THE PERFECTLY roasted chicken, with moist, tender flesh and crisp, buttery brown skin, rarely reaches our table. It doesn't take a great chef to produce such a beautifully roasted bird, it just requires a little patience, understanding and uncommonly high temperatures. You need to hover around the oven, turning the bird, keeping it well basted and showing it you care.
Forming a good seal on the outside of the chicken so that it retains its natural moisture is the most important step in roasting. This is done by first patting the chicken dry--so that it seals evenly--and then by rubbing the skin with oil or butter. The fat acts as a one-way screen, forming a barrier that allows the heat to pass into the chicken while preventing the natural juices--which turn to steam when heated--from escaping.
The higher the heat, the more quickly the seal forms, and the better the chicken tastes. For this reason, the ideal temperature for roasting chickens--or any kind of fowl or game bird--is 450 degrees, which cooks the bird not only beautifully but quickly. Such high heat presents one rather serious problem, however. If your oven is not properly vented, you may end up with a smoke-filled kitchen.
Once the seal is formed, maintain it throughout the cooking by basting the bird periodically with additional butter or oil.
Turning the chicken while it cooks--from side to side and then finally onto its back-- ensures even cooking and coloring, and prevents the juices of the delicate breast meat from draining into the pocket around the legs and thighs.
To allow the dry oven heat to circulate completely around the bird, place the chicken on a rack. Otherwise, the bottom of the chicken stews in the juices accumulating in the roasting pan. THE PERFECT ROAST CHICKEN (4 servings) 4 1/2- to 5-pound chicken, at room temperature Salt and freshly ground black pepper 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, semi-soft but still cold, or about 1/3 cup oil (or as needed)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Remove the giblet package and any clumps of excess fat from the chicken's cavity. Wash the chicken and dry the interior and exterior well with paper towels. Season the inside with a little salt and pepper. Place about 2 tablespoons of butter inside the chicken or rub the the cavity lightly with a little oil.
Rub the outside of the chicken with about half the remaining butter or oil, spreading it as evenly as possible. Sprinkle all over with salt and pepper, rubbing the seasoning into the butter coating.
Truss the chicken or, at least fold the wing tips to lie flat underneath the chicken, tie the legs together with string to hold the shape of the bird and close the cavity.
Place the chicken on a rack so that it sits with one side (leg and thigh) up, and its breast and back pointed toward the oven sides. Set the rack in a shallow roasting pan. Place the pan in the lower third of the oven. Melt the remaining butter.
The total cooking time for a 4 1/2- to 5-pound chicken is about an hour. One-third the way through cooking--in this case 20 minutes--turn the chicken onto the other side and baste with the remaining melted butter or oil.
Continue roasting for the next third of the estimated roasting time--another 20 minutes. By now the bird will be browning well, and the fat and juices will be sputtering in the roasting pan.
For the final third of the cooking time, turn the bird onto its back, and baste lavishly with the juices in the roasting pan.
At the end of the hour, check the temperature of the bird using an instant reading meat thermometer. Stick this into the thickest part of the thigh and the breast without touching the bone. The chicken is perfectly roasted when the temperature records 165 to 170 degrees.
If necessary, return the chicken to the oven until it reaches the desired temperature. The internal temperature rises at about 1 degree a minute at this point in the cooking.
When done, transfer to a platter or carving board and remove the trussing string. Drain the juices from the cavity and mix with the pan drippings. Allow the chicken to rest at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes before carving. This gives the juices a chance to settle back into the flesh so that they are not released as you carve.
The rich, buttery pan drippings, flavored with the juices from the inside of the bird, are all the sauce that is necessary. Spoon a tablespoon or so over each serving.
This roast chicken is greatly complemented by a rich potato dish--whether baked, saute'ed, fried, souffle'ed, scalloped or gratine'ed. Try, for instance, a pommes anna or gratin dauphinoise accompanied by a simple green vegetable or salad