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Thomas Keller's Last Meal: Roast Chicken - By Z

I read somewhere that this roast chicken would be Thomas Keller‘s choice for his last meal. I dismissed this as the hyperbole of a celebrity chef, but was quite intrigued nonetheless. After my friend and fellow food blogger Azmina (of Lawyer Loves Lunch) sang its praises, I knew I had to give it a try.

The verdict? I’m a convert. Everyone must try it. I’ve made it twice and eaten it thrice since the first time I had it. Is it the absolute best roast chicken ever? I’m not sure about that, but it is rather mind-boggling how good it is given the simplicity of the recipe. It reminds me of an elegant solution to a math problem, with all of the variables boiled down to their constituent parts and arranged precisely so as to arrive at the correct result. Here, the correct result is crispy salty skin surrounding tender flavorful meat.

Since I have been waxing on about the simplicity of the recipe, I’m going to give you Thomas Keller’s original recipe and let the pictures do [most of] the rest of the talking.

Roast Chicken by Thomas Keller

  • One 2- to 3-pound farm-raised chicken
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons minced thyme (optional)
  • Unsalted butter
  • Dijon mustard

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Rinse the chicken, then dry it very well with paper towels, inside and out. The less it steams, the drier the heat, the better.

Salt and pepper the cavity, then truss the bird. Trussing is not difficult, and if you roast chicken often, it’s a good technique to feel comfortable with. When you truss a bird, the wings and legs stay close to the body; the ends of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out. Trussing helps the chicken to cook evenly, and it also makes for a more beautiful roasted bird.

Now, salt the chicken—I like to rain the salt over the bird so that it has a nice uniform coating that will result in a crisp, salty, flavorful skin (about 1 tablespoon). When it’s cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin. Season to taste with pepper.

Place the chicken in a sauté pan or roasting pan and, when the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in the oven. I leave it alone—I don’t baste it, I don’t add butter; you can if you wish, but I feel this creates steam, which I don’t want. Roast it until it’s done, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove it from the oven and add the thyme, if using, to the pan. Baste the chicken with the juices and thyme and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board.

Remove the twine. Separate the middle wing joint and eat that immediately. Remove the legs and thighs. I like to take off the backbone and eat one of the oysters, the two succulent morsels of meat embedded here, and give the other to the person I’m cooking with. But I take the chicken butt for myself. I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip—until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat myself. These are the cook’s rewards. Cut the breast down the middle and serve it on the bone, with one wing joint still attached to each. The preparation is not meant to be superelegant. Slather the meat with fresh butter. Serve with mustard on the side and, if you wish, a simple green salad. You’ll start using a knife and fork, but finish with your fingers, because it’s so good.

From Epicurious via Lawyer Loves Lunch

Bath in brine

I brined my chicken.

I know… I know. I go on and on about the simplicity of the recipe and immediately diverge from it. In my defense, I already had brine made (intended for pork chops originally, it was equal parts sugar and salt with some peppercorns and a splash of orange juice) and, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t fully trust the recipe.

I did notice that the brined chicken was slightly juicier than the subsequent attempts, but there were too many variables to draw a definitive conclusion from it. That said, if you want to be 100% sure that your bird will turn out juicy, combine a brine with this recipe and I guarantee you that you will avoid the dreaded dry chicken.

As long as we’re on the topic of diverging from the recipe, I should admit that in lieu of unsalted butter, I decided to make some compound herb butter.

Chopped parsley

All you need is herbs (I used leftover fresh parsley) and soft butter. Mix them together and put it in some sort of mold (I used plastic wrap). Then stick it in the fridge to harden.

Parsley butter firming up

Now comes the most important part of this recipe and the real secret to this dish.

To have crispy perfect skin on a roast bird, you must thoroughly dry it first.

I learned this technique from Harold a long time ago when we were living together, but never really took it to this extreme.

And take it to the extreme I did.

Warning: The next few pictures are extremely graphic and may be inappropriate for immature audiences.

Fan-drying chicken

If you don’t want to use the fan, you can simply let your chicken set uncovered in the fridge, but I don’t like this technique for a couple of different reasons. First of all, it takes much longer to get it as dry as necessary. Second, there is the potential (though slight) for your chicken to pick up odors/flavors from other items in the fridge. And third and most importantly, you can’t easily pose your chicken in demeaning positions if you don’t use the fan/colander setup shown below.

Getting the chicken skin nice and dry

You’re going to have to pose your chicken in several different positions to dry every nook and cranny. The skin will become almost brittle or leathery. That’s when you know it’s ready.

Makin' it rain

Then truss it, put it on a roasting rack, salt it liberally, then into the oven it goes.

Thyme and chicken fat... mmmmm.

I suppose if you’re trying to be healthy you don’t have to ladle the chicken fat and freshly chopped thyme over the finished bird, but I’m of the opinion that wasting good fat is a sin. I actually saved the rest of the chicken fat because there’s nothing like good schmaltz.

When there was about 20 minutes to go, I rubbed some red potatoes with some of the rendered fat (you can use butter or olive oil if you want to prepare ahead of time), salt, pepper, and rosemary. I then added it to the oven. This was perfect timing to take them out right after the chicken had rested a bit. However, next time I would cut them in order to get a bit of crisp on the edges.

Spinach salad with goat cheese, parsley herb butter, roast chicken, roasted potatoes, and wine

Note that while it looks as if we had a nice elegant dinner, we quickly degenerated into ripping it apart with our hands per Mr. Keller’s instructions. The meat was so flavorful and fall-off-the-bone tender that there was no better way to eat it.

Now go make your own.

And invite me.


  1. Look at you, getting all swanky by setting the table. I guess roasting a bird brings out the best in us :)
    PS: I love these pictures. They have a very French country feel to ‘em!

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  2. Z wrote:

    Yep, this was a dinner date, so I swanked it up.

    And then we de-swanked and devoured it with our hands. :) I wish I would have taken some pictures of how moist and juicy the meat was, but (a) I was too busy eating and (b) I didn’t want to get grease on the camera.

    Next: re-swanking for dessert… we made chocolate soufflés.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink
  3. Jenny wrote:

    I totally enjoyed your extremely graphic pictures! LOL! I am new to this blogging stuff, but I think I’m going to dig it. I completely agree with brining any poultry first, but I had never given much thought to completely drying the bird before roasting. I will definitely be giving this recipe a try.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  4. Amara wrote:

    That second picture is particularly gorgeous! Nice work!

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink
  5. Bronwyn wrote:

    Looks delicious, Z!

    PS. Poor chicken. Dying and being eaten obviously wasn’t enough to please the likes of you.:)

    Sunday, July 11, 2010 at 5:15 am | Permalink

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Food, By Z › Dark Chocolate Soufflé on Saturday, July 10, 2010 at 3:12 am

    [...] cream with it, but then I decided I needed a dessert that would measure up against the wonderful Thomas Keller chicken. The main course. Plain old chocolate bars weren't going to satisfy after this [...]

  2. Dark Chocolate Soufflé on Saturday, July 10, 2010 at 9:47 am

    [...] cream with it, but then I decided I needed a dessert that would measure up against the wonderful Thomas Keller chicken. The main course. Plain old chocolate bars weren't going to satisfy after this [...]

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