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Practicing the basics: roast chicken

A five-pound roast turkey, with some rosemary in the cavity and under the skin to accent the flavor

Roasting a chicken sounds intimidating, but is actually pretty easy. There are a number of different ways to add accompanying flavors (such as lemon or rosemary), and it is a great practice run for Thanksgiving turkey. Roasting chickens in the range of 3-6 pounds are available in nearly every grocery store, and are usually very consistent in how they cook and the amount of meat they provide.

While roasting doesn’t require much skill, there is some important basic knowledge that helps to ensure consistently good results:

  • Make sure the chicken is thoroughly thawed if it was previously frozen, and take it out of the refrigerator 45-60 minutes before you expect to put it into the oven so that it can start to come up to room temperature.
  • As it cooks, the chicken will release juices that will accumulate in the bottom of the pan. Make sure that you have a deep roasting pan, AND make sure that you place the chicken on a rack that sits above the bottom of the pan so that the chicken is not sitting in the juices as it cooks — it will make the bottom of the chicken soggy.
  • Do not rinse off the chicken before prepping it for cooking, unless you can see dirt on the outside (and you will never see dirt on the outside of a store-bought chicken). Rinsing is not an effective way to remove bacteria from a chicken, but it is a very effective way to spread bacteria all over your kitchen sink. Thoroughly cooking the chicken is the only reliable method for killing any meat-borne bacteria.
  • Choosing at what oven temperature you want to roast your chicken is how you control what happens to the juices in the chicken. There are three main options: high heat, medium heat, and a hybrid. In the high-heat approach, you cook it at 425-450 degrees F until cooked throughout (i.e. it reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees F at its thickest part); the high heat seals the outside and keeps the maximum amount of juices inside, resulting in juicier meat but no drippings for making gravy. In the medium-heat approach, you roast the chicken at 325-350 degrees F until cooked throughout: the outside won’t brown and seal in the juices as quickly, so the meat will be a bit drier, but it will generate much more drippings for gravy. In the hybrid approach (often considered the classic roasting method), we cook the chicken at 425-450 degrees for the first 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 325-350 degrees and continue roasting until it is cooked throughout; this results in a happy medium, with some browning, some juices staying in the meat (especially toward the center), and some drippings. For the recipe below, we’ll use this hybrid/classic roasting method.
  • Most of the prepping for a roast chicken goes into treating the outside to make sure it browns the way you want it to. The first step (and a very important one!) is to pat dry the outside with paper towels to remove any moisture: if moisture remains while the chicken is roasting, the skin won’t crisp up until all of that extra water boils off as steam.
  • To protect the outer skin and meat from drying out too much, we generally coat the outside of the chicken with some kind of fat; usually butter, margarine or oil.
  • A roast chicken is done cooking when the center of the thickest part of the chicken (generally the breast meat) reaches 160 degrees F. This is for safety reasons, to ensure that all harmful bacteria have been killed. To check the temperature, you will need either an instant-read insertion thermometer so that you can quickly check it as it goes, or an oven-safe meat thermometer that can be inserted into the thickest part before you start cooking it and left in while it’s in the oven — either positioned so that you can read it through the oven window, or perhaps read remotely if a digital thermometer. There is no way to reliably tell whether a chicken is fully cooked by how it looks on the outside, by the color or clarity of the juices, or by how long it has been in the oven; you need to check its inner temperature.
  • The most unpredictable part of roasting a chicken is knowing how long it will take to cook all the way through. The time will depend upon the size of the chicken, the ratio of bone to meat (bone conducts heat better than meat), the oven temperature, and the temperature that the chicken started at before it went into the oven. The good news is that you fully control three of these four items: the size, the oven temperature, and the pre-cooking temperature. And you have some control over the fourth, by consistently buying the same kind of chicken from the same source. The more consistent you are with your cooking practices, the more consistent the cooking time will be.
  • The chicken will have some “carryover cooking”: the center of the meat will get 5-10 degrees warmer in the ten minutes after you remove it from the oven.
  • For standard store-bought roasting chickens, assume 1 1/4 pounds for every serving. So a 5-pound chicken would serve about four people.

