The Food Lab: Make This Crisp-Skinned Chicken and Roast Vegetables in One Cast Iron Skillet

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Crisp chicken skin, roasted vegetables, all in one-pot? We're in. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

After two months of living in San Francisco, I haven't really found all that much to complain about yet. But if there's one thing, it'd be the weather. See, back East, I was used to my seasons coming for three months at a go. Summer is June through August. Fall is September through November. Here, things seem to be turned on their head. Actually, there've been days in which I hit all four seasons-worth of weather patterns within hours of each other.

So where do I find my sense of seasonal normalcy? In the same place I find solace for nearly all of life's woes. No, not the bathtub. I'm talking about the kitchen. And in my mind, October is the season for roasting, Bay Area climate be damned.

While a simple roast chicken is swell, and fall vegetables are pretty much made for roasting, wouldn't it be nice if there were a recipe that delivered a roast chicken with supremely crisp, crackling skin and moist juicy meat along with tender, charred roasted vegetables—all in one go?

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That's precisely what this recipe does, and it gets you a pitcher full of bright, rich gravy to top it all off.

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Here's how it's done.

Step 1: Prep Your Vegetables

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The great thing about this is that it's really more of a technique than a prescribed recipe. I'm using small Yukon Gold potatoes, brussels sprouts, carrots, and shallots here, but you can use whatever good roasting vegetables you'd like. Are you a squash fiend? That'll work just fine. Really digging the broccoli or asparagus you found at the supermarket yesterday? Sure, you can use those as well.

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No matter what vegetables you choose, you'll want to pre-treat them in some way. For some vegetables, particularly tender green vegetables, that's as simple as cutting them into bite-sized pieces. For other vegetables like firm roots, you'll want to par-boil them until just barely tender to give them a jump start on cooking. Very sweet vegetables like most onions, shallots, and garlic, should be added towards the end of cooking so that they don't burn.

So long as you follow the basic rules in my guide to roasting fall and winter vegetables, your range of options is pretty unlimited.

Step 2: Prep Your Chicken

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While spatchcocking is a great way to roast a whole chicken, it doesn't work quite so well when you're trying to add vegetables to the mix. How do I know? Because I tried to roast a spatchcock chicken on a bed of vegetables a half dozen times using all the culinary prowess I had and only ever met with with poor-to-acceptable end results. Things took a big turn for the better when I decided to go the extra step and fully butcher the chicken into serving pieces.

For this recipe, you'll want to start with a whole 4-pound chicken that you've cut down into 8 serving pieces. You can either ask your butcher to do this for you, or follow our step-by-step guide. It's really quite easy and a useful skill to have. Starting with a whole chicken gives you the benefit of a backbone to add flavor to your sauce, which we'll get to shortly.

For now, we're going to sear that chicken to get started on the process of delivering the crispest skin you've ever had.

Step 3: Sear Chicken

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It all starts with a cast iron pan that you've heated up with a little bit of oil until it's ripping hot. You want to see little wisps of smoke curling off of its black surface before you add that chicken (skin side down, please!).

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With things like steak or lamb chops, where the goal is a hard sear on the outside and barely cooked meat on the inside, it's a good idea not to crowd your pan so that you can get the food in and out as quickly as possible without chilling the pan too much. With chicken, where we're going to be cooking the meat all the way through anyway, it's ok to fill up the pan completely.

For now, we're going to sear that chicken to get started on the process of delivering the crispest skin you've ever had.

But wait a minute, you ask. Why did you need to get the pan ripping hot if it's ok for it to cool down a bit afterwards?

Good question, and it has to do with that skin. See, when you're really performing three separate tasks at the same time:

  • Dehydration is the evaporation of water from the tissue. It's a fairly slow-moving process and requires plenty of energy and prolonged contact with the pan.
  • Rendering is what happens to the fat in the skin as it liquefies and seeps out. This too is a fairly slow-moving process.
  • Protein denaturing and browning is what happens when proteins are subjected to heat.

Heating proteins and denaturing them is what sets them in place. It's what gives cooked chicken skin its rigid structure, and provided there's enough heat energy, it can happen quite rapidly. So what happens if you cook at too low a temperature? You end up evaporating lots of water and rendering lots of fat before the protein structure has a chance to firm up. Like a grape slowly shriveling into a raisin, the chicken skin ends up shrinking, covering a mere fraction of the area it once did.

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Cook at very high heat, on the other hand, and that skin sets its shape moments after it hits the pan. Subsequent dehydration, rendering, and browning take place, but don't alter the overall shape of the skin too much.

And remember: we're looking for brown here. Let me tell you something: Back when I used to work at Cook's Illustrated, pan-roasted chicken was the dish that we asked all prospective employees to cook for us, using the same basic recipe. I can't tell you the number of folks whose only mistake was improperly browning the chicken.

Brown doesn't mean pale yellow. Brown doesn't mean mostly white with some brown spots. Brown means brown. Be patient, don't poke around too much, and it'll get there. Once the chicken is browned and flipped, you could throw the whole pan in the oven, let it cook until the chicken is done, serve it with a side salad, and call it a day.

Today, however, we're going all out and extracting every last bit of flavor from that chicken. There are still a few steps left.

Step 4: Make Your Sauce

Next step in Mission Flavor Extraction: the sauce. We start our sauce like any good pan sauce: By deglazing the skillet to loosen up any cooked-on proteins. If you're a) snooty or b) French or c) both, you may refer to them as fond. The rest of us will keep calling them tasty browned bits, thank you.

