While working at Bouchon bistro in Napa Valley, I prepped A LOT of chickens destined for roasting. And while you can find recipes galore for Thomas Keller's roast chicken, almost all of them are missing one crucial step.
Brining is any chef's secret to flavorful, succulent, crispy-on-the-outside-juicy-on-the-inside chicken. Read on for how to brine a chicken as the chefs do at Bouchon, and what to do afterward to get that crispy skin everyone fights over!
The makings of a famous roasted chicken
I worked at Bouchon Bistro in Yountville, California as a Culinary Institute extern (paid intern) for almost six months. Amidst the quiet chaos and snarky commentary from
kids sous chefs ten years younger than me, I prepped a lot of chickens.
The roasted chicken dish at Thomas Keller's Bouchon is one of the most popular items on the menu. And the way we brined, then air-dried the chickens is why. Savory, exceedingly moist, and the crispiest skin on a chicken I've ever tasted.
It's a literal winner of a chicken dinner.
Absolute perfection on a plate. I could personally eat it every day.
How to brine a chicken (or anything)
So now to the meat of the matter.
Brining a chicken, or any large piece of meat is an inexpensive way to infuse tons of wonderful, nuanced flavors into a rather bland dish.
It's a simple step but does require a little planning. However, if you have the time and interest, brining is a great way to keep the breast meat from drying out in the oven.
Standard Brine Formula
100% Water + 5%-10% Salt + Herbs and Spices
In smaller, volume measurements, this works out to about a quarter-cup of kosher salt for every four cups of water. Use half the amount if using table salt.
Two quarts (eight cups) of water and half a cup of kosher salt is a good place to start for a smaller chicken. A four-pound chicken will require a gallon of water.
Classic Meat Brine Ingredients
A simple brine of salt and water will certainly increase the juicy factor of any large piece of meat. But why stop there?
Outside variations, here are classic brine ingredients used in many restaurants, including at Bouchon:
- kosher or flake salt
- fresh parsley
- fresh thyme
- lemons, halved
- black peppercorns
- bay leaves
Like spicy chicken? Add chili flake and a bit of hot sauce.
Sweet and herbal? Add several black tea bags in the warm brine and a good dose of honey.
The Three Steps
Step 1. Combine half of the water, salt, whole spices, fresh herbs, honey, and even several tea bags in a large pot. Bring the brine mixture just to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt.
Step 2. Pour simmered brine mixture into a large container or brining bag, and add the remaining measure of cold water. This will help cool down the brine faster so you can add the chicken sooner.
Pro Tip: You never want to add a raw chicken to a warm brine, that's a recipe for bacteria growth. Lukewarm temperatures are where foodborne illnesses like salmonella and e. coli thrive and reproduce like rabbits. Don't submerge the chicken until the brine has completely cool (like refrigerator temperature cool).
Step 3. Submerge the chicken in the cooled brine, and refrigerate for 8 hours, up to overnight (about 12 hours). I find ten hours for a three-to-four pound chicken to be a sweet spot.
The secret to crispy roast chicken skin
If you've ever wondered how to get crispy chicken skin, here is the answer:
Dry. It. Out.
Leave your brined chicken uncovered in the fridge for a couple of days. The skin will go from opaque to translucent.
If you really want to get crazy, place a battery-operated fan next to it. No, the chefs at Bouchon don't do this. But the large walk-in coolers at most restaurants are equipped with fans that blow the cold air around.
A small personal fan would be the home hack.
I learned two important approaches to cooking while working at Bouchon: finesse and the importance of ingredient quality.
While all the Thomas Keller restaurants in Napa cook with bounty from The French Laundry garden, nothing is overly exotic. No big surprises.
Fresh. Simple ingredients. Carefully prepared.
- whole chicken, cleaned of innards (not rinsed!)
- avocado/vegetable oil or melted ghee (clarified butter)
- fresh thyme
Don't forget the salt
Wait, more salt?! Yes, more salt.