Suggested reading:

2-5 servings (for a 3-6 pound chicken). Time required: 2-3 hours (larger chickens require more cooking time).


  • 1 whole roasting chicken, 3-6 pounds
  • 2 tablespoons butter, margarine, or olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 45-60 minutes before you expect to put it into the oven. Unwrap the chicken and remove the bag of giblets. The giblets are often used for making gravy, but we won’t need them for roasting the chicken itself.

Place the chicken on a plate or baking pan and allow it to start to come up to room temperature. We only want the chicken sitting at room temperature for up to an hour, as any longer will allow bacteria to start growing rapidly . An hour is fine because we’re going to kill the bacteria anyway by cooking it, but we want to reach a balance between letting the chicken start to get to room temperature (which makes cooking it shorter and more predictable) and minimizing its time in the temperature “danger zone.”

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Place the roasting rack inside of the roasting pan. Aluminum foil is optional, but it makes cleanup a bit easier.

Thoroughly pat dry the outside of the chicken, then rub the butter/margarine/oil over the outside. Patting it dry removes any excess liquid that would inhibit browning. The fat will help to keep the skin and outer meat from drying out too much.

Mix salt and pepper together. Rub salt/pepper mixture into the cavity of the chicken, and sprinkle it over the outside. Truss the chicken, if desired. Trussing is the process of closing up the cavity by pulling the legs up and in to partly cover the hole. It’s less important if the cavity is empty.

If using a meat thermometer, insert into the thickest part of the chicken (usually the breast meat).

Place chicken on rack in roasting pan, angling it so that the meat thermometer can be read through the oven window. Place in oven and cook at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Cooking it at a higher temperature for a short period first helps to brown and seal the outside to keep more juices in.

Lower temperature to 325 degrees F and continue cooking until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees F. Remember to check the temperature at the thickest part of the meat. If unsure, check it at multiple locations.

Remove pan from oven. Let chicken sit on the rack for ten minutes before moving to a board or surface for carving. Letting it sit for ten minutes allows the carryover cooking to run its course. When removing it from the pan, tip it first to let any additional juices that might be pooling in the cavity run out.

Carve off the meat, drumsticks and wings, and serve.

Tips and suggestions:

  • I always wear disposable kitchen gloves while working with raw chicken. Prepping a roast chicken can get a bit messy, plus you can relax a bit about thoroughly washing your hands afterwards. Also, if you suddenly need to open a drawer or cabinet or reach for something that you don’t want to cover with bacteria, you can quickly strip off one of the gloves and use the clean hand underneath!
  • There are many ways to accent the flavor of the chicken. One quick and easy option is to take a medium-sized lemon, poke several holes in it with a fork, and place it inside the chicken’s cavity while it cooks. Another option uses rosemary sprigs: before cooking, place a couple inside the cavity more between the skin and the breast meat (prying up the skin to make room is easy). There are also spice rubs you can make or buy to apply to the outside and cavity of the chicken before cooking it
  • Basting the chicken (taking some of the juices accumulating in the bottom of the pan and pouring it over the top of the chicken) is optional for small roasting chickens. For a 20-pound turkey that will take hours to cook, basting makes a big difference in ensuring that the skin and outer meat don’t completely dry out. But for the shorter cooking times of a 3-6 pound chicken, it makes much less impact.
  • As mentioned above, predicting the cooking time for a roast chicken is tough. Generally a five-pound chicken might take one minute of cooking time for every 1 to 1.5 degrees it needs to increase in temperature; so a chicken that starts at 70 degrees might take 60 to 90 minutes to reach 160 degrees. And you can see the value in bringing it up to room temperature (roughly 70 degrees) from the refrigerator (about 40 degrees): it could shave up to 30 minutes off the cooking time. Having a meat thermometer than you can monitor regularly while the chicken is cooking can give you a good idea of how fast the cooking is progressing and help you to predict when it will be done.
  • The drippings left in the pan can be used to make a tasty gravy. Gravy is really just a very simple pan sauce: saute some aromatic vegetables (often white or yellow onion) and the giblets, add liquid (the roasting pan juices, plus some additional chicken broth if needed), stir in some corn starch dissolved in cold water, and let it simmer until it thickens. Strain it and serve.

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