How to Roast Chicken: A Beginner's Guide

Roast Chicken for Beginners

The Spruce Eats / Dynamite Kitchen

A roast chicken is truly one of the most versatile, hardworking dishes you can make. It starts with an impressive display, especially if presented on a platter, surrounded by herb sprigs or roasted vegetables. A family of four can consume the whole thing in one go, or a table for two can just nibble at a few parts and have leftovers. We like to shred the leftover meat for tacos or chicken salad. Once the carcass is cleared, we throw it in the freezer and when we have three or four, we make stock. It truly is the gift that keeps giving. 

What roasting chicken will teach you

When we teach new cooks at The Dynamite Shop how to roast a whole bird, they are shocked at their accomplishment. The finished birds always look magazine worthy, and the flavor is never short of outstanding. That's because this recipe doesn't just teach you how to handle the meat safely and cook it to its proper temperature. It also teaches you how to make a chicken that friends and family will compliment and remember for years to come. That's what qualifies it as what we call a "back-pocket" recipe. These are recipes you want to keep in your back pocket—maybe even memorize—so that you can always whip up a meal without much fuss.

With this method, you are certain to come up with a praise-worthy meal every time. Here are some key elements.

Essential Tools for Roasting Chicken

  • Cast-iron skillet: Our favorite way to make a roast chicken is in a cast-iron skillet. They are inexpensive, oven-safe, and hold the heat better than any other pan.
  • Metal tongs: You'll use these to flip your bird halfway through roasting.
  • Meat thermometer: Use this to check the chicken for doneness. Insert it into the innermost part of the thigh and the meatiest part of the breast. It should register at least 165ºF degrees.
  • Heat-proof spoon: Use this after your chicken is done to scrape up the bits in the pan to make a sauce.
  • Aluminum foil: If the chicken's skin browns before the meat is fully cooked, tent aluminum foil over the skin and continue roasting.

Pantry Staples for Roasting Chicken

  • Coarse salt: We like kosher salt
  • Pepper: Bonus points if it's in a grinder for freshly-ground pepper.
  • Brown sugar: Just a pinch.
  • Spices: A well-stocked spice drawer can lead you around the world and through all four seasons. For example, you can make a Middle-Eastern-inspired chicken with sumac, aleppo pepper and lemon zest or a spice mix like za’atar. During the winter we like to  mix in warm spices like cinnamon, allspice and ginger.
  • Fresh herbs: Sage, rosemary, and thyme expand your palate further.

Start with a whole bird

It's much more economical than buying parts and it also leaves you with a carcass you can turn into flavorful homemade stock. We season it with salt, pepper, and just a spoonful of sugar, which gives it a nice, shellacked skin. Then we get creative with herbs and spices, although to be honest, with just salt, pepper, and sugar, and nothing else, this bird is a winner. 

Let’s talk about size. We have roasted many chickens over the years and find that a three to four pound bird not only fits perfectly in the pan, it cooks evenly. A bigger bird might require more time for the breasts to be done, while overdoing the wings and legs.

Safe Handling Tips for Chicken

  • When you bring a raw chicken home, immediately put it in the refrigerator. Either use within three days, or freeze it. 
  • Never thaw a frozen chicken at room temperature. Instead, thaw it in the refrigerator. This will typically take up to 48 hours.
  • You can also thaw it submerged (still in its packaging) in a cold water bath, changing the water every 30 minutes. For a three- to four-pound chicken, this will take two to three hours.
  • Do not rinse the chicken. This does nothing but potentially spray raw chicken juices all over your sink and kitchen.
  • Do wash your hands after handling raw chicken. Also wash any kitchen utensils and surfaces that have touched raw chicken before using them for other tasks.
  • A meat thermometer is truly the most foolproof way to check for doneness, and that should be done in the inside of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast.
  • There are also a few visual cues to tell when the meat is done. Cut into a fleshy part of the chicken like the thigh or breast. The meat should not be pink, the meat should have some graininess to it, and the juices should run clear. 
  • Temperature: The UDSA recommends poultry be cooked to an internal temperature of 165ºF.

Should the chicken be room temperature before roasting?

Some people swear that by allowing the chicken to fully come to room temperature before putting it in the oven, they get a juicier chicken. We think keeping the chicken at room temperature for 20 minutes before roasting is enough to take the edge off. It’s true that an ice-cold chicken thrown into a hot pan will end up being on the dry side, but we don’t think it’s necessary—or wise—to leave a raw chicken out on the counter for hours. 

Apply a spice rub all over the dry bird

And we mean dry; we literally towel it off with paper towels. Then we get the rub into all the nooks and crannies of the skin, even slipping it under the skin. We tie up the legs and fold back the wings like an advanced yoga position and then the chicken takes a little nap, the length of which totally depends on how much time you have. You can let it soak up the spices for as little as it takes to preheat your oven (and pan, very important!) or leave it overnight in the refrigerator, taking time to soak up the flavors. 

Make Ahead

  • You can prepare any of the dry spice mixes (without fresh herbs or citrus zest) as far ahead as desired. We like to make these spice mixes as gifts and present them in jars. 
  • You can rub the chicken with the spice rub up to 24 hours before cooking it, always stored in the refrigerator.

