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Rao’s Lemon Chicken My Way, with a hand from Cook’s Illustrated

Rao’s Lemon Chicken My Way, with a hand from Cook’s Illustrated
Rao’s Original, the toughest table in town.

One of New York’s most iconic restaurants is almost impossible to get into.  Unless you are a bold-faced name or a local politician or, even better, a family with “connections” to a very specific group of Italian families, your chances of scoring a table there are slim to none.   Rao’s breaks every rule from its location (East Harlem, 455 East 114th Street NYC (Tel: 212-722-6709)) to its size (tiny) to its hours (Monday to Friday only) to its steadfastly sticking to Italian American classics on its menu.   Lately, Rao’s has expanded to Las Vegas and Los Angeles where you’ll find a far bigger welcome at far bigger restaurants than the home office ever provided.

         High on the list of Rao’s specialties is Roast Lemon Chicken, a chicken lover’s dream of crisp-skinned chicken redolent in garlic and lemon and plenty of sauce to soak up in chunks of crusty Italian bread.  For its original recipe, Rao’s cuts two small chickens in half.  They’re quickly cooked under the broiler until they’re golden bronze.  Then a sauce heavy on lemon juice and with olive oil, red wine vinegar and dried oregano is added.  The birds are broiled again and served.  You can find the recipe all over the web.  But what you likely cannot do is to replicate in your home kitchen.

 Chef Annie Petito of Cook’s Illustrated

This is because the chickens Rao’s uses are not readily found in supermarkets and because there is no way a home cook can achieve the results Rao’s salamander does. No home broiler is that powerful.  And so Cook’s Illustrated, in the person of Annie Petito, set about to create a version that brought this lemon-y, crispy, chicken with its perfect-for-dipping sauce to the home table.  As always, Chef Petito did an exhaustive amount of cooking to come anywhere close to Rao’s recipe. In my initial foray into the Cook’s Illustrated version, the results were impressive.  Certainly the lemon-y brightness was there. The chicken was infused with lemon flavor while the skin kept its crispness and crunch. But I did have a problem:  To me this is dinner-party food and not something I would cook on a weeknight.  It requires a little time. So I remade the recipe to break it into manageable blocks of cooking time.  All the early prep and partial cooking is done before the guests arrive.  The cooking is then halted.   Only in the final fifteen minutes before serving does the chicken go back in the oven before briefly resting and being served.

If you want to understand the science that went into Cook’s Illustrated’s version, please see Issue 140 of the magazine published in May/June 2016.  I will forgo that and just forge ahead with the recipe, which replaces whole chickens with chicken parts, uses a quick brining technique to season and keep the meat moist and then dries the skin to insure its crispness.  Cook’s Illustrated goes on to say “to ensure crisp skin, pour the sauce around, not on, the chicken right before serving”.  The other alteration I made: Cook’s Illustrated managed to fit all their chicken into one 12 inch skillet.  I opted to transfer my considerably more chicken to a roasting pan to complete the cooking.  I think the results do Rao’s as proud as they will you.  Here is the recipe:



6 thoughts on “Rao’s Lemon Chicken My Way, with a hand from Cook’s Illustrated”

  • Monte, great recipe, but I have a question. Is the cooking time on the sauce really 30 minutes? Since the chicken is already finished and off heat, I think it would get cold while you're whisking the sauce for an additional half hour. Please advise. Thanks!

  • Dear Juli, I cannot thank you enough for commenting. That was a typo and I am so glad you pointed it out. You are absolutely right and I was absolutely floored to see that figure in the recipe. It's THREE minutes which, thanks to you, I have now corrected. I suppose you know that the owner of Rao's died this week. So lift a glass to Frank Pelligrino Sr.

  • This recipe is good. However it makes a huge amount of sauce. I'd halve the sauce amount.

    Also I found the sauce slightly too acidic. This mellows out as the chicken is roasting but I added a tablespoon of honey to balance the acidity.

  • A couple other comments: 1)my chicken needed a lot more time in the oven than 15 minutes. Mine needed about 35 minutes total to be fully cooked.

    2) I'm in the minority but I'm not a fan of brining. I find that if you spend the extra money for a good free range chicken, the chicken already has tons of flavor. I find that liquid brining makes the texture rubbery. And dry brining, I find is not really worth the effort or time compared to the marginal benefit in taste.

    Otherwise, we enjoyed this recipe. Very homey type of meal.

  • I’m not sure why you modified the ATK /Cook’s Illustrated recipe. You say “with a hand from” but other than dividing the broth and doubling the sauce is exactly theirs that they developed. Yours has too much sauce and also a thinner sauce than the original. You would much better serve your readers by just linking to the original recipe. I’ve made it over 150 times for casual to formal events and I have yet to find a person that hasn’t thoroughly enjoyed it.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to write. I very much appreciate your input. That being said, I altered the recipe because I wanted more sauce than that yielded by the ATK/Cook’s Illustrated recipe. I think it’s a case of ‘chacun a son gout’. I have made it many times myself to great acclaim.

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