This time of year it becomes especially clear that there are about a thousand and one ways to roast a bird. Some go high heat, others go low and slow. Some wet brine, some dry brine, some don’t brine at all. Some methods require basting, some require that you don’t. That doesn’t even go into the herbs, spices, aromatics, butter, oil, stock, or stuffing discussions.
I have not tried every method out there, and I am hardly an expert. What I do know is that Thomas Keller’s method for roasting a chicken is by far the best (and by far the simplest) method I have ever come across. All it takes is three ingredients: your bird, kosher (or other large flake salt), and pepper.
Because I just roasted Cornish game hens for dinner, I’ll use them as the example, but I have also used this method successfully with chickens, ducks and small heritage turkeys. The giant turkeys you buy at the grocery store are way too big for life, and because I don’t have a ton of experience cooking them I’m just going to send you here. Thomas Keller for the win, again. Keep in mind that ducks need a bit of additional preparation so that the fat renders and the skin crisps up; see the note at the end of the recipe.
The goal of this recipe is to achieve crisp, well seasoned skin, and tender, juicy meat. To achieve this, a trussed bird goes into the oven as dry as possible, and is cooked at a high heat for a short period of time. I am kind of sad to admit that I don’t really know how to truss a bird. There are tons of great YouTube videos out there like this one, but quite frankly, I’ve never had problems tucking the wings under the bird and tying the legs together with twine, so I’ve never bothered to learn the proper way. Trussing brings the legs in closer to the body so that the whole thing cooks more evenly. But if you’re lazy like me, this is how you tuck the wings under:
Always use more salt than you think you should; a lot will fall right off. But, if you are planning on making gravy, do not salt and pepper your birds over the roasting pan, otherwise you will end up with very salty gravy. Trust me on this one..
I highly recommend a probe thermometer for any kind of meat roasting. This type of thermometer has a probe that stays in the roast in the oven for the entire duration of cooking. The probe attaches to a cord that exits the oven, and plugs into a counter top unit that tells you the temperature; it will usually allow you to set temperature alerts, and may also include a timer. The advantage of this type is that you are not constantly opening the oven door. When you repeatedly open the door you loose heat, the roast take longer to cook, and it often dries out in the process. Also, if you are repeatedly stabbing your birds with an instant read thermometer, you’re creating channels through which all of the juices can escape. Not to mention, the alarm on the probe thermometer will tell you exactly when the bird is done, no need to question anything. This is the thermometer I have, and it has served me well over the years. I set the alarm for 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and place the probe in the thigh; the meaty part of the leg works too.
When something is removed from the oven it continues to cook and increase in temperature for a bit before it starts cooling down; this is called carryover cooking. Some might argue that if I pull the chicken out when it hits 165, I am overcooking the bird. I am a firm believer in letting carryover cooking do it’s thing with red meat and large roasts, but with smaller poultry, I always cook till it’s done and then remove it from the heat. I’ve cooked chicken to exactly 165 and I did not care for the texture at all. Call me crazy, but I guess I like slightly overcooked chicken. Keep in mind though, the larger the roast, the more heat it will gain during carryover cooking. A chicken, duck, or Cornish game hen doesn’t get too overcooked and dry if you pull it out when it hits 165, because it’s only gaining maybe 5 degrees. But if you don’t take the 25lb Thanksgiving behemoth out of the oven until its at 165, it could easily be well above 180 (read: bone dry) by the time you carve into it. Dry turkey is the reason I serve duck at Thanksgiving.
Let your bird rest after cooking! This is important for any cooked meat. If you cut into meat the second it’s done cooking, the juices come pouring out and you end up with dry meat. For small cuts, like steaks and chops 5 minutes will suffice, but for larger roasts, and whole birds, 10-20 minutes is better. The bigger the meat, the longer it should rest..
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit
Remove your Cornish game hens from their packaging and remove all gizzards.
Rinse the birds in cold water, inside and out.
Pat the birds down with paper towels until they are completely dry, inside and out and place them on a rack in a roasting pan.
Sprinkle a hefty amount of kosher or sea salt and pepper on top, bottom, and inside the birds.
Use kitchen twine to tie the legs together and tuck the wings behind the birds’ backs, or properly truss your birds.
Place the roasting pan in the preheated oven and roast for about 35-40 min, until a thermometer in the thigh of the birds reads 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the Cornish game hens from the oven and let rest for 10-15 min before serving.
While your meat is resting, make gravy!!! (recipe coming soon)
You may brush the skin with melted butter and sprinkle it with fresh thyme, but honestly it doesn’t need any of that. The skin will be thin and crisp and salty and delicious on its own.
If you choose not to make gravy (what kind of monster are you?!) a simple dip in Dijon or honey mustard is tasty too.
Eat and enjoy!
***Note on roasting duck: To prepare a whole duck for roasting, you need to create channels in the skin for the fat to render out of. The easiest way to do this is to take a sharp knife and prick the skin all over, being careful not to pierce the breast muscle itself. After creating tiny holes for the fat to escape, I like to cut (again careful to only cut the fat and not the muscle), a crisscross pattern across the breasts, with the slits about 1 inch apart. This allows for the fat to render out better, it make the duck look gorgeous, and you get a crispier skin, with crunchy bits at the edges of your cuts.