Trust me when I say you're still eating less than you get from packaged foods with loads of salt-based preservatives.
Especially if you cook with a kosher flake salt at home. Kosher salts are inexpensive and don't contain sugar like iodized salt does.
Yep. There's sugar in table salt. Best avoided.
My favorite seasoning technique
All over. Inside the cavity and every inch of skin. Evenly.
Pinching salt in your fingers and raining it down from a few inches above the meat is a great way to get a nice covering. And prevents random bites with too much salt, or any without enough.
Be generous, but not obnoxious.
Now that you've brined and dried out your chicken, the fun begins.
It may seem daunting to roast an entire bird on any given busy night, but it really only takes about an hour.
Why just an hour, won't it be undercooked? No way, chef!
Starting with a roasting temperature of around 475°, gives the skin a jumpstart on its way to golden brown and delicious.
And of course speeds up the cooking, too. This is called oven-searing in professional kitchens. And I highly recommend it.
Steps for Thomas Keller's Simple Roast Chicken
- Bring the chicken to room temperature. If you don't let it warm up, the high heat of the oven will shock the cold meat, and result in tough, chewy bites. For a larger chicken, this can take over an hour.
2. Truss (tie) the chicken. Take a long piece of kitchen twine and place the center underneath the bottom of the chicken. Wrap it around the outside legs, cross it, then bring it in between the legs, creating a figure 8. Pull the string tight, up around the sides of the chicken, then tie it off at the neck.
3. Oil and season well. Brush, or rub, melted ghee or oil all over the skin of the chicken. Season generously with salt inside and out, raining it down from high above the chicken for even coverage. If you enjoy the flavor of fresh thyme, sprinkle fresh leaves on after the salt.
4. Oven-sear the chicken. Roast the chicken at 475° F for about twenty minutes, until the skin begins to brown nicely.
5. Lower the oven temperature. Bring the oven down to 400° F, and cook the chicken until done. At these high temperatures, it shouldn't take more than an hour of roasting total. For safety's sake, you want the internal temperature of the thickest part of the chicken thigh to be 165° F.
6. Let it rest. We would never serve any meat straight outta the oven at Bouchon (or any restaurant I worked at). Giving it a few minutes to rest in the pan before serving will keep the juices where you want them: in the meat.
Here is my two cents on the three most popular questions about roasting chicken. Leave any you may have in the comments, I love wandering down the rabbit hole of cooking techniques!
Should you wash chicken before cooking?
NO! Never, ever, EVER rinse or wash a raw piece of meat with water.
This adds moisture to the skin or outside of the cut and will prevent browning during cooking. Rinse, and you can kiss that crispy chicken skin or wonderfully seared, crusty steak goodbye.
More important, rinsing chicken or any of its animal protein friends could potentially splash foodborne germs like salmonella, camplyobacter or e. coli all over your sink and kitchen.
Just. Don't. Do it.
How long to roast a chicken?
Ah, the age-old question of how long to cook something. You can get shot for asking this in a professional kitchen.
And if they spare your life, you most likely get an answer like "when it's done, just make it nice". Not so helpful, eh?
The real answer is once the internal temperature of the thickest part of the thigh clocks 165° F on a meat thermometer. At the high temperatures called for here, this takes about an hour, often around 45-50 minutes.
There's obviously more than one pan you can use.
And a few are better than others.
Personally, I find nestling the bottom cavity of a whole bird over the tube of a bundt (or similar) pan allows all the skin to crisp, and overall even cooking.
I roasted three chickens this way once for a client who was entertaining a renowned architect with a picky palate. The meal received high praise, and I left with an autographed book.
Ah, the power of food.
My pan picks for roast chicken
Sauté Pan. This is a super simple way to get a chicken in the oven. And one you will see Chef Keller using in many online videos. It's how we roasted individual chickens at Bouchon.
Be sure to use a sauté pan that is oven-safe at high temperatures. And mind that handle when taking it out, or you'll end up like me with burn scars all over your hands.
