Jonathan Waxman’s Roast Chicken Recipe — A Meta-analysis

Jonathan Waxman Roast Chicken

Since the day I named them Roast and Paella, I have been committed to eating my chickens. For Roast, I’ve decided that the best way for her to transition from plucked to plated is via the oven. But while I wait for her to grow, I need to find a recipe that shows her the respect she deserves. After hearing Andrew Zimmern mention the roast chicken at Barbuto, Chef Jonathan Waxman’s renowned New York restaurant, I investigated further. Turns out Zimmern isn’t the only award winning chef to mention Waxman’s roast chicken. Daniel Boulud and Marcus Samuelsson are both regular diners at Barbuto. If some of the best chefs in the world eat there, then their signature dish must be worth a closer look.

A quick Google search found the recipe for Waxman’s chicken – or rather, variations of it – slathered all over the internet. The problem was that there was no consistency – different oven temperatures, different quantities, different ingredients. I read and watched the recipes again and again, looking for commonalities and hints at what could be varied without problems. At the heart of it all I found more of a guideline than a recipe – a philosophy on cooking good food.

Hidden amongst the multitudes of videos on the subject, I found a great Jonathan Waxman quote that sets the tone of the recipe – “finding the best ingredients, and not screwing it up”. The best ingredients means free range chicken, high quality extra virgin olive oil, fresh fragrant herbs, textured sea salt, and freshly cracked black pepper. If you use these ingredients without overcooking anything, you almost can’t go wrong.

The most authoritative online version of the recipe would have to be the one published on the New York Times website, which was adapted from Waxman’s book Italian, My Way. I found 3 other text versions of the recipe, and 8 videos of Waxman cooking at least one of the elements. Unsurprisingly, I got all the way to preheating the oven before I found an inconsistency. Some sources say 220C (425F), some say 230C (450F). At Barbuto, they probably use the higher temperature to decrease service time. The ideal temperature would result in the perfect balance of moist meat and crispy skin.

The recipes specify a 1.6kg (3.5lb) chicken in what looks like a medium-sized oven-proof frying pan. The chicken fits snugly, but still gives access to the juices for basting. If scaling, keep in mind that larger chickens produce more juices, and if the pan is too large and the water fully evaporates from the juices, the burnt remnants will flavour your chicken with the unsavoury aroma of black toast.

Waxman recommends washing the chicken to “remove any nasty juices that collect in the plastic wrap that all chickens seem to come in.” Health experts now warn against washing your chicken under the tap as it spreads bacteria around your kitchen. Personally, I am willing to take the risk in the pursuit of exceptional food. Whether it actually does or not depends on the chicken. Has the cavity been cleaned out properly? Was the chicken packaged in some sort of brine? Does it smell fresh? These are the questions I ask myself before deciding whether to follow this step or not. As a side note, I have come across the notion that scalding is a crucial step in crisping up the skin of roast pork and Peking duck.

For the next step, I found the videos to be particularly helpful. Waxman usually removes the wings by cutting through the middle joint. I prefer removing the wings where they attach to the body. Waxman suggests saving the wings by freezing them in a ziplock bag. Add to this every time you roast a chicken and if you’re anything like me, you’ll have a big bag of wings before you can say chilli chicken dippers.

Next, he cuts the back bone out with a pair of kitchen shears, carefully cutting around the oyster. He flips the chicken over, and presses down firmly on the top of the breast breaking the breast plate and wish bone. He finally splits the chicken by cutting on either side of the breast bone with a knife. Shears are possible here, but a knife gives a cleaner cut. I find no mention of removing the pesky wishbone before cutting out the breast bone, but that’s what I usually find myself doing. Save the breastbone and spine for making stock, and use with wishbone to wish for a toilet made out of solid gold.

A generous seasoning of salt and pepper on both sides of the chicken was a rare consistency in this recipe, as was the small amount of extra virgin olive oil (less than 1 tablespoon) rubbed over the chicken. Being an avid Jamie Olive-oiler fan in my younger days, I always figured the more olive oil the better. Apparently not always.

Although I didn’t see this in any of the videos, the NYT recipe says to add half a lemon (cut side down) to the baking tray. Andrew Zimmern has talked about creating a layered experience in roast chicken with the lemon flavour:

A lemon stuffed inside a chicken will roast, boil and perfume the meat. The juice will drip into the pan and caramelise, giving a tartness and a wonderful bitterness to the olive oil sauce that is made afterwards. It also seasons the roasted vegetables that it is served with. On the table, the dish is finished with fresh citrus and olive oil. This dish now has 3 different variations of the lemon flavour which creates a layered experience. This is more sensual, deeper, and more realised.
– Andrew Zimmern

This technique could be applied by putting half the lemon in the roasting tray, and adding the juice of the fresh half to the salsa verde, which Jonathan sometimes does. The NYT recipe even says to a “garnish with the roasted lemon”, which is probably why the lemon is roasted cut side down – to prevent moisture loss.

