Zuni Cafe’s Famous Roast Chicken Isn’t Fast or Easy (But It’s Worth It)

Chicken Champions: All month long, Kitchn is battling off the four classic chicken recipes everyone needs this time of year: pot pie, soup, roast chicken, and showstopper chicken. (It’s our version of March Madness: Chicken Edition!) Here’s Zuni Cafe’s take on our battle: roast chicken.

If there is one roast chicken dish that our Kitchn team has unanimously swooned over, it’s the one from San Francisco’s Zuni Café. Among its accolades? Perfectly browned skin, spot-on seasoning, and herbaceous undertones, served with an equally delicious bread salad drenched with the chicken’s drippings. It’s truly magical. The late Judy Rogers brought the recipe into the kitchen of home cooks everywhere when it was included in the Zuni Café Cookbook — and eventually shared on our site as well as others.

The ingredient list is short, skipping any extra fat like butter or oil, and in addition to the chicken, calls only for fresh herbs, salt, and pepper. But the legwork is a bit heavier. The instructions call for drying out the chicken (for up to three days), plus a double flip while it’s in the oven — the combination of which is supposed to result in a final dish that’s absolutely worth the time and effort put in. It was time for me to find out if this at-home version is all it’s cracked up to be.

Get the recipe: Zuni Café Roast Chicken

How to Make Zuni Café Roast Chicken

After thoroughly drying, seasoning, and loosening the skin to stuff herbs over the breasts and thighs, the chicken is covered and dry brined in the refrigerator for one to three days. Then it’s time to roast, flip, and flip again.

A skillet or roasting pan just big enough for the bird is pre-heated before adding the chicken. The chicken is roasted, breast-side up, in a hot oven for 30 minutes, before it’s flipped over and cooked for another 10 to 20 minutes, and finally flipped once more for the final five to 10 minutes of cooking to re-crisp the skin. The chicken gets transferred to a plate, while you skim the fat from the drippings, and cook the drippings down to be poured over the chicken pieces for serving.

What I Thought of the Results

Thank you, Judy Rodgers, for celebrating the oft-overlooked underdog of roast chicken: the drippings. This recipe’s treatment of the drippings and serving suggestion to pour them over the chicken pieces (greens or bread salad not necessary, but highly recommended) is what really makes it. That is, of course, in addition to the beautifully browned skin and well-seasoned meat that’s made better by the infusion of fresh herbs.

It is without a doubt a top-notch, wonderfully delicious and juicy chicken, but you’ve got to work for it. While the ingredient list is short, the method is far from minimalist. If you prefer instant-gratification cooking and have limited patience, this recipe might not be for you. Any time a roast chicken recipe calls for flipping the bird mid-cook, let alone a double flip (which I personally find to be fussy), I expect there to be a big payoff and some extra crispiness. And I didn’t find that to be the case here. When I think about the other roast chickens I recently cooked, the double flip didn’t necessary make the skin stand out from the rest.

If You Make Zuni Café Roast Chicken …

1. You’ll want to plan in advance. This isn’t a recipe to make on the same day you buy the chicken. Instead, plan to give yourself at least one (up to three) days of lead time so the chicken can dry out in the fridge. The wait is worth it, as it will reward you with crispier skin.

2. Use more than four herb sprigs. The recipe calls for four sprigs of fresh herbs, and while that’s certainly sufficient, there’s no need to stop there — especially if you bought a whole bunch of herbs just for the chicken. Simply put, more herbs equals more flavor.

3. Any type of herb will work. The recipe calls for thyme, marjoram, rosemary, or sage, but know that any type of fresh herb will work to flavor the chicken. Come summer, fresh basil or tarragon would be a delicious choice.

4. Preheat the skillet in the oven. Rather than preheat the skillet on the stovetop, pop it in the oven to heat up as the oven comes to temperature. It’s one less thing to think about and eliminates a step in the process.

5. Check for doneness using an instant-read thermometer. Timing cues are always helpful, but the best way to truly know when your roast chicken is cooked through is by checking the temperature with an instant-read thermometer. When the chicken is ready, it should register 165°F in the thickest part of the thigh before coming out of the oven.

6. Don’t overlook the last step in the recipe. Unlike most roast chicken recipes, this one is not complete when the chicken comes out of the oven. Don’t skip the final step of cooking down the chicken drippings; this might just be the very best part of the recipe, which I plan to follow every time I make a roast chicken from now on, and you should too.

Overall Rating: 8 out of 10

Should you undertake the multi-day prep, multiple times flipping the chicken, and keeping a watchful eye on the oven and temperature, you will be rewarded with results that are worth it: a juicy, herbaceous roast chicken with perfectly browned skin and expert seasoning.

Get the recipe: Zuni Café Roast Chicken

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