Recipe: Master Cleanse Chicken

published Aug 9, 2012
Master Cleanse Chicken
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(Image credit: Sara Kate Gillingham)

Once upon a time long ago, a friend of mine told me she was doing a crazy thing called the Master Cleanse; for something like thirty days she consumed only a tonic made from water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup. This, of course, went down in California. Since then I’ve tried the Master Cleanse once, for three miserable days, and bombed.

Fast forward to today: years have passed and I find myself in Northern California on a two-week trip, having all kinds of wonderfully familiar cliché Californian experiences like leaving the house unlocked, being greeted by neighbors with “dear gentle people,” meeting a local couple who founded a nudist peace movement, walking through clouds of patchouli at the hardware store, and always being given the option for soy, rice or almond milk in my coffee.

I’m here on a cooking vacation — clearly no time for a cleanse — but as I strolled the market dreaming up dinner, it all came back to me, those fond memories of the wacky things I learned about while growing up here. Something about the maple syrup stand and the poultry guy: an idea was born. Bingo! Master Cleanse chicken! It’s sweet, it’s spicy, it’s bright, and most importantly, it’s full of delicious chicken fat and flavor.

What started as a silly idea, became one of my favorite new ways to flavor a roasted chicken. The maple gives the skin a sweet crunch, and the whole lemon, lemon zest, and lemon juice keeps the flesh moist and tangy. If you really like spice, increase the cayenne to a tablespoon, but even as written this recipe has a kick. The leftovers make great sandwiches with crisp greens and homemade mayonnaise.

(Image credit: Sara Kate Gillingham)

Master Cleanse Chicken

Serves 4

Nutritional Info


  • 1

    (3-pound) chicken

  • 1

    small whole lemon

  • 2 tablespoons

    lemon juice

  • 2 tablespoons

    maple syrup

  • 1 tablespoon

    lemon zest

  • 2 teaspoons

    ground cayenne pepper

  • 1 tablespoon

    coarse salt


  1. Check the chicken for a packet of giblets. If there is one, remove it and discard or reserve for another use. Pat the chicken dry with a paper towel, inside and out, and put it on a plate. Slice the lemon in half and place it inside the cavity. Fold under the wings and tie up the legs either with kitchen twine or by slicing a slit in each side of the fat around the neck and inserting the end of the drumsticks in the opposite side.

  2. In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, maple syrup, lemon zest and cayenne pepper.

  3. Place the chicken in a gallon-size zippered plastic bag. Pour the lemon mixture all over the chicken. Sprinkle it evenly with salt. Seal the bag with as little extra air as possible. Refrigerate for 24-48 hours.

  4. Remove the chicken from the bag and keep the remaining marinade. Roast the chicken your preferred way, or my favorite way, from the Zuni Café Cookbook, below.

  5. Preheat the oven to 475°F and put in a heavy cast iron skillet. Take the chicken out of the refrigerator and pat it dry again.

  6. When the oven is fully heated, place the chicken breast-side up in the skillet. Roast for about 25 minutes, or until it is getting golden, then flip it over. If it browns deeply, turn the heat down to 400° and tent lighting with foil. Roast for another 15 minutes, then flip it again and baste with the remaining marinade, then cook to re-crisp for about 10 minutes. When you flip it the second time put a meat thermometer in the meatiest part of the thigh and check the temperature. When it reaches 165°F and the juices run clear, it is ready. Remove the chicken immediately and tent it with foil. Let it rest at least half an hour before serving.