Sunday, 6 December 2009

Roasting Chicken, the Zuni Cafe (Judy Rodgers) Way

The Zuni Cafe way results in a roasted chicken that will BLOW YOUR MIND. It is more succulent, more flavourful, than any other method I’ve tried. And it’s actually very simple. There are a few tricks though, and I’ll go through them below, with a few of my own elaborations:
  1. Use very small chickens. That way, you can keep the cooking time fast and at a very high temperature, which means a more succulent end result. Best size is 1.4kg to 1.7kg. If you have larger chickens, consider braising them. The chicken will still taste good, but it’s much more difficult to maintain succulence, the longer the chicken takes to cook.

  2. I would add (and this is implicit in Judy’s instructions anyway), that you only use the most caringly produced chickens. They need to be free range, and organic, and more than this, you need to have a sense that both of these terms actually MEAN something. Many supermarket-scale suppliers are talking the talk of organics without any of the underlying philosophies. If you want to read about the difference between large scale and small scale organics, I recommend Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dillema, and Peter Singer’s The Ethics of What We Eat. There is absolutely no good reason to skimp on this basic ingredient. If I can’t find a caringly produced chicken, then I don’t make roast chicken! Simple as that.
  3. Pre-salting! When you season the bird with salt, you can also season it with other things. The best way to do this is to slide the ingredients (be they sprigs of thyme, lemon peel, marjoram, garlic, etc.) under the skin of the chicken. This can be done in a few spots: from around the neck of the chicken onto the breast, and from the base of the chicken onto the groin. At both places, you’ll find that with a little persistent finger work, you can coax the skin away from the flesh. Once you’ve a little of this separated space exposed, you can work from within it, with your fingers again, to increase the size of the space. The only thing that can go wrong here is if you pierce the skin with your fingernails. Try not to do this. Once you’ve created a gap, lay as many pieces of flavour at these points that you desire.
  4. Once the chicken has been salted for 2 to 3 days, take it out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature while you preheat the oven. Preheat the oven to as high as it will go. Around 240-50°C is good, but basically, once the chicken is in the oven, you’re going to need to adjust the temperature down to a point where the chicken is browning, not smoking. At preheat stage, all you need do is crank it! And use the convection feature if you’ve got one.
  5. Meanwhile, choose a baking tray. This is a very important step, and it goes against what normally happens in many roasted chicken situations. Normally, the tray is large enough to shove some potatoes and other vegies around the edges of the chicken. What I want you to do is find a tray that is absolutely no bigger then the chicken itself, and doesn’t have too high a sides. When cooking at this temperature, the tendency for juices from the chicken to burn are high, and you don’t want to have to add any water to the situation, which would just cause the chicken skin to steam rather than caramelize. Keeping the pan very small keeps the juices close to the chicken. The low sides of the pan mean that air circulation around the chicken is kept at a maximum. It doesn’t need to be a flashy pan. Thin, thick, any material except pyrex (which general causes sticking) is fine. I’ve got a shallow very tinny sandwich tin that does fine.
  6. Once the oven is preheated, make sure your chicken is thoroughly dry. Use paper towels or a tea towel to dry the chicken inside and out. The less moisture on the chicken, the less time wasted steaming rather than caramelizing.
  7. While you’re drying the skin, heat the pan on the stove until its really hot. You want the chicken to sizzle as soon as its skin touches the surface. This will speed up the roasting time, as well as stop the chicken from sticking to the pan. No need to oil the pan if it’s as hot as this. Lay the chicken back side down onto the pan and quickly put it in the centre of the oven.
  8. Now that the chicken is in the oven, you need to pay good attention for the next 15 minutes. You want the oven hot, but not so hot that the chicken starts to smoke. If it does, turn it down 10°C or so. Within 10 minutes, the chicken’s skin should be blistering, and lots of sizzling and popping should be going on. If it’s not doing any of this, turn it up.
  9. After 15 minutes, when the skin is already starting to look brown and dry, take the chicken out of the oven and with a pair of tongs up its bum and a fork to stabilize the proceedings, turn the chicken over onto its breast and get it back in the oven. Cook it breast side down for 15-20 minutes. The length of time partly depends on the size of the chook and partly on how well it’s browning.
  10. After the 30-40 minutes the chook has now been cooking, now turn it over onto its back for the last time. The chicken should only take between 10 and 20mins more. You don’t want to overcook the chook! I recommend taking it out of the oven after 10 minutes and checking. The best way to do this is by looking at the colour of the juice that comes from the thigh (see the pic as an example of a cooked chook). There should be no sign of any blood. If this is the case, then take it out immediately. The thigh is the slowest meat to cook, and the most amenable to flexible cooking, but you don’t want to sacrifice breast succulence to this.
  11. Once the chicken is out of the oven, most people think that it’s finished and ready to carve. It’s not! Part of roasting a piece of meat is letting it rest once it’s out of the oven. This resting allows all the juices that are unevenly distributed in the meat to redistribute. Resting might mean room temperature meat, but this is the cost of succulence and tenderness. Move the chicken to another dish and leave it, uncovered, in a draft free place for 20 minutes.
  12. While you wait, set the roasting pan on a low heat, and with a little water or wine, if necessary, slowly loosen the caramelized juices from their sticking spots and stir them until they’re dissolved. This is as much of a gravy as I tend to make. Once the chicken has rested, and before you carve, pour any extra juices that have collected in the centre of the chicken into the caramelized juices.
  13. And now you’re done! Phew. Didn’t I say it was simple?!


  1. I have never tried this method for roasting a chicken before, but it sounds wonderful. I'll definitely be using it next time I make one.

  2. It really is very good. I'd love to hear how it goes for you. And thanks for reading my blog! I've only just started and it's so nice to find a stranger here, who also (from having a look at your blog) seems might be a bit of a kindred spirit! Living in Berlin for the past few months, I've been a little overwhelmed with apartment living. I'm such a ground creature, and it's all about the garden for me. But I, too, will be heading back down to more solid ground soon! I look forward to reading more from you. Angela