Steadfast Farms to My Table: Roasting a Whole Chicken + Mom's Gravy
As a follow-up to the post I did about the story of Steadfast Farms, today I'm sharing about how to roast a whole chicken like one of their pasture-raised chickens. Before talking to Chuck and Kari about their chickens, I really didn't know that much about pasture-raised chickens. At the grocery story I tended to reach for anything that sounded organic, natural, free-range, cage-free, non-GMO, etc . . . but I'd have to admit that I didn't really know what those distinctions meant. I just figured it couldn't hurt and compared to conventional chicken I had definitely noticed a taste improvement.
Chuck was happy to educate me a bit about what it means that they raise pastured chickens at Steadfast Farms.
There are many words used to describe the chickens you buy today at the store. Unfortunately many of the terms used are purely for marketing purposes and have lost much of the meaning unless you know the source. Words such as cage-free, organic, free-range can all bring up a vision in our head about the conditions that the chicken was raised in and often those visions fall short of reality.
So what is pasture raised chicken and why is it better? Pasture raised chicken or pastured poultry is a method of raising chickens outside in portable shelters. Once the chickens feathers come in (usually between two and three weeks), they are moved outside to live their life out on pasture and in the open air. The pens are moved daily to fresh grass. Raising chickens this way allows them to live how they were designed, to scratch, peck around, and eat grass and bugs.
This method produces the most tasty and healthy chicken you will ever have. All the chickens from Steadfast Farms are raised on pasture and provided all natural, non-GMO grain and never given any medicated feed. We also don't feed our chickens any soy or corn.
Now, on to how to prepare a whole chicken at home!
The transition between "look! happy chickens!" to "here's how to cook them!" is making me laugh a little, because most of us are not used to that mindset. But it really is a beautiful thing. It was cool to be able to tell my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Olivia, "This chicken came from Charlie's (one of Chuck ans Kari's daughters) farm!" and know that she could picture the chickens at the farm because we had just been there a couple weeks before. She held up a piece and said, "this Charlie's chicken!" and enthusiastically took a bite.
It also feels a little strange to be writing a "how-to" style post on how to roast a whole chicken, because I am, by no means, an expert. But I have graduated to the point where I am no longer intimidated by the process. Which is a pretty big step. It's easy to be intimidated by preparing a whole bird at home. Especially when a lot of us grew up in a time when the boneless, skinless chicken breast was all the rage. But dealing with all that skin and bones is really not that hard and actually provides SO much more flavor.
Once you can get over the intimidation factor, roasting a whole chicken is awesome. It's easy, needs very little hands-on time, can be a one-pot meal, and you can make several great, varied meals from one bird. There are lots of different methods out there which can be fun to experiment with. Two of my favorite variations are spatchcocked and salt crusted. I also just got Food Lab by Kenji Lopez-Alt and I can't wait to try ALL the versions he has methodically described.
For this post I wanted to start with a fairly straightforward method. Although, as you'll see, there are a few bits that make this method stand out from a totally traditional version (if one even exists). I found the method for this recipe after hearing that a lot of people who are accustomed to preparing pastured chickens like to cook them for a longer time at a lower temperature than traditional recipes. I also read several recommendations for cooking the bird breast-side down, at least part of the time, so that the juices drip into the breast.
What I really love about this recipe is that by cooking the chicken in a dutch oven with aromatic veggies and white wine, you get a lot of very flavorful moisture in the meat, as well as an amazing base for gravy. With such a flavorful broth, making gravy is a.) ridiculously easy and b.) required. I learned to make gravy from the best (my mom) so I'm including her method below. You could also throw potatoes into the mix and make this a one-pot meal (This time I opted for mashed potatoes because there are few foods I find more comforting than mashed potatoes and homemade gravy.)
It would be insanely easy and still totally delicious to stop after the chicken is slow-roasted (braised?) in the dutch oven, but I'm also a sucker for crispy chicken skin. So, with this recipe you can still achieve crispy-skin glory by turning the chicken right-side up, slathering it in a garlic-herb butter, and roasting at a really high temperature for the minimum amount of time it takes for the skin to turn golden-brown and crisp.
Whole Slow-Roasted Chicken and Mom's Gravy
1 whole (preferably pasture-raised) chicken (mine was 4-5 lbs.)
4 cloves garlic
A few sprigs of thyme and/or rosemary if you have them
2-3 peeled and roughly chopped carrots (or 1 cup baby carrots or carrot chips)
2-3 roughly chopped celery stalks
1 medium onion
2-3 large potatoes cubed or handful of fingerling potatoes (optional)
2 cups white wine or chicken stock
3 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon each dried thyme, tarragon, and sage (or other herbs of your preference)
2 tablespoons flour
1/3 cup milk
Heat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. To prepare the chicken, remove from any packaging and rinse inside and out in cold water. Pat dry with paper towels. Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper, including inside the cavity. Cut a lemon in half and squeeze inside the cavity. Stuff the cavity with the lemon halves, two halved cloves of garlic, and the sprigs of herbs.
Scatter the carrots, celery, and onions on the bottom of the dutch oven and add the wine or broth. Place the chicken upside down (backbone up) on top of the veggies. Put the lid on the dutch oven cook in the oven at 250 for 3 hours.
At right before 3 hours is up, mix together the butter, dried herbs, two minced cloves of garlic, and a generous pinch of salt and pepper.
After 3 hours, remove the chicken (carefully!) from the dutch oven and place, breast-side up, on a roasting pan fitted with a wire rack. Turn the oven up to 450. Brush all over with the garlic herb butter. Return the chicken to the turned up over and roast until the skin is golden brown.
Meanwhile, strain the vegetables from the broth/wine pan liquid. Set the vegetables aside. Pour the pan liquid into a medium sauce pan and simmer for 10-15 minutes. While it is simmering, whisk together the flour and milk to make a "slurry" for the gravy. Add it to the reduced liquid, whisking constantly, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until thickened. (To thicken, add another small flour/milk mixture. If it's too thick, add more broth, milk, or water) Taste and add salt and pepper, and perhaps lemon juice, to taste. Serve with the chicken and vegetables.
(Forgot to take a picture of the gravy . . . because I was too busy drinking it.)