Spice Rub Variations

Add these herbs and spices to the salt, pepper, and sugar mix and rub into and under the chicken skin before roasting:

  • For a cozy, wintery chicken: add 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice, and 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger.
  • For a spicy chicken: add 1 teaspoon ground cumin and 1/2-1 teaspoon ground ancho chili powder.
  • For a Thanksgiving alternative chicken: add 2 teaspoons minced garlic or 1 teaspoon garlic powder and 1 teaspoon each minced fresh sage, rosemary, and thyme.

  • Optional extras: Lemons, onions, garlic, fresh herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme), ground spices.
  • For an alternative to the cooking oil, you could render fat from the chicken. Take a hunk of fat from inside or around the chicken cavity and cook it in the hot pan until it melts into about a tablespoon's worth of liquid. Remove any remaining piece of fat.

Roast breast-side up, then flip

To cook the chicken, we plop it into a very hot pan breast-side up, roast it for about thirty minutes just until the skin starts to brown, then we carefully flip it over, trying not to tear that precious skin. This is best achieved with the help of a partner, one person gripping the chicken by the larger cavity with a pair of metal tongs and the other person turning the chicken over across its side.

We cook it for another 10 minutes for a 3-pound bird, and another 20 minutes for a 4-pound bird. Then we flip it back breast-side up and continue cooking until the breast skin is crisp and a deep golden brown, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Flipping the bird (you know what we mean) is a pro move for evenly distributing the juices so that the breast meat doesn’t dry out before the rest of the bird is finished cooking. 

Check the chicken for doneness by inserting a meat thermometer into the innermost part of the thigh and the meatiest part of the breast. It should register at least 165ºF degrees. Return it to the oven if it is not done, covering it with foil if the skin is already browned.

How Important Is Preheating the Oven?

A fully pre-heated oven, with the skillet pre-heating simultaneously, ensures a nice, hot sear for the chicken skin, trapping juices inside the meat. It also ensures that the chicken will cook evenly.

That said, we don't recommend starting with a 350 F oven. Here is what we recommend instead.

We start with a fully pre-heated 425 F oven and  cast iron skillet; this ensures a blazing hot pan that will shock the skin into a nice crispy seal around the meat. Then we lower the temperature to 375 F for the roasting process. That said, all ovens are different. If the skin is getting too brown, you can lower the temperature to 350 F.

How long do you roast a chicken?

For a three to four pound bird, we roast a total of about an hour and a half, including a ten-minute rest. Cook times can vary from oven to oven. The only accurate way to test a chicken for doneness is to use a meat thermometer. Poultry is done when the internal temperature taken at the innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast registers 165 F.

How do you get that crispy skin?

The most important thing to do to ensure a crispy  skin is to make sure the bird is dry when it  goes into the hot pan. The second most important thing is to make sure you’ve pre-heated the pan in the oven. Finally, a little sugar in the spice rub will help get that nice shellacked skin.

Longer Brine Method

You can keep an uncooked, seasoned chicken in the refrigerator a full 24 hours before you plan to roast it. This will allow the seasonings to more deeply flavor the chicken.

Follow this method for roasting:

  • Preheat the oven to 450 F about 30 minutes before you want to cook the chicken.
  • Place a 10-12-inch ovenproof skillet, preferably cast-iron, on the middle rack.
  • Take the chicken out of the refrigerator 20 minutes before cooking.
  • Gently pat the chicken dry with paper towels, trying not to rub off the spices but ensuring you blot away all the moisture, including behind the wings and legs.
  • Place the chicken in the fully-heated oven and follow the rest of the roasting directions in the recipe.

Rest the bird

All roasted meats benefit from a rest of at least ten minutes after coming out of the oven. This lets the cooking finish, the flavors to develop, and for it to cool off a bit. You don’t want to put a 165-degree piece of meat in your mouth.

Once you have this method down, you might want to start branching out. Another one of our favorite ways to cook a whole chicken is to spatchcock it. The method is essentially the same, but you save time by cutting out the backbone (you’ll need a strong hand to work those poultry scissors or knife) and flattening the bird out before roasting.

Make a sauce

When the chicken is done, transfer it from the skillet to a plate and tent with foil. Pour off the clear fat and reserve it for another use. Add a few spoonfuls of water, stock, or white wine to the pan and swirl it to make a sauce with the pan drippings. Use the back of a spoon to scrape up any crusty brown bits on the bottom of the pan.

Carve the chicken and serve with the sauce.

How to Store Roast Chicken

  • Wrapped tightly with plastic wrap, a whole roast chicken will keep for three to four days in the refrigerator. Or, you can remove the meat from the bones and store it in a sealed leftovers container. 
  • Roast chicken can be frozen. It’s best to remove the meat from the bones, then store it in freezer bags with as much excess air removed as possible.
  • To reheat, thaw in the refrigerator, then heat in a foil packet or covered in an oven-safe pan or baking dish in a 350 F oven. To keep the meat from drying out, add some water or broth to the container. You can also reheat defrosted chicken in the microwave on the “reheat” setting.