The Single Best Thing You Can Learn to Cook

This week on Across the Peak, Rich and I talked about why cooking is important. In my opinion there is one thing above all others you should learn to cook first. It is versatile. It gives you a TON of leftovers. The leftovers can be used for all sorts of things. And it looks sexy af when you pull it out of the oven. What is this mystery item? The classic, French-style roasted chicken like your grandma used to make.

That's right - the lowly chicken is the one thing you should learn to cook if you have no idea where to start. Today I'm going to tell you how to cook a beautiful, tasty bird. In the future I'm also going to give you some recipes that you can use the leftovers for. First, though, let's talk about why I think so highly of roasting a chicken.


Why a Whole Chicken is the BEST Thing You Can Learn to Cook

It's cheap. A whole chicken is about as inexpensive as it gets. Anywhere in the country I can walk into a grocery store and walk out with a whole chicken for around $10. In many cases this is cheaper than you'd pay for a package of chicken breasts or "tenders" or whatever. You don't really need much else - just some spices and whatnot, and you probably have most of that in your pantry already. Add some veggies and you've got a meal, baby!

It's delicious. When I think of an awesome meal, I usually think of a thick, juicy steak. Chicken doesn't normally even break my Top-10 when thinking of good food. I think this is because most of the chicken we eat is cooked at restaurants and gets dried out. Or it's served as a "healthy" alternative to whatever you really want to order. If you cook chicken yourself, though, it can rival just about anything you'd get at a restaurant.

It's versatile. Want to impress someone of the opposite sex? Invite them over for dinner, pull a beautifully-browned chicken out of the oven (complete with stuffing, of course). When they "oooh!" and "aaah!" shrug your shoulders and say, "I just threw something together, no biggie." Having your college friends over? Make my personal favorite: the "beer-can chicken." Not only do you get cool points for using one of those cans of Bud that's been sitting in the back of the fridge since last year's 4th of July party, you'll also serve up the best chicken they've ever eaten.

It lasts. This is my favorite thing about cooking a whole chicken: the leftovers. If you're single you can probably stretch a small-to-mid-sized chicken for four or five days. Here's how we do it. Keep in mind this is for me AND my lady; if you're single this will go waaay further.

  • Day 1: roast chicken, eat chicken for dinner. We can make this meal all traditional-like with mashed potatoes, and haricots verts (that's green beans to you Philistines). We can make pulled chicken and smother it in down-east Carolina BBQ sauce. The sky is the limit.
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  • Day 2: chicken leftovers. We pick the rest of the breast meat off the bird and make some leftovers. Maybe we'll take chicken salad for lunch. Maybe we'll make chicken tacos for dinner. Maybe we'll...again, you are limited only by your creativity.
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  • Day 3 is ALWAYS chicken soup day. In the morning we'll pick the rest of the meat off the carcass. it will go in a pot with water, onion, carrots, celery, and some spices. By the afternoon we've got an AMAZING broth. Strain out the carcass and other unsavory bits, add the meat back into the pot along with some veggies and noodles and you've got the best chicken soup you've ever tasted!

How to Roast a Whole Chicken

Ok, so I've (hopefully) sold you on the idea of roasting a chicken. Now it's time to do it. The good news is, it's not that hard. As a worst-case scenario you could throw it in any oven-safe pot or pan, stick it in the oven at 350 for an 45 minutes to an hour and be good-to-go. But that isn't going to result in amazing flavor. Here's how I do it. Give it a shot!

1. Brine or marinate: This definitely requires some advance planning but is totally worth it. Brine is simply salt water (1 cup of salt per gallon of water) that you soak your chicken in. The salt helps the meat absorb water, resulting in a more tender, moist bird. You can leave the chicken in the brine for 12-48 hours, and generally speaking, the longer the better. In addition to salt you can add other spices, too, depending on the flavor profile you want.

2. Spice or rub: This can be as simple as salt and pepper. You can do a classic chicken flavor profile, like rosemary, sage, and thyme. Or you can do a dry rub. Decide how you want your bird to taste, and go look for a spice mix or rub.

3. Roast: This is the easy part. Place the chicken in a roasting pan and place it in the oven. You can monitor doneness by using a thermometer - an internal temperature of 160 degrees is "done". If your bird is getting too browned consider lowering the oven rack a notch or two.

4. Rest: this is something we aren't good at - letting the meat rest. Letting meat (any meat) sit for five minutes after taking it off the heat helps the juices absorb back into the fiber of the meat. This prevents all the juice from running out when you cut it.

5. Enjoy! I've given you several ideas for how to enjoy your bird. I can't eat it for you, so get going!

Justin Carroll