How to Make Sam Hellman-Mass' Famous Roast Chicken

Sam Hellman-Mass is the owner of Suerte, one of Austin's most highly regarded Mexican restaurants and a 2019 James Beard Award Semifinalist. Sam loves to do deep dives into all things food — he even once gave a TEDx Talk about his quest to craft the perfect tortilla!

As part of our Team Dinner series, Sam did a deep dive into how to roast the perfect chicken.

sam hellman-mass suerte

Over the past year or two, I have roasted probably a hundred chickens. It’s always a highlight of the week, and each delicious bird a small moment of personal culinary triumph.

Before I started Suerte, I cooked professionally for 10 years. When I cook at home, I almost never use a recipe — so I have not previously documented this roast chicken, which is more of a method than a recipe. If any of the instructions don’t have the most precise measurements or times, I’m sorry, and I hope you will accept my sincere apology.

The intent is that some of the directions and explanations will provide the thought process behind the chicken roasting process and help you find a deeper understanding so you can make the recipe your own over time. I hope you have fun roasting in your oven and filling your house with delicious aromas.

1. Buy a high-quality free-range chicken. I love to go to the farmer's market in Austin, and I most often buy a chicken from Richardson Farms. If you have the chance, talk to the farmer about the breed of chicken and what kind of characteristics and flavors it has. Richardson Farms raises Freedom Rangers, an heirloom breed that has a bit of a smaller breast but great flavor and they do well in the Texas climate.

I really like to roast large chickens because this method cooks them beautifully and it’s a treat to have all the leftovers. One time, Jim Richardson sold me an incredible 9 lb chicken and it was amazing! A great raw chicken is always a great start to a great roasted chicken.

2. If the chicken is frozen, make sure to defrost for a couple days in the refrigerator until it is fully thawed. Pat the outside of the chicken and the cavity dry with a few paper towels. Generously season the outside of the chicken and the cavity with kosher salt. Don’t miss any spots! Even coverage, and do be generous.

3. Place the chicken on a raising rack or the little wire rack you use to cool cookies (something to elevate it off the bottom of a sheet tray so the bird gets air circulation all around the surface) and leave uncovered in the refrigerator at least overnight — preferably for two days. This method is sometimes called dry-brining and it helps to create delicious skin and season the inside of the bird by allowing the salt to absorb into the interior of the meat.

4. Mix a half stick of room temperature butter with a tablespoon of chopped parsley, 2 cloves of microplaned garlic, the zest of one lemon, a tablespoon of good extra virgin olive oil, and a generous grind of fresh cracked black pepper. This is your compound butter, and you can tweak it however you'd like. I have used a bit of spicy chile powder or a different herb. I’d say the most important components are the butter, EVOO, garlic, and lemon zest.

5. Remove the dry-brined chicken from the fridge and allow to temper (or come to room temperature) for an hour or so. Tempering the chicken helps it cook evenly in the oven. Using your hand, gently go in and separate the skin of the chicken all around the breast and legs as much as possible. Use a spoon and your fingers to get the compound butter under the skin and massage it around so it coats as much of the bird as possible under the skin. Spread a bit of the butter (that’s probably all over your fingers) inside the cavity as well for good measure.

If all this compound butter under the skin business seems overwhelming or if you just don’t have any butter, I also have great results rubbing a bit of EVOO on the skin and seasoning the entire outside of the bird with paprika, garlic powder, and dried oregano. Seriously, this is really good too. Pro tip: sprinkle the dried oregano first because it’ll stick better than if you do it after the powders.

6. Preheat your oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (with a low fan if your oven has convection). Rub the outside of the chicken with a film of EVOO and place in the oven on the raising rack with the breast side down.

7. Take a peak after a half hour and if there are drippings in the bottom of the pan and you are feeling extra attentive, use a spoon or a baster to baste those juices over the bird. Check and baste every half hour.

8. Continue the roasting/basting regimen until the bird is almost cooked and starting to be beautifully and lightly browned all around the legs. For a 3.5 lb chicken, this will probably take about an hour or an hour and half (but I really should have tested this...). The chicken will be fully cooked when you can separate the leg easily with gentle pressure using your hand. Don’t actually separate it, but give it a feel and you can tell if it’s ready to separate. Since we want to catch it just before it’s fully cooked, there should still be a little bit of resistance when you test. Remove the bird from the oven.

If it’s a larger chicken, it’ll take more time and you can even do a lower temperature. The challenge of cooking a roasted chicken is that the breast cooks a little faster than the leg and thigh, and the breast can tend to dry out. Cooking for longer at a lower temperature helps make both the white and dark meat become done at the same time while both are still very juicy and delicious. I’ve had great results with 5-6 lb chickens cooking them at 175-200 degrees Fahrenheit with a low fan for 4-6 hours. Seriously, I’m not joking. I’ve even done it overnight at 170 to have an amazing weekend roast chicken lunch.

9. Crank the heat up to 375 with a fan or 400 if you don’t have convection in your oven.

10. Flip the chicken over so the breast side is up and return to the oven.

11. Check after 8 minutes to see if the skin on the breast has started to get a nice light brown and if the leg is ready to separate. Sometimes it needs another 5-10 or so minutes. The doneness is what you are going for at this point as you don’t want to overcook and dry it out. When the leg is ready to separate with gentle pressure, you are good to go.

12. Remove the chicken from the oven and allow to rest at room temperature for 20-30 minutes.

13. Carve up your chicken and pat yourself on the back. Enjoy it. It’s probably delicious, and you put in a lot of effort. Congratulations! You have really achieved something today.

1 comment

  • ATHENIS

    I concur about cooking breast down. My guests are always amazed at how moist the breast meat comes out. I probably should use a rack, but I usually rest the chicken, breast down on top of biased cut carrots and parsnip with quartered onion – no water, no wine, because veggies emit moisture. I do a surface spice and herb Rub. Nice to see a chef affirm the breast down approach. I do this with Thanksgiving Turkey as well, with a garlic and herb compound butter. I don’t usually bother with compound butter on my chicken, though I know it would be tastier.

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