a simple roast chicken
Bonnie Benwick wrote a great article in this week’s Washington Post about salt. I know, you’re thinking salt, are you kidding me? She hits on an interesting point, though, and one that I do believe is changing. The real truth is that people don’t cook from scratch as much as they did a few generations ago, and the age-old way of writing recipes with salt “to taste”, is confusing since for some homecooks that instinct may not be so fine-tuned.
As I read her article, I thought about something a friend told me a few months ago. Her 10 year old daughter cooks often from Homemade with Love, but said it drives her crazy when I write “salt, to taste” because she’s not sure what that means exactly. That anecdote has been on my mind, and I could imagine her saying “see, that’s what I mean” as I read Benwick’s piece yesterday. It made sense to me the moment she told me her daughter’s opinion on my salt writing tendencies, but I must confess only because she’s so young, and just starting out in her kitchen journey. It is so easy to forget that novice cooks come in all ages, even for someone like myself who prides herself on writing easy, accessible recipes for every cook, regardless of experience.
So, I’d like to ask you all a question to help write recipes that focus on ease, and fun, and not frustration. What are your thoughts about “salt, to taste”? A good recipe to highlight this salt discussion is my roast chicken recipe in Homemade with Love. I’ve been meaning to share an updated version of it with all of you here, and as I was writing it out, that ubiquitous ingredient, with it’s vague description is rather key to this particular recipe. For me, “salt, to taste” means a few very generous, thick pinches of Diamond Crystal Kosher salt—to the tune of 1 1/2 teaspoons (5 grams). I kind of wince when I say that measurement, not because I think it needs less, but because so many people are shy when it comes to salt these days. I once read that the best service in a restaurant is the one you don’t notice. The kind in which you don’t need to ask for a water refill, but yet your glass never seems to be empty regardless of how many sips you take. Salt plays a similar role in cooking. Too little, and your food will likely taste bland. Too much, and it’ll be inedible. Just enough, and you’ll never notice it, or at least think you don’t notice it.
And on that note, I present you with this updated version of my simple roast chicken from Homemade with Love. Let’s think of it as a cousin, since it doesn’t stray too far from the original. I was on the fence about even including the recipe in the cookbook, but after talking to a few friends it seemed many of them weren’t 100% sure of how to roast a whole chicken. I can see how it would seem more intimidating than just throwing some parts in a pan, or using breasts, but nothing really compares for me. The bonus part is that you’re left with a nicely roasted carcass afterwards that I immediately turn into homemade chicken stock. I don’t even bat an eyelash, on this one. As I whisk away the dishes from the table, the leftover chicken goes straight into a pot with some onion, garlic, bay leaf, parsley, carrots, celery, and peppercorns. And yes, I even add a pinch of salt.
This recipe is now part of my new site, Simmering. It can be found by searching the archives here.
I can’t wait to try this modified version. The original is so easy and turned out wonderful. I love your cookbook and have made quite a few recipes. They’re all delicious. I was born in Brooklyn from an all Italian family. Can totally relate to the adding of salt or any spices for that matter. My grandmother always told me “a little bit of this and a little bit of that”. Never could get a complete recipe out of her. When trying to teach my daughter how to cook, I think a more precise measurement would definitely help at this stage in her cooking adventures.
Nicole | Eat This Poem
I know this is often debated in the recipe writing world! I think the more you cook the more you become comfortable with “salt to taste” directions (and I use it quite often), but I’ve also learned the value in providing a measurement at the beginning of the cooking process, too.
I think this is especially useful when people are making something for the first time. It sets the recipe off on the right foot and increases the likelihood of it being seasoned properly overall. With this method, “salt to taste” or “adjust seasonings if necessary” can be reserved for the end.
Your chicken looks splendid, by the way! Might be adding it to the menu this weekend.
I actually PREFER salt to taste and don’t usually salt anything until its in my bowl ready to eat.
I find most recipes with salt in them (not including baking and bread making) often too salty and will reduce, reduce reduce.
I don’t mind the “salt to taste” direction in most savory recipes. It actually makes sense that way because often times ingredients vary and individual salt preferences vary. Salt to taste works when you can actually taste the dish when cooking and/or easily add salt later (like when serving).
Of course I feel differently about sweet and/or baked goods. You can’t salt to taste in a cookie or biscuit or pie. By the time it is cooked and can be tasted it is too late to add salt.
Truth be told, I almost never measure salt for a recipe. I just pour some in my palm and guestimate the right amount. I haven’t regretted it yet.
Christina @ My Homespun Home
For the past 4 weeks, I’ve been taking and writing about a class on “cooking intuitively”–basically learning how to cook without a recipe, learn how to balance tastes and flavors, understand why the things I do by instinct work (or don’t), etc.
