Roasting a chicken, like cooking a steak, is one of those culinary tasks that inspires strong feelings: Everyone’s always trying to iterate to find the “better” technique, despite the existing classics. While I could likely spend a year testing roast chicken recipes (after which I’d certainly never want to eat another roast chicken), I wanted to compare some popular ones that use diverging techniques. How, I wanted to know, does a chicken cooked at a relatively low heat compare with one that starts in a very hot oven? Does a wet brine work, and is it worth it? Surely butter makes everything better, right?
To answer these questions, I embarked on what I dubbed Chickenpalooza, a few chicken-packed weeks I spent testing some of the internet’s most beloved roast chicken methods. Spoiler: I liked them all, but I definitely emerged from the experiment with a standout, surprising technique that I’ll be returning to often, whether for my next dinner party or simply a weeknight meal.
Marcella Hazan’s Roast Chicken With Lemons, Food and Wine
Like Marcella Hazan’s legendary tomato sauce, her recipe for roast chicken — which I had to make, given how many people call it their gold standard — is startlingly simple. It calls for no butter, no oil; just salt, pepper, and two lemons. Hazan explains the latter’s preparation meticulously: “Puncture the lemons in at least 20 places each, using a sturdy round toothpick, a trussing needle, a sharp-pointed fork, or similar implement.”
More technique- than ingredient-focused, this roasting method is “self-basting,” as Hazan describes it. While today that can denote birds that have been “injected or marinated with solution,” what it means in this recipe is that the chicken bakes in its own juices while being infused by the lemons inside its cavity. If the skin is unbroken, Hazan writes that the chicken can “puff up” as it cooks, which seems to be mostly an aesthetic perk. Though I didn’t experience this effect possibly due to shoddy prep, it ultimately didn’t matter for the eating experience.
Another notable feature of Hazan’s technique is heat. Unlike some roast chicken recipes, which require either cooking the chicken at a single high temperature or starting it at one before decreasing the heat, Hazan’s uses a relatively low temperature, beginning at 350 degrees and eventually increasing to 400. This is not a chicken that you can simply put in the oven and forget: Hazan calls for flipping it after 30 minutes and then raising both the temperature and the cooking time depending on the size of the bird.
Verdict: This was an extremely moist chicken with lots of lemon-scented drippings. The skin was less browned and crispy than I generally go for, which made me initially skeptical, but the meat was delicious and almost fell off the bones. Some roast chickens I enjoy eating as is; due to texture, I slightly prefer others as leftovers. This chicken was the former, with shreddy meat with a light texture that made it easy to eat. My dining partner noted that the “lack of overt greasiness” was “really nice.” I’d call this a good anytime chicken, given its minimal ingredients.
Samin Nosrat’s Buttermilk-Brined Roast Chicken, The New York Times
What sets this recipe apart is its use of a wet marinade. I generally associate brined birds more with special-occasion cooking than with random weeknight meals, but people seem to lean on Nosrat’s recipe year-round. Inspired by Southern fried chicken, she calls for buttermilk instead of a regular salt brine; the acids tenderize the meat, while the sugar caramelizes the skin. The big takeaway here, however, is the necessity of forethought: This chicken requires extra planning to ensure that you not only buy the buttermilk, but also marinate the chicken for long enough to make a difference (at least 12 hours).
Nosrat has highly specific instructions when it comes to roasting the bird. You first scrape off “as much buttermilk as you can without being obsessive.” Then you put it in a very hot oven (425 degrees) with its legs pointing toward the rear left. After some time, you lower the heat and point the legs toward the rear right. This may seem a little tedious, but Nosrat offers a helpful explanation: Since the rear corners of the oven are the hottest, this rotation protects the breast from overcooking before the legs are done. But like the Hazan recipe, it requires you to pay close attention to the chicken while it’s cooking.
Verdict: Coming out of the oven, this chicken was immediately striking, with beautiful, dark brown skin. (Mine browned a little unevenly, though I attribute this to my similarly uneven attempts to scrape off the marinade.) The meat was tender and denser in structure than the very juicy, shreddy Hazan chicken. I somewhat preferred its texture for use in other dishes, like the chicken soup I made the next day. Since advance planning is necessary for this recipe, I’d recommend it more for special occasions, especially since its results are so picturesque.
That being said, it’s possible to adapt the recipe’s premise if you, like me, find the process of brining a little off-putting and messy. Buttermilk powder, as I learned from recipe developer Rebecca Firkser, can be sprinkled onto the chicken along with salt before letting it rest in the fridge. This “dry brine” tenderizes the meat and results in caramelized skin, but unlike regular buttermilk, it’s shelf-stable and lets you avoid dealing with a bag full of buttermilk and chicken juice.
Lauren Allen’s Easy Roast Chicken, Tastes Better from Scratch
In my head, the epitome of a classic roast chicken is one covered in butter and herbs. Both feature prominently in this recipe from blogger Lauren Allen, which came up high in my search results for roast chicken. Allen calls for stuffing the chicken with a lemon, rubbing softened butter between the breast meat and the skin, and then adding more butter to the outside before baking the chicken on top of vegetables.
When it comes to oven temperature, Allen’s method takes the opposite approach of Hazan’s. Allen starts the chicken in a very hot oven (450 degrees) for the first 10 minutes, which helps create crispy brown skin, then lowers the heat to 350 degrees for the rest of the time, which allows the meat to stay juicy. The recipe is a little more prep-intensive than Hazan’s, as you’re chopping vegetables and herbs and softening butter, but the fact that it encompasses both the main and sides makes up for that extra effort. And unlike Nosrat’s recipe, it can all be done in one night.
Verdict: This chicken emerged from the oven looking the most true to my imagination of any of the chickens I made, with crispy, snackable light-gold skin flecked with pepper. The meat was tender, flavorful, and quite buttery — a good midpoint between the shreddy-juicy Hazan chicken and the dense-but-moist Nosrat chicken. “It definitely does have a richness the other two didn’t,” said my dining partner. I would call this the maximalist’s roast chicken — to me, a little heavy to eat all the time, but a good choice when the occasion demands something more indulgent. The bed of roasted vegetables made for a nice side.
The Winner: Marcella Hazan’s Roast Chicken With Lemons
While I enjoyed all of these roast chickens, I was the most surprised and impressed by Marcella Hazan’s. Although its comparatively pale, less crispy skin made me skeptical at first, my first bite made me understand why so many people love this recipe. The payoff is high for the relatively low amount of effort, ingredients, and time that go into it. I’d call this the best easy anytime roast chicken, especially for beginner cooks or anyone on a budget.
I also liked how Hazan’s recipe challenged my assumption that a good roast chicken requires loads of butter. Whether you’re cooking for people with health concerns or rationing your sticks for a big baking project, it’s nice to have an option that’s butter-free but also doesn’t taste like any concessions were made.
I don’t think this recipe needs to be improved upon at all, but I imagine that putting potatoes at the bottom of the pan would be an excellent dinner party move, resulting in something kind of like Greek-style lemon potatoes. Since Hazan doesn’t call for that and since I wanted to stick to the exact recipe, I found that crispy roasted potatoes made a delicious side, either dipped into an herby green sauce or just the chicken’s ample lemony drippings.
Louise Palmberg is a photographer and director capturing all things tasty. Originally from Sweden, she now splits her time between Brooklyn and the Berkshires. She’s passionate about crunchy sea salt, the perfect dirty gin martini, and having sweet treats with her coffee.