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. Here's an adapted recipe for roasting a chicken like I did at Bouchon in Yountville, California. And also how to get that crispy skin everyone fights over!
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.
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.
A simple brine of salt and water will certainly increase the juicy factor of any large piece of meat. But why stop there? Any herbs, bay leaves, or aromatic vegetables you have can be put to great use in a brine.
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.
Making a Brine
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Chef 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).
If you've ever wondered how to get crispy chicken skin, here is the answer:
Dry. It. Out.
Leave your brined (or not) 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.
While you can roast a chicken in a variety of vessels, nestling the bottom cavity of a whole bird over the tube of a bundt (or similar) pan is my pick. It allows all the skin to crisp and for the flesh to cook evenly. I roasted three chickens this way once for a client who was entertaining an acclaimed architect with a picky palate. The meal received high praise, and I left with an autographed book. Perhaps proof of the power of food.
When I teach roasted chicken in my culinary classes, I use a simple sauté pan. This is a low-maintenance 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 the handle when taking it out, or you'll end up like me with multiple burn scars.
Of course, a classic roasting pan gets the job done. The key to using one is to use a rack set inside, so the hot air can circulate around the bottom, too. A rimmed sheet pan with a stainless steel rack set inside is a simpler option.
However you roast, avoid soggy chicken butts at all costs! That's Chef's (as in Keller) favorite part of the bird, that is.
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.
Fresh. Simple ingredients. Carefully prepared:
- whole chicken, cleaned of innards (not rinsed!)
- avocado/vegetable oil or melted ghee (clarified butter)
- fresh thyme
You want to season the brined chicken with salt all over the outside and inside the cavity. Evenly, excessively, and everywhere. 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.
Be generous. But not obnoxious.
Wait, more salt?! Yes, more salt. Trust me when I say you're still eating less than you get from processed foods with loads of salt-based preservatives. Especially if you cook with a kosher or flake salt at home. Kosher salts are inexpensive and don't contain sugar. Yep. There's sugar in table salt. Best avoided. You can get that recommended daily dose of iodine from more natural sources, like seafood.
It may seem daunting to roast an entire bird on any given busy night, but it really takes less than an hour for a three or four-pound bird.
Why just an hour, won't it be undercooked? No way, chef!
Starting with a roasting temperature of around 475° F 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.
And whatever you do, don't cover it with foil. This will cause the moisture in the meat to steam the skin you spent days drying out. And you can kiss your crispy, tasty goodness, well, goodbye.
- 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.
- Truss (tie) the chicken (optional). Take a long piece of kitchen twine and place the center underneath the bottom of the neck (top) of the chicken. Wrap it around the side of the legs, then cross and bring both sides of twine up in between the legs. Wrap around the end of the leg bones, and tie a knot to bring the legs together.
- 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.
- Oven-sear the chicken. Roast the chicken at 475° F for about twenty minutes, until the skin begins to brown nicely.
- 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. For safety's sake, you want the internal temperature of the thickest part of the chicken thigh to be 165° F. An inexpensive digital thermometer is a great tool to have handy.
- 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
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 50 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of your bird.
NO! Never, ever rinse or wash a raw piece of meat. This adds moisture to the skin or outside of the cut and will prevent browning during cooking. Rinse, and you're creating one more hurdle to crispy chicken skin or wonderfully cooked steak with a nice crust.
More importantly, rinsing chicken or any of its animal protein friends could potentially splash foodborne germs like salmonella, campylobacter, or e. coli all over your sink and kitchen. Just. Don't. Do it.
There's obviously more than one pan you can use. And a few are better than others. The key is to choose a pan that allows the heat of the oven to reach as much of the chicken as possible. So baking pans with low sides, and better yet one with a rack, will let the hot air of the oven circulate all around. For my top pan picks that prevent soggy chicken bottoms, read this.
Honestly, there is truly no replacement for eating Chef Keller's roasted chicken at one of his amazing restaurants. But I find this comes pretty close. I can vouch because clients and students pay me to cook this chicken. And they love it every time.
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 chicken. 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
- 6-8 ounces/about a ½-¾ cup of kosher flake salt
- 1-2 lemons, quartered
- fresh thyme
- fresh parsley
- 2-3 bay leaves
- a small 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 of the water and 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 the hot brine mixture into a very large bowl with the remaining half of water, and cool until chilled. A faster way to cool down the brine is to add an equal amount of ice in place of the cold water.
- Fully submerge the chicken in chilled brine, cover, and brine for about 8 hours. Overnight can be 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 half the amount of salt to be safe.
- Remove the chicken from the brine, and store it uncovered in the refrigerator for up to three days. 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 the chicken (optional). Take a long piece of kitchen twine and place the center underneath the bottom of the neck (top) of the chicken. Wrap it around the side of the legs, then cross and bring both sides of twine up in between the legs. Wrap around the end of the leg bones, and tie a knot to bring the legs together.
- Brush or drizzle the room temperature chicken with a high-heat oil or melted, clarified butter (ghee).
- 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 the chicken 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. Take the temperature of the thickest part of the chicken thigh to get an idea of how it's coming along.
- Finishing roasting for about 20 to 40 more minutes. Do not baste the chicken or cover it with foil.
- Remove the chicken when the skin is dark golden-brown, and the temperature inside the thickest part of the thigh reads at or almost 165°F on a kitchen thermometer. The breast will likely reach a higher temperature, but the brining will keep it moist and tender even if it surpasses 175° F.
- 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.
On roasting time and oven honesty: Every oven is different. And the size of fresh and frozen chickens can vary significantly (this recipe is designed for a three to four-pound chicken). To gauge how fast your chicken is roasting, begin checking the internal temperature of the thigh after 20 minutes in the oven. To know if your oven readout is telling the truth, I recommend buying an inexpensive oven thermometer. Meat thermometers also need to be calibrated occasionally, and the best way to do so is to check the manufacturer's recommendations.
On brining: The formula for a basic, gentle brine is about half of a cup of flake salt (5 ounces) for every gallon 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 or table salt, as it contains fillers and added sugar.
Seasoning with salt: Season the brined chicken with salt all over the outside and inside the cavity. Evenly, excessively, and everywhere. 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.
For extra crispy skin: Leave your brined (or not) 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 battery-operated fan would be the home hack.
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