Growing up, I remember guests exclaiming over my mother’s fancy meals. My mother was a good cook, but not extravagant. Known for “stretching a dime a mile,” she fed us whole foods frugally, yet always managed to serve family and guests rich meals of simple dishes. One such meal that frequently graced our table was old-fashioned roast chicken.
What I remember even more than guests liking her food? How ridiculously easy these fancy meals were to prepare!
On the farm, we raised our own chickens every summer so we knew what they were being fed. I participated in the whole process, from starting chicks, to tending the chickens in the pasture, to processing them for the freezer (butchering time).
Whole roast chicken was the only chicken we ate—we didn’t buy store-bought chicken, and it was too much work to cut up the chicken ourselves. So this easy, elegant, old-fashioned roast chicken was the only kind I knew how to prepare. (Like my my mother’s zucchini casserole, roast chicken is another comfort food that reminds me of home.)
My impression, over the years, is that people are intimidated by cooking whole chickens. Whole turkeys fly off the store shelves at Thanksgiving and Christmas (haha—pun not intended), yet I don’t recall being served roast chicken at anyone’s house but my mother’s.
Is the whole bird intimidating? Is it too expensive? Do people not want to deal with leftovers? Are people afraid of their food looking like an animal?
Whatever the case, I want to show you how simple and easy roasting a whole chicken really is.
Reasons to Roast Whole Chicken
Chicken breast seems to be the most common cut of chicken that most cooks depend on. It is simple to cook and serve, but there are also some good reasons to consider roasting a whole chicken:
- Cheaper than special cuts: Assuming you don’t raise your own chickens, whole chicken is generally at LEAST a dollar cheaper than chicken breasts per pound, and often more, especially if you choose the natural or organic varieties.
Sample whole chicken vs. chicken breast prices in our area:
- Kirkwood @ Aldi: $0.95/pound vs. $2.49/pound
- Never Any! Antibiotic-free chicken @ Aldi: $1.49/pound vs. $4.29/pound
- Tyson All Natural @ Walmart: $1.08/pound vs. $3.40/pound
- Easy prep: No long lists of ingredients to gather from the pantry, no complicated steps for preparing roast chicken. Just the time it takes to preheat the oven.
(Granted, roasting a whole chicken does take planning ahead, and it may take a bit of extra time afterward to debone the leftover chicken. But the prep itself is short and easy.)
- Rich flavor: In my opinion, roasting brings out a richer flavor than boiling, baking, or frying. I think this is true of many foods, meats and vegetables included.
- Leftovers for multiple meals (or the freezer)
- Homemade chicken gravy from the drippings
- Homemade chicken stock/bone broth
What You Need for Roasting a Whole Chicken
- Roasting pan with lid (I like what my mother always used—black agate with lid)
- Seasonings of choice (salt, pepper, garlic powder, sage—link to herb post)
- Meat thermometer
- Meat fork and knife
How to Prepare Old-Fashioned Roast Chicken
If you have a frozen chicken, planning well ahead is essential for having your meal done on time. Spruce Eats recommends defrosting a whole bird in the refrigerator for a day or two, depending on the size.
If you have a fresh bird, no extra planning is needed (other than roasting time). Just pull the chicken out of the refrigerator and prepare as follows:
Preheat the oven to 350℉.
I’ve always roasted my chickens at 350℉. However, when my family raised our own chickens on pasture and found them tougher (albeit tastier) than store-bought meat, my mother found that roasting low and slow was the best way to bring out the flavor without toughening the meat. If you want a longer roast time or tender meat, roast at 325℉.
While preheating the oven, check rack placement. If necessary, adjust it to accommodate the height of the roasting pan with its lid. As close to center is best, so I always move my rack down a slot so the high roasting pan lid clears the top of the oven.
Whole chickens may come with giblets. Heart, liver, and gizzard are tasty for those who can stomach them. Liver has a strong flavor and mealy texture, while heart and gizzard are dense, smooth muscle. Neck meat is flavorful, though time-consuming to pick off the bones.
Many store-bought birds have the neck, heart, gizzard, and/or liver in a plastic or paper bag inside the bird’s cavity. You’ll want to remove this for one of two reasons:
You don’t want plastic melting in your meat, so take it out. (This will be difficult to impossible to remove if the bird is still partially frozen, so allow plenty of time to defrost prior to prepping bird for the oven.) Empty the bag you removed from the whole chicken, rinse the giblets, and replace the parts you want to use in the cavity.
If you don’t care to use the giblets, simply discard.
Also, many processors leave the fat reserves on the chicken around the cavity. I pull these off because the skin gives off enough grease.
It is not necessary to rinse off the defrosted bird. Simply season and place in roasting pan.
Salt and pepper are the basics, but you can use any herbs or spices you love with chicken.