Tube Pan. My personal favorite. Apologize to your cake batter, and pop that chicken rear right on the tube. With full exposure to the hot air of the oven, this is the best way in my experience to get incredibly crispy, beautifully golden skin.
Roasting Pan. The most classic method for roasting a whole piece of meat at home. The key with using a traditional roasting pan is to use a rack set inside, so that the hot air can circulate around the bottom, too.
A simple sheet pan with a stainless steel cooling rack is a simpler option. No soggy chicken butts allowed!
That's Chef's favorite part of the bird, that is.
And while there is truly no replacement for the experience of eating Chef Thomas Keller's roasted chicken at one of his amazing restaurants, this comes pretty close.
I can vouch because clients pay me to cook this chicken in their kitchen. And they love it every time.
Yours in comfort food,
Brining is any chef's secret to flavorful, succulent, crispy-on-the-outside-juicy-on-the-inside chicken. Read on for how I learned to brine and roast chicken while working at Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bistro in Yountville, California.
No time for a brine? No problem! You can still roast up an amazing roast chicken like Chef Keller. The professional secrets to crispy skin and juicy flesh are a high oven temperature and letting the chicken rest before serving.
- about a gallon of water
- 8 ounces/about ¾ cup of kosher flake salt
- 1-2 lemons, quartered
- fresh thyme
- fresh parsley
- 2-3 bay leaves
- a handful of whole black peppercorns
- ⅓ cup raw honey, optional
Simple Roast Chicken
- whole roasting chicken, 3-4 pounds, any innards removed (no rinsing or washing!)
- melted clarified butter (ghee) or high-temp oil like avocado
- few pinches of fresh thyme leaves picked off the stems
Brine + Dry Chicken
- Combine half the water and remaining brine ingredients in a large pot, and bring just to a boil. Stir to dissolve the salt and honey, then remove from the heat.
- Pour brine mixture into a bowl with the remaining half of water, and cool until chilled.
- Fully submerge the chicken in chilled brine, cover, and brine for about 8 hours, and not much longer. Overnight is a great way to achieve this time frame. If you plan on brining longer or think you'll forget to take it out on time, use less salt.
- Remove chicken from brine, and store uncovered in the refrigerator for up to three days to air dry it. This will dry out the skin, which will then get wonderfully crispy in the oven.
Roast + Rest
- Let the chicken sit on the counter to come to room temperature. This can take up to an hour or more for a larger chicken.
- Preheat the oven to 475° F.
- Truss, or tie, the chicken up with butcher's twine (see video above).
- Brush the room temperature chicken with high-heat oil or melted, clarified butter (ghee). The milk solids in butter will burn in the oven at higher temperatures, so if you don't have ghee, use oil.
- Rain down salt from a foot or so above the chicken, covering it evenly and seasoning inside the cavity. Sprinkle the thyme leaves on in the same way.
- Place breast-side up in a sauté or roasting pan. Or my favorite, sitting upright on the tube of a bundt pan.
- Roast for about 20 minutes at 475° F, then turn the oven temperature down to 400° F.
- Finishing roasting for about 30-40 more minutes. Do not baste the chicken.
- Remove the chicken when the skin is a dark golden-brown color, and the temperature of the thickest part of the thigh reads just about 165°F on meat or digital kitchen thermometer.
- Let the chicken rest in the pan for about ten minutes before carving and serving.
- Store leftover chicken covered and chilled, and reheat in a 350° F oven, loosely covered with foil.
The formula for a brine is about a cup of flake salt (10 ounces) for every gallon of water. Broken down into smaller amounts, that's about a quarter-cup of salt for every four cups of water.
Using table salt? Use about half the measure, as table salt is much stronger by weight than kosher or any flake salt. I personally don't recommend iodized/table salt, as it contains fillers and added sugar.
Keywords: thomas keller roast chicken, thomas keller's roast chicken, simple roast chicken, how to roast chicken, how to brine chicken
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