Zuni Chicken (Roast Chicken with Bread Salad)


“I’ve always been confident that simple, delicious food is good on its own terms. You just have to not mess it up.” — Judy Rodgers

Zuni Chicken

Christopher Testani / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Christina Daley

Active Time:
20 mins
Total Time:
1 hrs

At Zuni Café in San Srancisco, the wood-burning brick oven in the center of the dining room entices diners to give in to the simple luxury of a perfectly roasted chicken. Chef Judy Rodgers, the owner of Zuni Café who died in 2013, said that the oven came first: She added the now-famous chicken to the menu to take advantage of oven space—and to challenge guests to reconsider the bird.

Rodgers knew diners tended to skip chicken when they ate out because it was so ubiquitous at home. But a beautiful roast chicken was reminiscent of the food she ate during her time as an exchange student in France. She lived with chef Jean Troisgros and his family, and the meals they ate at home (and the rotisserie chickens she bought at the market) were her favorite memories. Rodgers wanted to evoke that feeling at the restaurant and garner respect for what she called “everyday, traditional food.”

The recipe for Zuni Café’s Roast Chicken with Bread Salad is reliable and easy. (The hardest part is remembering to salt the chicken a day or two before you want to eat it.) The bird is succulent, with a salty, crispy skin; the bread salad is punctuated with currants and tempered with slightly bitter chicories. It’s the perfect thing to eat on a Sunday night.

The dry-brining, or pre-salting, technique became synonymous with both Zuni and Rodgers; you’ll find references to Zuni-style or Judy-style chickens and turkeys all over the internet. Rodgers learned the technique in southwest France as a young cook at l’Estanquet in Les Landes.

“The cook once told me to salt the sea bass that was left over at the end of the night,” Rodgers told me in a 2013 interview. “We cooked it the next day, and it was the best sea bass I’d ever had in my life. It was juicy, succulent. That principle popped out to me, that it’s juicier, not dry. Everyone thinks the key to juicy chicken is the marinade, but the only thing that gets inside the cells is salt. If you rub the herbs on the surface, you get the flavor just on the surface. But if you season chicken with salt and other aromatics together, the herbs are wrapped in the arms of the salt, and the flavor of the aromatics migrates into the meat. That’s why it gets so juicy and tender.”

As we roasted and tasted Zuni chickens in the Food & Wine test kitchen, I realized how many details had been lost over the years. I had forgotten that the bread as prescribed by Rodgers in her 2002 cookbook was soft—at home, I tend to make large, crunchy croutons. At some point, I began swapping in dried cranberries for the currants, and, because a good chicory can be hard to find at my local grocer, I’d supplement the radicchio with arugula for the salad. I’ve also long since given up trying to find the three-pound chickens Rodgers advocated for using, instead settling on a four-pounder.

In retesting this recipe, I was reminded of how fraught it is to keep a dish like this static. Our tastes have evolved over the past few decades, as have the size of chickens and the availability of good bread and quality greens. We can try and insist that the recipe remain the same, or we can let it change along with us—and that’s exactly what we did.

Throughout it all, we asked, “How do you make something as simple as roast chicken special?” And we learned that the Zuni chicken is less of a target to hit than it is a series of lessons: The value of sourcing a small, high-quality bird to achieve the ideal ratio of skin to fat to meat. The reward that comes from pre-salting. And, perhaps most important, the necessity of honoring the integrity of a recipe while still paying attention to what works for you right now, and remembering that the simplest meals can be the most memorable. — Chandra Ram


Roast Chicken

  • 1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) free-range whole chicken

  • 4 (4-inch) thyme sprigs

  • 4 small garlic cloves, smashed and roughly chopped

  • 3 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Bread Salad

  • 1 tablespoon warm water (90°F to 110°F)

  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon dried currants

  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

  • 2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar

  • 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

  • 1/2 pound day-old, open-crumb, chewy, rustic bread loaf (not sourdough), cut into large (2-inch) chunks (about 2 1/2 cups)

  • 4 medium scallions (about 2 ounces), trimmed and thinly sliced crosswise (about 3/4 cup)

  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced (about 1 tablespoon)

  • 1 tablespoon pine nuts

  • 4 cups lightly packed greens (such as chicory, escarole, or radicchio) (about 4 ounces) 


Make the roast chicken:

  1. Gently loosen skin from chicken breasts and thighs using your fingers. Stuff thyme and garlic under skin, spreading in an even layer. Sprinkle salt and pepper evenly over chicken. Place chicken on a wire rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate, uncovered, at least 24 hours or up to 48 hours.

Make the bread salad:

  1. Preheat oven to 450°F. Stir together 1 tablespoon warm water and red wine vinegar in a small bowl; add currants, and soak until plumped, about 10 minutes. Drain currants; set aside.

  2. Whisk together 1/2 cup olive oil and Champagne vinegar in a small bowl; season dressing with salt and pepper.

  3. Toss together bread and 2 tablespoons olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet until well combined. Bake in preheated oven until lightly toasted, 8 to 12 minutes, flipping bread once halfway through baking time. Let stand on baking sheet until cool enough to handle, 5 to 10 minutes; tear bread into smaller, bite-size (1- to 1 1/2-inch) pieces. Toss bread with three-quarters of dressing (about 1/2 cup) in a large bowl, and let stand until bread absorbs liquid, about 15 minutes.

  4. Heat 1/2 tablespoon olive oil in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-low. Add scallions and garlic; cook, stirring often, until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in pine nuts. Transfer to bowl with bread. Add currants, and toss until well combined.

  5. Spoon bread salad into a shallow 8-inch square baking dish. Cover loosely with aluminum foil; bake in preheated oven until heated through, about 15 minutes. Uncover and bake until tops of bread cubes are dry and bottoms are lightly browned, 6 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven; set aside.

  6. Increase oven temperature to 500°F. Wipe skillet clean, and transfer to oven to preheat for 8 minutes. Remove heated skillet from oven, and add remaining 11/2 tablespoons oil to hot skillet, swirling to coat. Pat chicken dry, and carefully place in skillet, breast side up. Roast at 500°F until juices run clear when a thigh is pierced using a knife and an instant-read thermometer inserted in thickest portion of breast and thigh registers at least 160°F to 165°F, 45 to 55 minutes. Transfer chicken to a cutting board, and let rest, uncovered, 10 minutes.

  7. Tilt chicken and cutting board over skillet, and drain juices into drippings. Skim fat from juices in skillet, and bring to a simmer over medium-low; stir and scrape bottom of skillet to soften any hard golden drippings using a wooden spoon, about 1 minute. Return bread salad to large bowl; drizzle with a spoonful of pan juices, and toss. Add greens and remaining 3 tablespoons dressing; fold until well combined.

  8. Cut chicken into pieces. Arrange bread salad mixture and chicken on a platter. Serve immediately.

Suggested Pairing

Ripe, rich Sonoma Chardonnay.

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