I start by liberally sprinkling salt all over bird on all sides, as well as in the cavity. (Juices cook inside the chicken, then help flavor the meat and pan drippings.) I repeat with black pepper.
Usually, I also dust the bird inside and out with garlic powder and ground sage. If I have fresh sage on hand, I will stuff a couple sprigs in the cavity and also rub them over the skin instead of using powdered sage.
Placing bird in pan
Most pictures of roast birds show the chicken or turkey on its back in the roasting pan, breast side up with beautifully browned skin. That is how to do it for a beautiful presentation and for easy carving of the breast meat.
I prefer to roast chicken breast down and here’s why:
I don’t like dry breast meat. There’s less meat on the back, and it doesn’t seem to dry out as easily as breast meat, anyway. Roasting a chicken breast down allows the white meat to cook in the juices, keeping it tender and moist.
Either way works.
Roasting a Whole Chicken
Once the chicken is seasoned to your liking and placed in the pan–no liquid added–and the oven has preheated, cover with the lid and slide into the oven.
I usually allow about 2 hours for roasting a chicken, though sometimes it requires more time to be done to my liking.
After the first hour of roasting, and definitely when the skin begins to brown and crisp, take the chicken out of the oven and baste it. Juices have begun to cook out of the chicken, keeping it moist.
With a baster, draw in pan juices and dispense all over the exposed skin. Also, squirt some into the cavity to help with even cooking.
Repeat another time or two, or as needed, until roasting is complete.
Food safety recommendations say to cook until poultry meat is at least 165 degrees F. While food safety is important, flavor, texture, and appearance are also important.
Besides temperature, here is what to look for:
Skin color: chicken skin should be golden brown and crinkly. A chicken beginning to cook has pale, plump, juicy looking skin. As it roasts, the fat in the skin cooks out, leaving a thin, crackly brown skin (It’s no good cold or reheated, so I eat the skin off the back myself while carving the chicken for the table).
Joint mobility: in an undercooked chicken, the legs and wings are securely fastened and are very stiff if you try to move them. A well-roasted chicken will have looser cartilage in the joints. So with a fork, or clean hands, try lifting the leg to see if it lifts away from the body. If it lifts easily, the meat is most likely tender and ready to fall off the bones.
If you are an expert carver, you can plate the entire chicken, display as the table centerpiece, and then carve it in front of your guests. (My mother always placed the entire roasting pan on the table and served from there.)
I am not an expert, so I cut the chicken in the kitchen, put select pieces on a serving dish, and leave the rest in the roasting pan until later. (I also have a smaller family to feed than my mother had.)
I generally start by separating the legs, cutting the skin that connects the thigh to the breast, and then cutting through the joint (between the thigh bone and the back), I may also separate the thigh from the drumstick. I also cut off the wings and a few slices of breast to serve for the first meal of roast chicken.
Recommended Side Dishes
What goes with old fashioned roast chicken that completes the meal with minimal prep time?
Growing up, there were a few old standbys that we always had with roast chicken:
- Baked sweet potatoes served with a dab of butter
- Corn (homegrown sweet corn that we had blanched, cut, and frozen the previous summer)
- A green vegetable (green beans, peas, or salad)
- Sometimes bread and butter
But it always included the trio of chicken, sweet potatoes, and corn.
Sweet potatoes, like roast chicken, are also easy to prepare: wash, trim ends, stab a few times with a knife to allow steam to escape, and then place in in a pan and cover with foil. They can bake alongside the chicken roasting in the oven. I allow an hour—minimum—to bake sweet potatoes, usually an hour and a half to assure they are soft.
I simply check by pressing on a few sweet potatoes through the foil, with my a hot-pad covered hand. If the sweet potatoes were solid, they need more time. If they feel soft and give under the pressure of my hand, they are done. Sweet potatoes are very forgiving—they can cook past done without burning, and they can set while waiting for the meal to be served.
Timetable for Old-Fashioned Roast Chicken Meal
- Defrost chicken one or two days ahead of time (see link for guidelines)
- Preheat oven about 2 1/2 hours before mealtime
- Prep chicken while oven preheats
- Prep sweet potatoes after placing chicken in oven
- Defrost frozen corn after sweet potatoes in oven
- Relax or do other tasks during the first hour/hour and a half of roasting
- Heat corn/green beans 20-30 minute before meal time–they can sit if done early
- Prepare other sides while vegetables cook
- Set table while the chicken and vegetables finish cooking
- Cool sweet potatoes when soft (still covered) up to 30 minute before meal
- Carve chicken 10 minutes before meal
- Serve and enjoy!
Roasting a whole chicken provides an elegant meal with minimal preparation. It’s simple enough for any cook to try!
What questions do you still have about roasting a whole chicken? Comment below and I’ll be happy to respond!