slide some butter or bacon fat under the skin. Doing this helps keep the meat moist and protected while the skin gets crispy.
For seasoning your chicken you’ll want to get your spices and herbs all over it. Front, back, sides, and inside. This can be tricky for switching between your seasonings. The best way that I’ve found is to mix all your seasoning into a small dish, and have it beside your cutting board. Next, with your non dominant hand, grab both the ankles of your bird between your fingers.. This will allow you to maneuver the bird however you like with the one hand and season freely with the other. My go to seasoning is salt, pepper, and herb de provence.
When it comes to seasoning the inside, people sometimes overlook or skip it. It does actually make a difference! Since the underside of the breast meat is what you can see through the rib cage inside the bird, you will in essence be seasoning both sides of the breast. This is also why putting things like garlic, onion, or lemon inside the cavity will help add flavours too. Not only to the meat but also flavouring the juices, which you can use to make a gravy later on. For this bird I’ve broken up a head of garlic into its bulbs, given them a light smash and thrown them inside.
Into the Pan
When I’m just roasting a chicken for everyday use, I don’t go wild with processes like brining or marinating. A nicely roasted, plain and simple bird is a beautiful thing. There’s nothing wrong with fancy techniques, and I use them plenty for other things, but for everyday prep I don’t bother. I simply lay the bird into my pan and that’s it. I don’t cover it or anything. Something I do that I find simple and delicious though is a form of basting. I melt about a half a cup of butter or bacon fat in a jar or bowl or measuring cup. Then every 20 minutes or so I pour a bit over the bird. It’s delicious and helps get it crispy.
I use my cast iron pan, but you should use whatever oven safe roasting dish you like. I set my oven to 400F and let it get nice and hot before adding my bird. My oven is also a convection oven, so if you’re using a non convection oven set it to about 425F. The best rule for roasting whole chickens that I’ve come across is 25minutes for every pound of bird (at 400-425F) Meaning, a 4lbs chicken will roast for about an hour.
Is it done yet?
Once you get a feel for your oven and the process you will be more confident in the times that work best for you. Until then, it’s good to know a couple tricks to help you identify when the bird is cooked.
The best thing to look out for is blood. A raw bird will have juices that are still a bit pink or even red. A cooked bird will have juices that are clear or golden. If you haven’t stuffed your bird full, then you will be able to see bloody juices coming out of the cavity. You can also check for pink juice by gently slicing into the thickest part of the thigh. The thickest part is the inside of the thigh about 2cm from the joint. The photos above are at about 45 minutes of roasting. You can see the redness of the juices and the bloody clot in the leg. I put it back in for another 15min.
This is after an hour and you can see now that the red has turned to brownish gold and the blood in the leg is cooked out. Things like clots in meat and small deposits of blood happen sometimes. Animals aren’t perfect either. As long as the meat itself is opaque all through, you can always cut out small sections of clot.
Since there was a bruise on the wing of this bird and a clot in the leg, I was banking on finding clots elsewhere that I could show you, and I found one. Under the breast meat was a perfect example. The red little blobs you can see in this picture are blood, but you can see the meat is cooked through. I just cut away these parts since they will likely taste iron-y. And the rest is fine.
Don’t be scared by whole birds, they are great things to cook and when you understand what you’re looking at, are pretty straightforward.