There may be a million ways to roast a chicken, but there is one in particular that truly stands head and shoulders above the rest: the Zuni chicken. This method was originally developed by Judy Rodgers for her San Francisco restaurant The Zuni Cafe, but it has since traveled far beyond that kitchen. It involves salting the chicken days ahead and flipping it a few times during roasting, but the extra TLC is worth it. Simply put, this makes one of the best roast chickens ever.
Look for the Smallest Chicken
Judy Rodgers' original recipe from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook calls for a 2 3/4- to 3 1/2-pound chicken. In her recipe headnotes, Rodgers explains that these smaller chickens (technically called "fryers") are better for this roasting technique because they have a greater skin-to-meat ratio and stay more succulent after roasting.
But finding a chicken this small these days can start to feel like the search for the Holy Grail. You can sometimes find them from specialty butchers or from local farms selling at farmers markets, but fryer-sized chickens have all but vanished from the larger chain grocery stores.
Instead, I say to look for the smallest chicken in the case and make do with that. I feel that the success of this roast chicken is more about the technique than it is about the size of the chicken.
The Importance of Salting the Chicken Ahead
What Rodgers is really doing here is called "dry brining." One to three days before roasting, you rub the chicken all over with a generous amount of salt and then leave it, loosely covered, in the fridge. As the chicken sits, the salt dissolves into a brine, which gradually gets absorbed into the chicken, seasoning and tenderizing the meat from the outside in. The skin also has a chance to dry out, which makes it crispier once roasted.
The larger your chicken, the longer it's best to let it dry-brine. For an average grocery store roasting chicken of a little over four pounds, I aim for a full three days of dry-brining.
Safely Flipping the Bird
Rodgers calls for flipping the bird twice during cooking, which sometimes makes me want to flip a different kind of bird. The flips help the chicken to roast more evenly and develop a crispy skin, but turning a hot chicken in a pan full of simmering fat and chicken juice is an awkward proposal at best.
After some trial and error, I have settled on a combination of tongs and a spatula to flip the chicken over during cooking. I use the tongs to grab hold of the chicken, and the spatula to guide the chicken as I turn it. I try to grab the back of the chicken under the wing so I avoid tearing the skin over the breast meat or accidentally pulling off a leg, but do what feels the safest and most comfortable for you. To protect yourself against splashes, I also recommend wearing oven mitts.
What to Do with the Pan Drippings
When you follow this method, you'll end up with a pan full of flavorful juices and drippings at the end of roasting. You can do what the chefs at The Zuni Cafe do and toss the drippings with a salad of toasted bread and fresh greens — this bread salad, combined with pieces from the carved chicken, is the dish that made this restaurant famous.
The drippings are also good simply drizzled over thick pieces of toasted bread, tossed with pasta, or stirred into a bowl of cooked rice. If I end up with any juices leftover, I follow Rodgers final piece of advice and save them for cooking beans or making risotto.
Get 1 3- to 4-pound chicken, the smallest you can find and preferably organic and free-range
How To Roast a Zuni Chicken
Adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook
What You Need
1 3- to 4-pound chicken, the smallest you can find (Judy Rodgers also specifies an organic and free-range chicken)
Fresh herbs, like thyme, sage, rosemary, or a mix
Small dish, for mixing the salt
Plate or shallow dish, for chilling the chicken
Clean plastic grocery bag
10-inch oven-safe skillet, pie pan, or other small baking dish
Tongs and spatulas
Clean the chicken: Remove the giblets and save for another purpose or discard. Pat the chicken very dry, inside and out, with paper towels.
Loosen the skin over the breasts: Slip your fingers between the skin and breast meat near the cavity of the chicken. Slide your fingers as far beneath the skin as you can manage without tearing the skin, creating a pocket.
Tuck herbs under the skin: Holding the pocket of skin open with one hand, use the other to tuck a stem or two of herbs under the skin.
Season the chicken: In a small dish, measure out 3/4 teaspoon of salt for every pound of chicken. Mix in some fresh pepper. Rub the outside of the chicken with the salt mixture, making sure to get under the wings and drumsticks and sprinkling heavily over the thicker parts of the breasts and thighs.
Cover loosely and chill for 1 to 3 days: Transfer the chicken, breast-side up, to a dinner plate or other shallow dish. Place the chicken, on the plate, inside a clean plastic grocery bag and loosely tie the opening closed. The chicken should be covered, but still with some air circulation around the bird. Chill for up to 3 days; the larger your chicken, the more it will benefit from a long chill.
Heat the oven and the baking dish: About an hour before baking, place the skillet or dish you're using to roast the chicken into the oven on a middle rack. Heat the oven to 475°F.
Dry the chicken: Uncover the chicken. Tilt it to drain any juices that have accumulated in the cavity. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels.
Transfer the chicken to the baking dish: Remove the pre-heated pan from the oven and set it on the stovetop. Place the chicken in the hot pan, breast-side up. It should begin to sizzle immediately — if not, don't worry, but increase the oven temperature by 25 degrees next time.
Roast the chicken for 20 to 30 minutes: Roast the chicken until you see the skin on the breasts start to blister and brown.
Flip the chicken breast-side down: Remove the pan from the oven and close the oven door. Carefully flip the chicken over using tongs and a spatula, covering your hands with oven mitts to protect from splashes.
Roast another 10 to 20 minutes: Roast breast-side down until the bottom also looks well-browned.
Flip and roast a final 5 to 10 minutes: Flip the chicken back over so that it's breast-side up. Check the temperature and roast another 5 to 10 minutes, until the skin over the breasts is well-browned and the chicken registers at least 165°F in the thickest part of the thigh meat. Total roasting time is 45 minutes to 1 hour; the larger your chicken, the more time it will need.
Drain the juices from the chicken: Slash the skin connecting the thighs and the body of the chicken. Tilt the chicken in the pan so that any juices inside the chicken run out into the pan.
Rest the chicken: Transfer the chicken to a serving platter or cutting board. Let the chicken rest, uncovered, for about 10 minutes.
Simmer the pan drippings: While the chicken is resting, prepare the pan drippings. Tilt the pan to collect all the juices to one side and skim off any fat with a spoon. Place the pan over high heat and bring to a simmer. Simmer for a minute or two, scraping up any roasted bits from the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat. You can also make a pan sauce or a gravy from the drippings, if you prefer.
Carve the chicken and serve: Use a sharp knife to cut away the wings and the thighs from the chicken where they join the body. Separate the drumsticks and the thighs at the joint. Keeping your knife close to the bone and parallel to the ribs, cut away the chicken breasts. Serve immediately with the pan sauce, gravy, or pan drippings while the skin is crispy.
This post has been updated — first published October 2007.
(Image credits: Christine Han)