Turns out, the secret isn't in the ingredients at all.

By Adina Steiman
Updated March 02, 2020
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Victor Protasio

Dozens of delicious roast chicken recipes have made their way through the Food & Wine test kitchen, from buttermilk-brined and salsa-verde doused to soy-sauce glazed and citrus-marinated. All incredibly tasty, every one unique. But when F&W's Senior Food Editor Mary-Frances Heck declared, in her engrossing feature on clay-pot cooking, that this recipe for a whole chicken roasted in a relatively obscure German-clay casserole dish is "the most delicious, juiciest roast chicken we’ve ever made in the F&W kitchen," my ears perked up like a hunting dog's. Is it possible that something called a Römertopf delivers results that no brining, salting, sheet-pan roasting, or low-heat slow cooking can?

Heck will attest that not only is the Römertopf-roasted chicken the best one she's had—it's next to impossible to overcook a bird while using one. As Heck explained in her feature, "During testing, one chicken was accidentally overcooked to an internal temperature of 190F. It should have been tough and dry, but when the chicken was pierced with a knife, juices shot across the room. Forget brining; forget hair dryers—the Römertopf is the key to the best roast chicken you'll ever make."

After reading this enticing—and rather shocking—testimonial, I had more questions about this miraculous clay vessel and its chicken-whisperer ways, and Heck graciously obliged with answers. Here's what I learned:

Discover the World of "Steam-Roasting"

Unlike most roast chicken recipes, which use a roasting pan or a baking sheet, the Römertopf method involves cooking a whole chicken in a ceramic casserole dish that's covered (at least most of the time) with an unglazed, porous ceramic lid.  You'd think that a covered pan would only steam the bird rather than roasting it. But the porous clay lid helps gently concentrate heat without trapping excess water, ensuring the chicken turns super-juicy without leaving it flabby. It's the best of both worlds.

Soak the Römertopf Lid Before Using

Since the Römertopf lid is made of porous, raw clay, immersing it in water for 30 minutes creates a built-in source of gentle steam within the pot, helping the chicken to cook slowly and evenly. As Heck writes in her story, "It's like baking in a salt crust without the mess." And with the circulating water vapor from the lid and from the chicken, "not a drop of juice escapes," Heck assured me.

Skip the Elaborate Seasonings—and the Oil

Amazingly, there's no need to rub oil or softened butter on your chicken when roasting in a Römertopf. You don't even have to toss the vegetables underneath the bird with oil, either. Since the base of the Römertopf is made of curved, glazed ceramic, it concentrates the chicken fat and juices in the pan, effectively basting everything together.

Likewise, all that flavor concentration means you don't have to brainstorm a clever combo of spices to liven up your chicken. "The bird is simply seasoned, as are the veggies," Heck notes. Just a bit of shallot, thyme, and garlic are all you need for this recipe. Add carrots, parsnips, and Yukon Gold potatoes, and you've built up an entire meal in the Römertopf. "All of the aromatics—the shallot, thyme, and garlic—mingle with the rich chicken flavor and sweet, earthy root vegetable aromas," she says.

Start Roasting in a Cold Oven, Not a Preheated One

Clay vessels can be prone to cracking with rapid changes of temperature, so you'll build your recipe in the Römertopf and then place the covered dish in a cold oven set to 425F. But even though you don't need to wait for the oven to pre-heat, you do need to soak the lid 30 minutes ahead of time (see above).

Use a Timer and a Good Thermometer

"It's really important to use a timer and thermometer because, even though the bird will stay juicy, the meat will toughen up if it overcooks," Heck explains. When the temperature in the thickest part of the breast measures 125F, that's your cue to uncover the Römertopf and finish cooking to 155F. Carryover cooking will bring the final temperature to 165F after the chicken rests. "Uncovering the Römertopf in the last 20 minutes of cooking allows the skin to crisp and the veggies to caramelize in the chicken drippings," Heck says. "You really have to try it to believe the delicious results." Me? I'm ordering my Römertopf as we speak.

Buy the Römertopf: $48 (originally $92) at amazon.com