Cooking Italy: Cast Iron Roast Chicken with Lemons

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Proposal Chicken

Last November I attended the Food Buzz Festival in San Francisco and was fortunate enough to have a free night to dine with a fellow food blogger, Peter G. We went to the Zuni Cafe, and at his suggestion we ordered their signature dish, Roasted Chicken with Bread Salad. This is not that particular recipe, although I immediately came home and replicated the dish for our Thanksgiving. There is no bread salad here, which is a big part of makes Zuni chicken, Zuni chicken, but what does remain is the secret to roasting chicken, no matter how you choose to flavor it.

The flavoring for this chicken is lemon. The easiest and guaranteed most successful recipe from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking has to be roast chicken with lemons. The folklore surrounding this lemon chicken is that a marriage proposal is soon to follow after it is served. Hmmm, cooking food a man will marry you for. If this sounds corny, old-fashioned, or sexist, I can’t apologize. Food is a love language. Observe any Italian mamma, and it’s undeniable.

The Process
Use an organic chicken. It makes a difference. Rinse in cold water. Pat dry. Salt using 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt, wrap in plastic for 3 days. When ready to roast, rinse chicken again. Pat dry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Pierce two organic lemons all over with a skewer and place inside cavity of chicken. You can either sew up the chicken or use string to keep the lemons in. As the chicken roasts, the lemon soften and flavors the chicken.

The Zuni chicken is salted and refrigerated for three days. It is then roasted quickly at a very high temperature of 450 degrees, (turning once and starting breast side down) for 45-60 minutes. It will depend on your own oven, and the size of the chicken.

In Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking, she also suggests a one-hour, starting breast side down. However she cooks her chicken at a lower temperature.

I’ve done it both ways, and whichever temperature you choose, at least start with a very high temperature and a hot pan. You can reduce the heat to 400 after 20 minutes.

Here’s what happens. You heat up your cast iron pan in the 450 degree oven. You place a “patted dry” chicken (seasoned with whatever herbs and spices you prefer), or in this case a chicken stuffed with lemons, and you will hear that beautiful sound of the skin hit the hot cast iron and sizzle. This is my favorite part of the process. The next favorite part is when you take the chicken out of oven after the breast has been turned over and you feast your eyes on the almost balloon-like skin that is crispy and oh so golden brown. It’s hard to believe that when you cut through the crispy brown skin, the breast underneath is as tender as thigh meat.

The only way I have found to improve upon the Zuni chicken is to incorporate Marcella’s idea of placing lemons that have been punctured all over inside the chicken. When I cut into the succulent breast meat and smelled lemons, I felt like I had never known how to roast a chicken before. I’ve had my successes with roast chicken, but not like this. Doesn’t this make you curious as to what is happening? It did me, and here is what I learned.

Seven Tips for Successful Roast Chicken

  1. Salt in advance for up to three days – gives the same effect as a brine.
  2. Chicken must be patted dry before placing in oven.
  3. Start with a HOT HOT oven, and pre-heated (seasoned) cast iron pan.
  4. Begin with the breast side down, and crisp up the back of the chicken first.
  5. Turn over after 30 minutes and finish with breast side up.
  6. It is not necessary to tie chicken unless you are stuffing it as in this case with lemons.
  7. Use Organic chicken; there is a difference.

If you follow these steps, you will have a crispy, yet juicy roast chicken every time.

Print Recipe
5 from 1 vote

Cooking Italy: Cast Iron Roast Chicken with Lemons

Using a Marcella Hazan recipe and a zuni cafe technique, this is the best roasted chicken you will ever eat and the folklore is that a marriage proposal will follow.
Servings: 4


  • 3-4 pound chicken
  • salt
  • pepper freshly ground
  • 2 small lemons


  • Rinse in cold water, pat dry and salt chicken inside and out with 1 1/2 t of salt. Wrap in plastic for a minimum of one day, a maximum of three days.
  • Rinse salt off, pat dry and proceed.
  • Salt and pepper chicken inside and out moderately.
  • Pierce two organic lemons all over. Stuff inside of chicken.
  • Close up chicken, but not air tight.
  • Preheat cast iron pan in 450 degree oven. Place chicken breast side down. It will sizzle and sear.
  • In 30 minutes turn over and reduce oven temperature to 400 degrees. Use a meat thermometer to test doneness at 20 minutes. Chicken will take 45-60 minutes depending on size and your oven.
  • Allow to rest 10 minutes before cutting.


Marcella roasts at 350. I roast at 450. Both temperatures work, with varying cooking times. The hotter temperature brings the sizzle when using the cast iron pan. You can even roast at 400 degrees, but start with the hottest oven.
I have combined two recipes and credit must go to both. These are cookbooks that should be in every kitchen. Read them, use them, tweak them, combine them, but come under their influence.
Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking
Zuni Cafe Cookbook

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  1. 5 stars
    I do this with a whole head of garlic cut in half along with a quartered lemon/mandarin orange hybrid I get from my local market!! Absolutely my favorite roast chicken ever. But I like olive oil, salt, and pepper rubbed all over for a crispy skin.
    Your blog is the best I have ever come across, I’ve never seen one with so many recipes and ingredients I love. Thank you and please keep it up!

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