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A New Fact About Butter Has Come to Light

January 6, 2011

I went to grad school with a woman who wrote evocatively about her lifelong battle with anorexia. One thing that stuck with me is a description of her as a teenager at the dinner table with family. At that point her relationship with eating—or not eating—had moved so far away from being typical that she is trying to remember what to do in order to act normal at the table.

In the scene she has been served a plate with some chicken on it. She wants, very badly, to seem like she is eating while not eating it. She’d move it around, she’d cut it up, she’d manipulate it in some way. So in the scene, she’s having an internal dialogue with herself, wondering what to do next “Should I spread butter on the chicken? Wait, do people put butter on chicken Is that normal?” She is so far removed from the world of eating that she has no idea.

Ooh ooh ooh ask me! As a butter lover and chicken eater, I knew the answer. Clearly no, right? Unless the chicken is raw. When it is raw, you might put butter on it to make the skin crisp up real nice. Or you might cook it in butter to make it taste great.

So: butter on chicken? No, except for when it’s raw.

Except yesterday, a revelation. A friend was crowdsourcing the best roast chicken recipe. My contribution were tips rather than an actual recipe — like, “brine it or get kosher; use butter; cook it upside down for a while; etc.

A few people cited Bittman. Bittman pisses me off, for some reason, I think because he isn’t angled towards ethnic cultures, but I loved that his recipe was basically “put a cast iron skillet in a really hot chicken, s&p&evoo a chicken, and cook it for like 50 minutes til it’s done.”

That actually seemed like a really useful (read: easy) recipe that I might try.

Marcella Hazan also got some props for her chicken with 2 lemons. I love Marcella. It cannot be said enough times. Ina apparently makes good chicken, too.

But then my friend JJ weighed in, saying that anyone who didn’t use Thomas Keller’s recipe, which she claims is the easiest and the most delicious at the same time, was basically an asshole. She provided a link to the recipe. JJ is a really good cook and a really discerning eater and very forthcoming with her opinions. Thomas Keller is like, the most famous chef ever and the most expensive chef ever and there is no way I could afford a chicken that he cooked, so I clicked immediately to get the scoop. His was easy? I had a hard time believing it.

It’s a completely scandalous recipe that you must read, and the sort that I absolutely love, because it brings in his personal desires. It reminds me of MFK Fisher talking about how she loves to dry out an orange on the radiator during wartime and then eat it, or Julia Child and her own personal passions.

I’m cutting and pasting here. I hope that’s okay with Mr. Epicurious and Mr. Keller. You should check out that site if you don’t, normally, and the recipe originally appeared in this Thomas Keller book, called Bouchon, which I will need to investigate further if it has things like this in it.

Read the sentence third from the bottom. No wonder Keller is one of the best chefs in the world; that is a dirty trick if I have ever heard one! PS I am not going to contact the anorexic about this, but I am going to try it myself, though I don’t even know if I, butter-lover extraordinaire, could manage to follow that instruction in good conscience.

My Favorite Simple Roast Chicken (by Thomas Keller)


  • One 2- to 3-pound farm-raised chicken
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons minced thyme (optional)
  • Unsalted butter
  • Dijon mustard


Preheat the oven to 450°F. Rinse the chicken, then dry it very well with paper towels, inside and out. The less it steams, the drier the heat, the better.

Salt and pepper the cavity, then truss the bird. Trussing is not difficult, and if you roast chicken often, it’s a good technique to feel comfortable with. When you truss a bird, the wings and legs stay close to the body; the ends of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out. Trussing helps the chicken to cook evenly, and it also makes for a more beautiful roasted bird.

Now, salt the chicken—I like to rain the salt over the bird so that it has a nice uniform coating that will result in a crisp, salty, flavorful skin (about 1 tablespoon). When it’s cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin. Season to taste with pepper.

Place the chicken in a sauté pan or roasting pan and, when the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in the oven. I leave it alone—I don’t baste it, I don’t add butter; you can if you wish, but I feel this creates steam, which I don’t want. Roast it until it’s done, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove it from the oven and add the thyme, if using, to the pan. Baste the chicken with the juices and thyme and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board.

