Cooking Techniques: Roasting Meats and Chicken

website roasting

“There was this little black bowl sitting on my plate.”

As unique as every family is, families are similar where story-telling is concerned. All families have those stories which they tell over and over again about some member of the family or something that happened which gets passed down from parent to child to grandchild. Some stories are sentimental, meant to be remembered for as a truth. Others are funny and told to elicit laughter time and time again. All become a part of what makes your particular family special.

In our family, my parents love to tell the tale of my mom’s first time cooking my dad a steak. Being Korean and only eating kalbi (kind of like Korean ribs) and bulgogi (think cooked stir fry size beef strips) on special occasions, my mom hadn’t cooked a steak before. Since Korean meat is always cooked until it was well-done, that’s exactly what my mom did. She cooked that steak until it was so well-done it curled up on itself, and when she served it to my dad, as he puts it, “There was a little black bowl sitting on my plate.”

Since my dad actually likes his meat rare, only love could have made him eat that steak. I, however, would have been just fine eating it, because I’m not much of a meat person in general and when I do eat it, I like it to be as my husband and dad call it “shoe leather” texture.

Just like people have different preferences for eating meat, people have different ways of cooking it. The most traditionally agreed up method for the most flavor, though, tends to be roasting, and for this post we will look at roasting both meat and poultry since the methods are similar. I will focus on the questions people have recently asked me.

Questions about Roasting Meat and Poultry:

1. Does my roast or chicken need come to room temperature first? The answer is, “No.” One, unless it’s a hot day, it’ll take a long time for your meat or chicken to come to room temperature, and if it is a hot day, leaving the meat or chicken out will increase your risk of bacterial growth. Two, better folks than I who run test kitchens all the time have run experiments, cooking both a room temp piece of meat and one straight from the fridge, with no difference. In the end, though, folks are going to do what they want, and I know many people who would never dare to roast a piece of meat or a turkey without letting it sit out for at least half an hour first. To date, they are all alive and well and enjoying their meat and poultry, so in the end, it’s your prerogative.

2. Should I season before or after? If you were to google this question, you’d find a variety of conflicting answers. What I’ve found in my years of cooking is that you should really do both. Seasoning rubbed onto the roast or chicken before it’s cooking helps to imbue the meat or chicken with flavor, but adding some fresh herbs or spices before serving adds a little spark to the flavors which become a bit stale from cooking in the oven for so long.

The corollary question which folks have asked is about salting meat or chicken. Some folks swear by the brining method of salting a day or two ahead of time. Others say to salt just before cooking. I personally stay away from salt use at all and allow people to salt their meat or chicken on their own when it’s on their plates. For people who want to use salt, though, the answer is that it depends on your taste preference and the type of meat you are cooking. Test kitchen cooks have determined that salting or brining poultry ahead of time really does make for a tastier chicken or turkey. For meats, though, with the exception of lamb, pork and beef don’t receive any benefit from salting ahead of time and often actually makes for a drier piece of meat.

3. What is the best way to season my meat or poultry? Again, you’ll find differing opinions, and in reality, most methods will give you a nice tasting chicken or roast beef. What I have found to be the most flavorful, though, is to make a nice dry rub of seasonings – usually herbs like thyme, oregano, marjoram, basil, rosemary, etc… mixed with black pepper and ground onion and/or garlic powder – and to mix it with just enough olive oil to make a paste and then rub it completely over the roast or chicken.

For a roast beef, I increase the flavor by cutting little slits into the meat and inserting slivers of garlic and/or onion into the slits. This adds flavor inside the meat instead of just outside.

For chicken, I loosen the skin away from the breast and legs and rub the seasoning rub inside the skin as well directly on top of the breast and legs, and I put onions, garlic, and herbs inside the cavity of the chicken. This way you get flavor all around and not just on the skin of the chicken.

A corollary question folks have asked is about butter verse oil: I always use olive oil. One, for folks with dairy allergies, it removes that worry. Two, it’s a healthier oil. Three, you can make a nice rub with it using less than what you’d need for butter.

Having said that, test kitchens have found that using butter can help to keep a chicken moist without the need for basting because it melts as it cooks and seals in the liquids. So, if you don’t have any health or allergy issues keeping you from using butter and like the taste of it, go for it.

4. What type of pan should I use to roast my meat or chicken? The best pan to use for roasting is one that can withstand high and lengthy heat and which just fits your roast or chicken. You don’t want to have a lot of space around what you’re cooking.

People differ on whether you should use a rack or not. I’m a rack person. I have found that if I put my roast on a flat rack and my poultry on a v-rack that the bottoms of the meat and chicken cook more evenly. I do find that I need to grease the racks, though, to make sure the roast or chicken doesn’t stick.

5. What is the best method for roasting meat or poultry? Okay, this is where it gets tricky. The consensus is that there isn’t any consensus. Well-known chefs and test kitchen cooks all differ. Some say you should cook at low heat to keep the meat or poultry from drying out and to keep it moist. Some say you should cook it at a high temperature to cook it more quickly which will prevent it from drying out and will keep it moist. Others say you should do a combination of both.