Waxman places the chicken halves, skin side up, on a room temperature frying pan that is barely big enough to hold them. He roasts it in the oven for 30-40 minutes. Splitting the chicken slightly increases prep time, markedly reduces the cooking time, conveniently provides stock ingredients, and simultaneously exposes all the chicken skin to the hot air of the oven.

Justine Sterling: What’s the most common mistake people make when roasting chicken?
Jonathan Waxman: Not basting! Basting is the key. I baste with the pan juices—typically good olive oil and butter. Use a big spoon and gloves.

The NYT recipe is even so bold as to specify basting at an outrageous frequency of every 8 minutes. There are only two main reasons to baste meat.

Basting can be useful in a couple of ways. It delivers flavor to the meat surface, where it can get concentrated and maybe transformed by browning; and if the liquid includes water, then it cools the meat surface by evaporation, slows the cooking (as does opening the oven to do the basting!), and helps slightly reduce the over-cooking and drying-out of the outer layers of the meat. All that said, it’s also a lot of trouble! Most of the time I don’t bother.
– Harold McGee

Dry chicken, as you know, is a culinary sin of the highest magnitude. The only punishment fit for such a crime is the eating of said dry chicken. But there are factors other than basting that more strongly affect dryness. It doesn’t matter if you baste every 8 seconds – if your chicken is in the oven too long it will become dry. On the other hand, if you don’t baste at all, but pull the chicken out at exactly the right moment, you will be rewarded with succulent tender breasts and juicy thighs.

I recommend using a probe thermometer, inserting the probes into the the thickest part of the meat, and leaving it in the oven until the alarm goes off. If your probe thermometer isn’t oven proof, then you’ll have to pull the chicken out and test at regular intervals (at which point you might as well baste).

The other benefit to basting is infusing flavour into the meat. However, unless you’ve added a lemon to your roasting pan, then I don’t see much return on investment in this department. From what we learned from Zimmern about creating a flavour profile with lemon, and Waxman on the importance of basting, I think we can safely say that lemon is a key element to this dish.

When the probe thermometer alarm goes off after 30-40 minutes of roasting, rest it for 5-10 minutes. If you don’t have a probe thermometer then kudos to you. You obviously like to live dangerously.

Insert a knife deep into the thigh of the chicken and if the juices run clear without a pink tinge then start the resting process. 5 minutes later, serve the chicken with salsa verde and a side dish of your choice.

Roast Chicken

Preheat the oven to 220C (425F). Wash and dry a 1.6kg chicken if required. Remove the wings and excess fat with a knife. Remove the backbone and breastbone with kitchen shears. Season generously with salt and pepper. Rub each half with 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. Place the chicken and half a lemon (cut side down) on a pan. Roast until the internal temperature of the meat is 75C (165F). Rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Salsa Verde

Once the chicken is in the oven, start on the salsa verde. The ingredients used in the salsa vary depending on which version of the recipe you follow. The method is always the same. This salsa is packed with such intensities that the flavour impact of the herbs is reduced. The herbs do add a subtle complexity, but it is their colour and texture that most affect the dish. When I make this at home, I generally use whatever is in the fridge, or abundant in the garden.

Place the following on a chopping board then finely chop:

  • 3 garlic cloves (peeled)

Add the following ingredients then finely chop until well mixed:

  • 1 tablespoon of capers (rinsed and drained)
  • a two finger pinch of sea salt
  • a two finger pinch of freshly cracked pepper
  • 4 fillets of anchovies
  • 1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

Add any combination of the following ingredients, chop until incorporated then transfer to a bowl. Quantities can also be varied as desired. If I had to pick only two I would choose rocket and parsley.

  • 2 spring onions (white part sliced) or a small handful of fresh chives
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary (leaves pulled off)
  • 1 small bunch fresh basil (leaves pulled off)
  • 1 small bunch fresh oregano (leaves pulled off)
  • 1 small bunch fresh mint (leaves pulled off)
  • 1 small bunch fresh coriander (stalked included)
  • 1 small bunch of fresh parsley (stalks not included)
  • 1 handful of rocket
  • half a small bunch of sage
  • half a small bunch of tarragon
  • the juice of half a fresh lemon
  • the juice of the half lemon that was roasted with the chicken

Slowly pour in 1/4 to 1/2 a cup of extra virgin olive oil while mixing. Vary the amount of olive oil you add with the amount of greens you have. The salsa should only be just saturated with olive oil, it should not resemble chopped leaves swimming in a pool of oil.

To serve, cut the chicken into large chunks and plate up. Spoon a generous amount of salsa on each piece of chicken and serve with a side dish of your choice.

The leftover chicken and salsa verde from this dish make a fantastic meal when stirred through pasta or even 2 minute noodles. Adding a little more rocket is a great way to make the salsa go further.

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