The best way to deglaze is to place the pan back over a burner until it's nice and hot, then pour in a liquid and scrape vigorously with a wooden spoon. You can use plain stock if you'd like, but in this case I prefer to add a little brightness and complexity to my dish with some white wine (and no, don't worry, contrary to popular belief, pouring wine into your cast iron skillet will ruin neither your skillet nor your sauce. These things are tougher than they're made out to be.)

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Once deglazed, I transfer the contents of that skillet to a saucepan containing the chicken back, neck, and a few aromatic vegetables. A roughly chopped onion, carrot, and celery stalk, a couple bay leaves, and some sage will do. (Though again, this a technique, not a recipe, so use whatever aromatics you'd like. Ginger and scallions, say. Or dried chilies and lime rinds. Go nuts.)

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Because this is a quick sauce, I like to start with some already flavor-packed homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock just to give things a head start. Once you've added the liquids and brought them to a simmer, the sauce can park itself on a back burner while you tend to the chicken and vegetables.

Step 5: Sear Vegetables

Now's the part where we put it all together. It's easy enough to toss your vegetables with a bit of olive oil, transfer them to a foil-lined baking sheet, throw them in the oven next to the chicken, and come out with some decent results. But if we really want the flavors to marry here (and save ourselves a bit of cleanup afterwards), it's better to roast the vegetables and chicken together. That way the chicken will get some nice aromatic action going on from what lies beneath, while the vegetables will get a bath in dripping chicken fat and juices.

Is there anyone out there who wouldn't want to be bathed in a golden shower of chicken juices?* Vegetables feel the same way.

*This is not the first time I've written this line. Back in the days when I had several editors and a magazine's reputation at stake, I'd play my own version of Snakes & Ladders. The rules were simple: slip a vaguely inappropriate line into an otherwise decent story and see how far up the editorial ladder it would go before it'd finally get caught and shot down. This particular one made it to the front desk of the bowtied, bespectacled Editor-in-Chief himself. Here, I don't have the same masters to report to. This is both a good and a bad thing.

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I hit a pretty big stumbling block during this phase of the recipe. In earlier iterations, I'd tried roasting whole butterflied chickens on top of a bed of potatoes in a rimmed baking sheet. I also tried cooking these seared chicken pieces directly on top of vegetables which I'd added to the skillet. In all cases, the problem was that in the time it took my chicken to finish cooking through, the vegetables weren't even remotely close to browned, charred, or crisp in any way. In fact, they tasted outright steamed.

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The solution was a simple one, and one custom-designed for the versatility of a pan like this: just get it ripping hot again before adding the vegetables. The jump start a hot skillet gives them is enough that after adding the chicken and placing it in a hot oven, the vegetables can finish cooking in the time it takes for that chicken to rest.

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Step 6: Roast

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Once all the chicken is placed back in the skillet, it goes for a stay in a hot oven.

Now, you all know the importance of owning a good thermometer like the Thermapen, right? It's one of the most invaluable tools in your arsenal, as it's the only way to guarantee that your chicken and other meat will come out cooked the way you intended it to.

Even more important is knowing how to use it right. Chicken breast meat and chicken leg meat are best when cooked to two distinct temperatures—around 150°F for breast** meat and 165°F for thighs and drumsticks. Because each of our pieces of chicken are irregularly shaped, it's very difficult to predict exactly when each piece will be ready. Your best bet is to simply take the internal temperature of every piece at regular intervals as they cook, removing them one at a time to a separate plate as they finish cooking.

**You can ignore any official government-looking type who tells you to take your chicken all the way to 165°F. As The Simpsons will tell you, there's no reason to kill something that's already dead.

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You might notice at this stage that your chicken skin is even crisper than it ever was before. This is good.

Step 7: Rest Chicken and Finish Vegetables

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Once all of the chicken has finished cooking and is safely resting on a plate, it's time to finish up the vegetables. Because the chicken was resting on top of the vegetables, they're plenty flavorful, but lack the kind of browning I want good roasted vegetables to have.

At this stage, I add my sweeter, more delicate vegetables (in this case some thinly sliced shallots), toss everything together, then throw it back in the oven to finish roasting without the chicken.

Incidentally, if you've ever wondered why it's important to rest meat after cooking it, this article should serve as a pretty good primer on the subject.

TL;DR version: Rested meat retains juices better.

Step 8: Finish Sauce

Remember that sauce we had slowly simmering while the chicken was cooking? Now's our chance to finish it off, and it's remarkably easy. Start by straining the liquid into a small saucepan or bowl.

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Add a couple tablespoons of butter, a dab of Dijon mustard, and a squirt of lemon juice to brighten things up. I also like to add a dash of fish sauce just to bring out a bit more of the sauce's meaty undertones. If you've got any collected juices from the plate the chicken was resting on, now's a good time to add them to the pot as well. Remember the cook's motto: Leave No Flavor Behind.

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Finally, I whisk it all together until the butter is melted and emulsified, forming a smooth, creamy, bright and chicken-y sauce.

Step 9: Serve

I like to let the real workhorse of this recipe—no, not the cook, that pan, silly—be the star of the meal, which means piling all that chicken back on top of the roasted vegetables before bringing the whole thing to the table. Of course, this is also just a clever way of saving yourself from having to do extra dishes.

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That cast iron sear and high temperature roasting will give you chicken with the most insanely crisp skin you've ever tasted, and thanks to your thermometer, it's gonna be nice and juicy underneath to boot.

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But OK, even the juiciest chicken can do with a little bit of extra sauce, right? And ours is packed with bright flavor not just from the wine, mustard, and lemon juice, but from the chicken drippings and tasty browned bits as well.

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If you can think of a better simple fall supper, I'm all ears. Just don't expect me to respond for a moment because I'll have my mouth stuffed full of chicken.