A truly fine roast chicken is a rare bird. In fact, until recently, only two stood out in my memory.
The first was French, made at a house in Burgundy where the cooking method was to slide a heritage bird into the oven turned onto one leg with a whole cup of butter plunked on top of it. After 15 minutes, it was turned to the other leg and basted; a quarter hour later it went breast-side down and was basted again; finally, it was turned breast-side up and basted regularly until it was done. What a golden feast it was!
The other roast chicken that’s seared into my memory was in Muskoka a couple of summers ago: Beer Can Chicken. A Cook’s Illustrated recipe, involving a rub, wood chips, indirect heat on the barbeque and the beer-can trick, was responsible. An ordeal, but boy, oh, boy!
Those were the only standouts and both methods rather involved, until a few weeks ago when friends served me a chicken so juicy and flavourful that I couldn’t stop sucking the insides of my cheeks. Where could they have gotten this bird? And, what mysterious recipe must they have used to produce a thing of such glory out of a Toronto-apartment oven?
It turned out that the chicken came from my very own butcher (no secret there) and the method had been improbably painless: Stick the bird on a Staub cast-iron vertical chicken roaster, pop it in the oven and walk away.
Now, a Staub roaster may seem very much like something you don’t need, because, let’s face it, you can roast a chicken in just about anything, but this pan definitely has some magic. (I know this for a fact, because I tested two identical birds in the oven at the same time – one flat and one vertical – and the latter was visibly more plump and juicy.)
The Staub roaster looks a bit like an oversized cast-iron citrus-juicer: A low pan with a fat spike running up the middle, upon which you impale a bird, beer-can style, for roasting. The “spike” may be part of the explanation. It gets raging hot, presumably cooking the bird as much from within as from the outside. Also, since the chicken is positioned upright, it’s fully exposed, resulting in even cooking and evenly browned skin. The juices, meanwhile, drip downwards, basting as they go. (On one test, I poked the skin all over with a skewer so they could really cascade – record quantities of pan juices resulted.)
If you’re a roast-a-chicken-once-a-week type, Staub’s roaster may be for you. My only word of warning: You want to start with a dry bird so it doesn’t end up sitting in a pool of water (fat is fine). The best trick, no matter how you’re roasting, is always to season a chicken with salt and leave in the fridge, uncovered, overnight.
Staub cast-iron vertical chicken roaster: $79.95 in graphite, $165 in black at williams-sonoma.com (prices in U.S. dollars).
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