Roast chicken is probably my favorite food, but here’s a confession: until a few years ago, I’d never made one myself. Every TV chef and entertaining expert, it seems, tosses off casual mentions of roast chicken as if it’s so obvious, so simple, so effortless, the little black dress of dinner-making. But every TV chef and entertaining expert also knows that making a good roast chicken is anything but obvious and simple. (No less a figure than Jonathan Waxman, a famously talented roaster of chicken, calls the dish “the litmus test for any good chef.”) There are, from my casual survey of cookbooks and magazines and the Internet, thousands and thousands of variations on the “perfect roast chicken,” the overwhelming majority of which cannot, statistically speaking, be perfect. Some techniques call for buttering or oiling the skin; some submerge the chicken in brine beforehand, while others send the bird into the oven dry. Some call for stuffing the bird’s cavities; others leave them empty. Some use chicken simply as vehicles for cleverly blended spice rubs; others set out to perfume the breasts with aromatic herbs. I happen to care, above all else, about achieving a shatteringly crispy skin, which means that I need to get rid of as much water from my chicken skin as possible. Which is why my roast chicken recipe, naturally, involves a hair dryer.
Over the past few days, to my surprise, this method has become a subject of heated conversation. It began on Tuesday, before the latest nor’easter. In an uncharacteristic moment of foresight, I hauled a chicken out of the freezer to defrost and cook during the snow day. I salted it thoroughly, and set it on a plate in the fridge, uncovered, to let the skin dry out as much as possible. The next morning, in the shining white light of a daytime blizzard, I took my chicken out of the fridge and saw that it wasn’t quite as dry as I wanted to be. So I went and got my hair dryer to finish the job. I took a picture of the process and posted it to Twitter, where people were, in roughly even groups, thrilled or repulsed by the sight of a beauty appliance in the kitchen. There was, in particular, no shortage of men (why is it always men?) sneering at my incompetence. “This is what your oven is for,” a few said, apparently thinking that I was using the dryer not to dry the chicken but to cook it. They lingered on my choice of hair dryer—the Dyson Supersonic, a futuristic-looking device that is, at four hundred dollars, absurdly expensive. (It’s also inarguably better than any other blow-dryer I’ve tried, though whether its uptick in quality is worth the several-hundred-dollar premium is a private matter between a person and her credit card.) And they commented on my sparkly pink manicure—maybe, if I’d wanted the tweet to read as an Alton Brown-calibre kitchen hack, instead of ditzy prop comedy, I should’ve gone for unvarnished nails and a hairier knuckle.
Little did the skeptics know that, in blow-drying my chicken, I was standing on the shoulders of giants. I am far from the first person to bring the device into the kitchen. Blow-dryers are used by pitmasters in South Carolina, yakitori chefs in Japan, and kebab cooks in Brooklyn. The exquisite nerds at “America’s Test Kitchen” recommend them for softening chocolate and adding a gloss to cake frosting. And, as for crisping the skin on a bird, the legendary cookbook author Marcella Hazan calls for a six-to-eight-minute session with a handheld hair dryer in her recipe for crisp-skinned roast duck, which first appeared in her 1978 book “More Classics of Italian Cooking.” (Now out of print on its own, its contents live on in the 1992 omnibus “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.”) Skin is a matrix of water, fat, and proteins—adding heat makes the water evaporate, the fat render, and the proteins settle into the rigid structure we call “crispiness.” By removing water from the equation ahead of time, you eliminate steam that might de-crisp the crisping proteins in the oven, for one thing; and, more importantly, the rigidity caused by the dehydration helps the skin stay in place while the proteins take their time firming up. (There is a similar principle at work in convection ovens and air fryers.) “When the bird roasts in the oven later,” Hazan writes, “the fat melts and slowly runs off through the open pores, leaving the flesh succulent, but not greasy, while allowing the skin to become deliciously crisp.”