The fact is that all methods work. It really comes down to the type of texture and flavor you’re looking for. Slow roasting meat or chicken at 275 degrees for several hours gives you a more evenly cooked through piece of meat or chicken with a softer, more falling apart texture. This is a good method is you’re cooking larger, more uneven, tougher cuts of meat or a more mature bird.

Cooking the meat or chicken at 350 degrees for 20 minutes per pound for poultry and pork or 15 to 30 minutes per pound for beef, depending on how rare to well done you like it, gives you a nice flavorful piece of meat or chicken without having to do too much work. This is a good method if you don’t particularly want a crispy outside.

Cooking the meat or poultry at a high temperature of 450 degrees for 45 minutes will cook your roast or chicken quickly and give it it a nice crispy exterior.  This method is particularly nice if you don’t have a lot of time.

Finally, the method which I like best is that you cook your roast or poultry at a high heat of 450, 475 or 500 degrees first and then lower the heat for the rest of the cooking time.  If cooking at 450 degrees, you’ll cook your chicken for 35 minutes or your roast for about 15 minutes and then you’ll lower the temperature to 350 degrees. For a roast, cook the meat 12 to 18 minutes per pound, depending on how rare or well done you like. For poultry, cook for about 8-10 minutes per pound until the chicken is done.

Just an FYI about internal temperatures for poultry and meat: If you want your roast or poultry to be at the correct temperature for eating, you cook them in the oven to a temperature that’s about five to ten degrees lower than the temperature you want because even when you take the meat or chicken out of the oven, it will continue to cook.

6. Should I baste my roast or poultry? That’s really up to you. Basting does help to keep roasting meat and poultry from drying out, but there are pros and cons. On the pro side by basting you ensure that your roast or chicken won’t dry out, it adds to the juices you’ll have for making a nice gravy in the end, and it prevents anything from burning on the bottom of your pan. On the con side, every time you open the oven to baste, you’re letting heat escape which might mess with your cooking, and by keeping the exterior of the meat or poultry moist, it won’t crisp up. As well, basting then requires you to do more because you have to baste every fifteen minutes or so.

I personally add liquid to the bottom of my roasting pan, beef or chicken broth, at the beginning and then halfway through cooking. The broth slowly evaporates as the roast or poultry cooks, allowing some moisture to accumulate in the oven and preventing the roast or chicken from drying out without me having to continually baste. Then just before I’m ready to take the roast or chicken out of the oven, I turn the heat back up to 500 degrees for a couple of minutes to re-crisp the exterior of the meat or poultry.

7. Is there anything special I should do to my roast or poultry before putting it into the oven? That depends on you really. I usually try to cut off some of the fat from my roasts. While it’s true that the fat adds flavor, too much of it isn’t good, so I remove as much as I can and rely on my seasonings for flavor instead.

For chicken, there are differing thoughts. Some folks say you absolutely must truss up the bird by tying the legs together. Others say that allowing the legs to be free helps them to cook more evenly and quickly in time with the breast portion. I’ve done both and haven’t found too much of a difference.

The other part of the bird folks worry about is the wings. Because they’re so small the tips can burn. If you’re cooking with any of the high heat methods, you’re definitely better off turning the tips of the wings underneath the bird so they won’t burn. If you’re slow roasting with the very low heat, I’ve not noticed much of an issue.

8. Should I turn my roast or chicken while it’s cooking? The fact is that rotating your chicken or roast will ensure more even cooking. It allows heat to reach all sides of your meat or poultry and it allows the juices to run from one side to the other. That’s why those spit roasted pigs and grocery store rotisserie chickens taste so good. So, if you are inclined to put in the effort, cooking your chicken breast side down and then flipping it is fine. Turning your roast so all sides face the top at some point in the cooking is fine. The effort will be worth it, but not necessarily so much so that you’ll want to put in the effort.

9. How do I know when my roast or chicken is done? The best method is to invest in a meat thermometer. Poultry should be at an internal temperature of 165 when you insert the thermometer into the breast near the bone. When it’s done the juices should be running clear not tinged with pink, and the legs should be easy to pull away from the breast.

Roasts vary depending on how you like your meat cooked. Most meats are said to be rare when they’re about 120 to 125 degrees in temperature and the temperature goes up by five to ten degree increments for medium rare, medium, medium well and well-done which is about 160 degrees.

10. Should my meat or poultry sit after it’s come out of the oven before serving? The answer to this is an unqualified, “Yes.”  One, it is true that the liquid which has been drawn out to the surface of the roast or chicken while it was cooking will resettle to the center of the meat or chicken as it cools which makes for a moister dish. Two, your roast or poultry will still be finishing cooking, so you want to make sure it does and gets to the proper temperature. If you didn’t pull your roast or chicken out of the oven a little early and let it get to the temperature you wanted for eating, well, then your dish will be overcooked by the time you serve it. So, in that case you may want to start cutting immediately, but remember that it’ll be a bit dryer then.

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