Kitchn Love Letters

Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk Is Probably the Best Chicken Recipe of All Time

updated Apr 17, 2020
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Many years ago, I wrote about this oddball Jamie Oliver recipe that was so weird and yet so delightful it sent me into fits of hyperbole. Best chicken recipe of all time? Maybe! Since then, everyone from Food52 to the New York Times have followed my lead in their love for this milk-braised chicken, which debuted in Jamie’s book Happy Days with the Naked Chef in 2002. The Times even made it look pretty (quite a feat).

On the offhand chance that you’ve never met this now-famous recipe, read my original piece. Don’t be put off by the gushing — I had a major crush on this chicken off the bat, but in the past years it’s settled into true love. And when you find yourself with leftovers, here’s how to relive the glory all over again.

Chicken in Milk: A Delightfully Weird Recipe

A few years ago I noticed this rather odd recipe on Jamie Oliver’s site. It called for roasting a chicken in a big pot with a pint of milk, a lot of lemon zest, a cinnamon stick, and unpeeled garlic cloves. Milk, cinnamon, and chicken were three things I wouldn’t ever think to combine; it sounded like a bad recipe Mad-Lib. And yet its very strangeness enticed me. I was familiar with the Italian method of cooking pork in milk for tenderness and flavor; would this be similar?

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

How to Cook Chicken in Milk

I’ve now made this many times, and the first thing in its favor is the speed and ease of impromptu preparation. It’s great for a last-minute roast chicken dish. You don’t need to salt it two days ahead or brine it — just brown it well in a big pot with a lot of butter and oil. Here’s how it works.

  1. Brown a whole chicken in copious amounts of olive oil or butter on the stovetop.
  2. Pour in about 2 1/2 cups milk, two lemons‘ worth of zest, a cinnamon stick, and fresh sage leaves. Scatter in a handful of garlic cloves in their peels.
  3. Bake for 90 minutes at 375ºF.
  4. Pull apart and eat with all the yummy sauce.

To brown the chicken I use a Dutch oven (like this Staub oval cocotte, my absolute all-time favorite piece of cookware). I heat up butter over high heat and really, really brown the chicken. It is very important to brown this chicken with guts and gusto. I use tongs (like these) to turn the chicken to brown all four sides; just jam them up its butt. Don’t be afraid to really get it dark brown! This is what your flavor will build on.

Then you drain off much of the fat. (Oliver says to throw away all the fat you brown the chicken in; you won’t need it. I actually recommend saving it for cooking potatoes or vegetables.) Put the chicken back in the pot (if you removed it while draining fat), add the milk, garlic cloves (no need to peel or smash), lemon zest or peel, and cinnamon stick, along with a handful of sage leaves. Put in the oven and roast for an hour and a half. This is where the magic happens. But first, one question…

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

To Cover or Not to Cover?

The first time I ever made this, I had a spaced-out moment and glibly assumed that since I was cooking a chicken in a pot that that meant the lid should go on. I banged on a lid and put it in the oven. An hour later it hit me: Was that called for in the recipe? I double checked. Nope! So I ran in and took off the lid for the last half hour of cooking. The chicken turned out fine — in fact, more than fine, as I will tell you more about below.

The second time I cooked this chicken I tried it with the pot lid off the whole time as specified in the recipe. And all things being equal, I think that the first way, with the pot covered for part of the cooking time, was better. While it was still an incredibly good dish, leaving the lid off made it taste more like a traditional roast chicken. It was less tender, and I felt like the flavor really didn’t permeate the chicken the way that it did the first time.

So I still recommend the first method, with my happy mistake; I leave the lid on for at least half of the cooking time. The chicken was moister, the flavor permeates it better, and there was a little more sauce.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

Why Jamie’s Chicken Is So Good

While cooking, this chicken smells absolutely divine. The first time I made it, my husband groaned when he walked into the house. “What is that?” he asked. When I uncovered the pot the golden-brown chicken was sitting in a pool of creamy pan sauce, the milk having dissolved into small bits of curd and juice. Unlike the curdled milk I was expecting, this looked and tasted more like liquid lemon gold, bathed in chicken juices.

We pulled the chicken off the bone, ladled on the sauce, and my face almost fell into my plate. The meat was incredibly, mouthwateringly succulent and tender; far more so than my best Zuni chicken ever. It was completely infused with lemon and balanced with a deeply aromatic muskiness from the cinnamon and sage. The cloves of garlic were perfectly cooked too; we fished them out and squeezed their sweet innards onto the chicken and slices of thick country bread. We couldn’t stop eating the chicken, the meat drenched in savory lemon sauce.

I know I’m going out on a limb with this one, but it is still the truth: This is still the best chicken I have ever had. Its magic lies in its sheer deliciousness and simplicity, but also in its unexpected combination of ingredients and method. It’s a recipe that you think could never work — and yet it does, and that small moment of surprised delight seasons the whole dish.

Get the recipe: Chicken in Milk at Jamie Oliver’s website. Note: I notice that he’s changed the instructions to have you brown the chicken in olive oil, not butter, as originally indicated. I use butter or an oil with a higher smoke point than olive oil.

More Recipe Riffs on Chicken in Milk

Since publishing this we have riffed on this recipe using coconut milk, the slow cooker, and other small improvements and options that may be helpful to you.

Have you ever tried Jamie’s chicken in milk? What did you think? Do you change it up at all, or make it exactly as written?

(Image credit: The Kitchn)
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

This recipe was a contender in our March 2019 Chicken Champions recipe showdown, in the fancy dinner party bracket. Check out that showdown and its competitors below.

More from Our Chicken Champions Recipe Showdown