Remove the twine. Separate the middle wing joint and eat that immediately. Remove the legs and thighs. I like to take off the backbone and eat one of the oysters, the two succulent morsels of meat embedded here, and give the other to the person I’m cooking with. But I take the chicken butt for myself. I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip—until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat myself. These are the cook’s rewards. Cut the breast down the middle and serve it on the bone, with one wing joint still attached to each. The preparation is not meant to be superelegant. Slather the meat with fresh butter. Serve with mustard on the side and, if you wish, a simple green salad. You’ll start using a knife and fork, but finish with your fingers, because it’s so good.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. jenn permalink
    January 6, 2011 1:04 pm

    i always always make marcella hazan’s recipe roast chicken with two lemons bc it’s so easy and perfect. but last night i was reading nigella’s new cookbook feast and she has a recipe for swanky (or skanky) roast chicken which calls for taking out the piece of fat that is in the cavity of the bird, cooking it until it’s liquid fat, and then putting that on the chicken to make it crispy. my brother bought me keller’s big fat beautiful cookbook for xmas, so i’ll have to see what he says, but my first thought is i like lemons more than mustard.

    • January 6, 2011 1:21 pm

      Hey! I neither said nor implied that anyone was an asshole for not making that chicken recipe–a fool, yes, but that is least a degree or two of severity below asshole.

      Also, I must confess that I do not think I have ever actually slathered my TK chicken in butter; it really doesn’t need it, though I’m sure it would be delicious, and I’ll probably have to try it some time to get the full experience. It is, however, essential to follow his instructions about keeping the chicken butt for yourself.

  2. Michelle permalink
    January 6, 2011 1:39 pm

    Years and years ago I read a NYTimes article about “restaurant vegetables” and this is what it said: vegetables taste better in restaurants because they are loaded [larded?] with butter before being served. And if you analyze the nutritional value of said vegetables, the butter cancels out everything else, and you are left with … fat. Then many men were quoted saying that they only liked spinach, asparagus, etc. in restaurants and why didn’t these green things taste the same at home?


    • Julie permalink
      January 7, 2011 8:58 am

      Some folks think the butter – the fat – is actually the most nutritional part of all! (Now THAT is a food movement I can get behind.) Look up Weston A. Price…

  3. January 6, 2011 2:59 pm


  4. January 6, 2011 3:55 pm

    But! Michelle! if you eat the vegetables nothing can cancel them out! They absolutely count every time you eat them!*
    I always use bread as an excuse to butter my chicken. Because the best thing to do with roast chicken if you have any leftover is to make butter and chicken sandwiches. Homemade white bread is the best, but once you have butter and chicken you can put it on a saltine and it will be delicious.
    And I am not too proud to skip the bread and just put the butter directly on the chicken.

    * the butter, as always, is counted separately.

  5. January 6, 2011 4:57 pm

    I’m so glad someone else is annoyed by Mark Bittman. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve followed one of his Minimalist recipes wherein he congratulated himself for skipping some traditional step or technique or ingredient he deemed unnecessary, and then I tasted what I made, only to find that it really needed that step/technique/ingredient.

    Okay, four. Four times. But it felt like more!

    And now I’m off to buy a chicken.

  6. Rachel permalink
    January 6, 2011 6:19 pm

    Too bad we’re a vegetarian household because this sounds so yummy (with or without butter) and easy enough for a chicken-cooking-virgin to make. Also, I think my mom-in-law made the Bittman iron skillet version (I don’t think she got it from him though) for Christmas dinner and it was simple and fabulous.

  7. Sarah permalink
    January 6, 2011 10:12 pm

    Speaking of “canceling”……
    My first ever conversation with Meredith, catching her return to our dorm after our first breakfast freshman year:

    Sarah: “How was the food?”

    Meredith: “I ate a doughnut and a grapefruit. The grapefruit cancels the doughnut.”

    I knew we’d be fast friends.

    I love your blog Mere!

  8. chris permalink
    January 9, 2011 11:00 am

    F has been making the Thomas Keller chicken (with some alterations) for years. I think he found the recipe on Epicurious. We call it “the salt chicken.” We’ve never put butter on the cooked meat; it doesn’t need it. Have you made it yet? It’s good!

  9. January 24, 2011 6:19 pm

    Oh my goodness I just made this and I feel so kitchen capable! Thank you! Thank you, Meredith!

  10. Michael H. permalink
    February 10, 2011 1:27 pm

    The first time I made this recipe, it was nigh-fantastic. It only missed because of the “baste the chicken with the juices” step, or at least how I interpreted that step. What are you supposed to be doing there? If you baste the nice, crispy skin with the chicken juices, then it’s not crispy anymore!

    The second time, with a chicken bought from the same lady at the farmer’s market, it wasn’t nearly so good. I don’t know why. Not enough salt? I was rebelling against adding as much as he suggests, but maybe it’s necessary?

    Also: broth made from farmer’s market chicken cooked with this recipe is great, much different than the pallid stuff which comes in the boxes.

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