Choose oven temperatures according to the cut of meat and your cooking and eating preferences. In general the larger the roast, the lower you should set the oven temperature, so that the outside doesn't overcook while the inside cooks through.
Low oven temperatures, below 300°F/150°C, cook roasts through slowly and evenly, but also are slow to brown the surface and crisp poultry skin.
Use low temperatures for large or tough roasts that will cook for hours, or to cook any roast through after an initial period of high heat to brown the surface.
High oven temperatures, above 400°F/200°C, brown and cook through quickly, but overcook the outer portions while the center gets to the proper temperature, can quickly overcook the center, and can scorch pan drippings. They require close monitoring.
Use high oven temperatures for chickens and other small roasts that cook through in less than an hour, or for an initial browning followed by low-temperature roasting to finish.
To stop valuable pan drippings from scorching in a hot oven, carefully pour enough water into the pan to cover the bottom and remoisten the drippings. Repeat as necessary.
Use moderate oven temperatures, around 350°F/175°C, to brown and cook moderately quickly and evenly, and without the close attention required by high temperatures.
Convection fans speed surface drying, browning, and cooking through by blowing the hot oven air onto the meat surface, and can cause scorching at ordinary oven temperatures. To avoid scorching, reduce non-convection roasting temperatures by 25 to 50°F / 15 to 30°C, and check browning often.
Don't trust the timings in recipes. There are too many unpredictable variables for them to be reliable. Among them are these useful adjustments:
Basting with a water-based liquid will slow browning and cooking through, because it interrupts the heating and cools the roast surface by evaporation.
Prerubbing a roast with oil or butter will speed browning and cooking through. Fat limits evaporation and the cooling it causes.
Roasting pans and tents of foil slow cooking by blocking heat radiation from oven surfaces. If the roast sits directly on the pan, not raised up on a rack, the roast bottom will fry, and brown faster than the other surfaces. A deep pan will slow the heating of the roast sides unless the rack raises the roast above the pan walls.
Remove the roast from the oven several degrees early, 5 to 10°F / 3 to 5°C for a small roast, 15 to 20°F / 7 to 10°C for a large one, if you're cooking at moderate to high oven temperatures. Residual heat near the surface will continue to raise the temperature of the center.
Let the roast rest for at least 30 minutes before carving, and preferably until the center temperature has cooled to 120 to 130°F / 50 to 55°C. The meat will retain more of its juices when cut. Cover the roast loosely with foil to prevent the surface from getting too cool.
Whole birds are a challenge to roast well. Their breast meat is low in connective tissue and best cooked to 150°F/65°C for chickens and turkeys, 135°F/57°C for ducks and squab, but their leg meat is high in connective tissue and best cooked to 160°F/70°C, and their skin is best cooked to 350°F/175°C to make it crisp and brown.
To obtain moist breast and tender leg meats:
- Don't stuff the body cavity or rely on a pop-up thermometer. Stuffing must be heated to 160°F/70°C to kill bacteria, so the breast meat will be overcooked and dry. Pop-up indicators pop only when the breast meat is already overcooked.
- Don't truss the legs. Trussed legs look neater but take longer to cook through, and longer cooking makes it even more likely that the breast will be overcooked.
- Prewarm the legs. Let the bird and legs sit at room temperature for an hour with a bag of crushed ice keeping the breast cold.
- Start the bird breast down in the roasting pan to slow its cooking. Turn it and cook breast up just long enough to brown the breast skin.
- Baste the breast with stock or another water-based liquid, or put a foil tent loosely over the breast, to slow its cooking.
To obtain a crisp skin:
- Start with a kosher or halal bird or one labeled "air-chilled, which is not soaked in water during processing.
- Pre-dry the skin by cleaning the bird the day before and leaving uncovered on a rack in the refrigerator.
- Oil the skin, and don't baste with a water-based liquid.
- Cook in a hot oven. Prebrown quail, squab, and other small birds in a frying pan, and then cook through in the oven.
- Cut the skin from the bird as soon as it's done, to separate it from the steaming meat underneath.
To salvage overdone breast meat, pull it into shreds and bathe in pan juices.
KEYS TO GOOD COOKING provides simple statements of fact and advice, along with brief explanations that help cooks understand why, and apply that understanding to other situations. Not a cookbook, Keys to Good Cooking is, simply put, a book about how to cook well.
Excerpted from Keys to Good Cooking by Harold McGee Copyright © 2010 by Harold McGee. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.