The article you mention was actually brought up in last night’s class and a lot of people feel the same way as your 10-year-old recipe tester about “salt to taste” with the challenge being “what’s it supposed to taste like?” The kind of salt makes a huge difference too–if all you have is iodized salt, the same amount of that will make a dish taste completely different than large flakes of kosher salt.
One of the biggest lessons (and one of the biggest stumbling blocks for a lot of people in the class) is how essential a good amount of salt and acid are to good tasting food, and why so often your dish never tastes as good when made at a restaurant vs at home. In everything we made in the class, they encouraged us to taste along the way, but rarely to salt at the beginning (unless sauteing or roasting). It was interesting to see how much more pronounced the flavor was at the end after salt is added (yes, a good amount), and how salt was used to bring out all the other tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, umami) and balance the whole dish.
Salt is so demonized, but people don’t realize that such a huge majority of it is in the food we buy, not what we make ourselves.
JP’s Note: Christina, you’re last sentence sums it up so perfectly. Thanks for taking the time comment. Salt is flavor, and I truly believe if you rely more on cooking from scratch, and less on processed ingredients, you’ll reduce your sodium intake naturally. And yes, the type of salt you use will affect the amount you use as well.
Just wondering why you include the step of rinsing the chicken? Is this for sanitary reasons?
JP’s note: Elissa, funny you should ask, because this brought up a very interesting conversation on Facebook, too. I buy my chicken from the farmers’ market, and skip the rinsing step. I included the step, though, because I grew up with my mom doing this, and I’ve noticed some friends doing it, too. My conclusion is that it’s because supermarkets chickens have a slick coating on them. That said, I’ve decided to edit the recipe to explain why rinsing is not optimal. As one reader commented, it’s a big sanitary issue if you’re not vigilant about scrubbing your sink clean. I’m rather obsessive about any item that has touched raw meat, and wash it immediately, but realize not everyone might realize the need for such precautions. Thanks for asking the question!
Personally, I like it when a recipe gives me a starting point, like “Add 1 tsp salt (more or less to taste). The reason is that often I’m cooking meat dishes, and since I’m a vegetarian, I can’t taste them as I’m going along. Sometimes a meateater is there to taste for me, but often not. So it’s good to have a general idea.
JP’s note: That is an excellent point Amy. Thanks for bring it up!
Julie @ Texan New Yorker
“Salt, to taste” doesn’t bother me in recipe instructions, and I use it when I write recipes too. I think a lot of it comes with experience. Also, I think it’s a good thing to write, as opposed to an exact measurement, because different people taste seasoning differently. Depending on how many taste buds you have on your tongue, more or less seasoning may be needed for it to taste right to you.
I agree with a previous commenter – people should not be the least bit wary of salting their food they make from scratch. Health problems from sodium are the result of too much processed food. This has actually been studied, I read about it in the book “Salt Sugar Fat.” Which is a great (though disturbing!) book.
What a timely post since we were already planning chicken for dinner. I followed your recipe exactly and it was perfect. Thank you!
I cook about 80 percent of our meals at home, so I am a fan of salt to taste unless you’re talking a really unusual amount of salt – I sometimes need to be reminded to aggressively salt some ingredients like eggplant, mushrooms etc… that can bear a good salting. I guess a starting off point is a good idea overall though – anything that makes a recipe more accessible to people has to be good! Anything that gets us chopping, cooking and inventing in our kitchens is great. Jennie, could you share a little more instruction on the chicken stock made from the chicken bones? How long do you simmer it for? Would love to try it (I hate wasting things in the kitchen) and may try this in my slow cooker 🙂 anyway. Thanks for the inspiration!
Hi Jennie- long time reader, first time commenter here- love your writing!
I agree with one of the above points- if a recipe gives me a starting point “…like “Add 1 tsp salt (more or less to taste)….”
I find this very useful for new recipes I have never made and am not sure how they are ‘meant’ to taste.
I cook since I’m five years old. At the beginning, with a lot of help, but as I grew older, on my own.
I once read a tip from a spice expert – she said, that we always should add salt in little steps – then, let the meal cook for one more minute and taste again, because the salt needs time to go through the whole meal. This might help beginners, to add 1/4 teaspoon, and go further on. It takes time to evolve an own taste, as said ”salt to taste”.
Maria in NJ ~Dolcelicious Bake Shoppe
I don’t want to come off sounding like a know it all cook, but to an experienced cooker, salt to taste is fine…to a novice, they would be lost, they would need more direction…just my two cents, for whats it worth…
Although I have been cooking for decades, I had a revelation in roasting chicken using Thomas Keller’s recipe using high heat and a generous (2T?) salting before roasting.