There are plenty of other ways to achieve crispy chicken skin. Hazan notes that her method is an adaptation of the Chinese technique of dunking Peking duck in boiling water and then letting it dry out in the fridge. Air and time do magic: after twenty-four hours exposed to a refrigerator’s cold air, a chicken’s whole character changes. Its skin becomes taut and translucent. It loses its flabby springiness and becomes hard to the touch, almost resinous. (This is the Zuni Café method, maybe the most famous roast chicken in the world.) If you don’t have the fortitude or the luxury to wait for natural dehydration to occur, you could prop the bird up in front of a box fan, or suspend it from a ceiling fan (as my editor tells me she once did to a duck in her sister’s childhood bedroom). But a hair dryer is less cumbersome and perfect for getting the hard-to-reach moist spots inside the cavity, and in the damp little chicken armpits where the wings and legs meet the body. The Dyson is faster and gentler but—as with many things in the kitchen—a substitution based on what you have available will get the job done just as well.
Roast Chicken à la Dyson
1 small whole chicken (3-4 pounds)
3-4 cups roughly chopped vegetables
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or ghee/clarified butter
unsalted seasonings and spices, to taste
½ cup wine, beer, chicken stock, or another flavorful liquid
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
freshly ground black pepper
1. The day before you plan to cook the chicken, pat it dry inside and out with paper towels. (Some chickens come packaged with a small bag containing giblets. Discard the giblets, or save them in the freezer until Thanksgiving gravy-making time rolls around.) Season the chicken generously with kosher salt, inside and out. You should aim for about ½ to 1 teaspoon of salt per pound. Set the chicken on a wire rack set over a large plate or rimmed baking sheet, and place it in the refrigerator, uncovered, for at least twenty-four hours and up to forty-eight hours. The skin will be translucent, dry, and firm to the touch.
2. Two hours before you plan to serve the chicken, remove it from the refrigerator. Using a handheld hair dryer on the Cool setting, blow air all over the chicken, making sure to dry any parts of the chicken that are still damp, particularly the underside of the bird and inside the cavity.
3. In a large mixing bowl, use your hands to toss the root vegetables with the oil or ghee until evenly coated. Using your hands again, rub the dried chicken with the oil on your hands until completely coated. Sprinkle your seasonings or spices all over the chicken. (The chicken is already very salty, so make sure your seasonings add no additional salt.) Arrange the vegetables in a twelve-inch cast-iron skillet or a stove-safe three-quart baking dish, making sure to pour in any oil or ghee that’s pooled in the bottom of the bowl. Place the chicken on top of the vegetables, breast side up.
4. Place the skillet with the chicken and vegetables on a rack in the center of a cold oven, then set the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the oven comes to temperature, let the chicken roast for ten minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees and let roast for another ten minutes. Continue increasing the oven temperature by 25 degrees every ten minutes until you set the oven temperature to 450 degrees. Once the oven temperature is set at 450 degrees, continue roasting the chicken until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast reads 155 degrees—about twenty to twenty-five minutes. (The chicken will be in the oven for about eighty minutes total.) When it’s finished, the chicken should be bronzed and crisp-skinned, and the vegetables should be just on the edge of charred.
5. Using tongs or paper towels in your hands, gently lift the chicken, allowing any juices to pour out and onto the vegetables, then move the chicken from the skillet to a cutting board. Let the chicken rest for at least twenty minutes, or up to an hour.
6. While the chicken is resting, set the skillet, still containing the vegetables, on a stovetop burner over medium heat. Pour in the wine or other liquid, and stir with a wooden spoon, scraping up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the skillet. When the sauce starts bubbling, add the butter, and stir until the mixture is smooth and shiny. At this point, the roasted vegetables may collapse into the sauce entirely. If you want to keep them whole, gently remove them with a slotted spoon before adding the butter. Hold the lemon half over the skillet and squeeze the juice into the sauce. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. If the sauce is too salty, add more liquid or water.
7. Carve the chicken and serve with the sauce. Return the hair dryer to the bathroom.