On another note, I thought I remember an article that, in addressing the chemistry of salt and pepper, said that salt actually should be added during cooking because it interacts chemically with food, changing/enhancing flavor (and even smell), whereas pepper does not, and even has the potential to burn, so should be added afterward.
I prefer a guide as a starting point – I’m a fairly confident cook but again sometimes I’m cooking something I cannot eat – so again, the guide is helpful. Would be similarly for those less experienced.
I love the salt to taste version! I was 10 when my mother handed me a cookbook and said that i was cooking dinner this week. It was great fun even though my drop biscuits were rolled out, flat and later used as hocky pucks!!
But now, I rarely use salt to cook with as I have an inflammatory issue due to salt. Because of that issue I rarely make things that are soupy, saucy, casseroly. Most things are cooked separately so that we can salt our own individually. Its not how I would have it, but there it is.
I hate the comment “salt to taste.” Realistically it’s what I’m going to do in the long run, but it gives me no idea of where to start. When I see that I tend to throw in a quarter teaspoon…so much different from the 1.5 tspn you mention above. I will admit I wouldn’t even have tried something that stated “salt to taste” a few years ago. The more I cook the more willing I am to try them. That being said…I wonder if it’s not good because I use so little. I think stating salt to taste is fine, assuming it give a starting point.
My previous comment came out much more severe than I planned. I hate the comment because I’m so insecure with my cooking skills, and the statement just makes me feel even worse. I need a starting point, PLEASE!
Despite the fact that I cook a lot, I am a recipe follower! Therefore, I prefer a salt measurement.
As for Lillet in this recipe…the Lillet I drink is a sweeter, aperitif wine. Is that what you’re talking about? I would not have thought to cook with it as it is far from dry.
I’m going to print this recipe and tuck it in my copy of Homemade with Love. I’ve made the chicken in there already and will try this other version soon.
I have made this chicken recipe several times since I purchased your cookbook. It is soooo delicious! I don’t bother with buying rotisserie chickens anymore, this is much better! THANK YOU! I have been telling my family members how great it is and how they have to try it. So far neither my husband, son, nor I can walk past it after it comes out of the oven, without pulling off a wing or leg! YUM! We don’t even mind the smoky kitchen anymore. Just crack open a window and let some fresh air in 🙂
So sorry! Disregard last post! Not the chicken recipe I was talking about:(
The subject of how to write about salt has been on my mind a lot lately (isn’t it on everyone’s? LOL). I’m a fairly intuitive cook, and left to my own devices I salt to taste, which means just enough to enhance the flavours of the dish. I do try to keep my salt consumption minimal. I used to write ‘salt to taste’ in my recipes, but now make an effort to measure out the amount I use. Then I usually invite readers to taste and adjust seasonings to their taste. After all, my idea of the perfect level of salt is bland to some and too much to others. Your roast chicken looks wonderful; there’ll be one on my table soon!
Throughout the years I have learned about the importance of salt being used to enhance the flavors in whatever I may be cooking. I do like the idea of giving a “starting point” so to speak and then allowing the cook to take it from there. I spent a lot of time with my teenage sister in the kitchen and she had the same question..”how much is too much?”
But one of the biggest things I have noticed personally, is that if a dish is seasoned properly then I feel more satisfied while I’m eating, and in turn, I actually eat less. I’m not “missing” anything so I don’t feel the need to make multiple trips for more. Unless it’s brownies. I never get enough of those…:)
I love this roast chicken recipe! I should make it again soon.
Alicia @ Weekly Greens
I am an experienced, confident home cook and I know how to salt. However, I still like a recipe to tell me when and how much salt. So many recipes written by chefs don’t do this and I understand why but it drives me batty. I prefer recipes by home cooks and this is one reason – they’re usually explicit about salting and seasoning.
I’m making this (slightly) new fangled bird tomorrow! You’ve invaded my kitchen the weekend, Jennifer! I love it.
Great recipe and discussion!!
While I am an experienced scratch cook and generally ok with any “to taste” instruction AND am very familiar with the ingredients I use…I still do appreciate a range.
That said, unless I am baking, I am often imprecise in measuring herbs and spices using 1 narrow tsp or tablespoon and scooping whatever looks right.
And another “agree” re not being afraid of salt when you are cooking from whole foods, i.e. the only salt added to anything is what I add myself.
This was an absolutely amazing chicken. In part from the baste and in part due to getting the salt right. I’m a chronic under salter – I just never think dishes need that much. But I tried Jenny’s recommendations and it really brightened this up.
I made this again last night with the same delicious results. So simple, it is our new favorite recipe for roasting chicken.
As a notorious under-salter, I appreciated your advice on the amount of kosher salt to use in this recipe and the results were lovely.