Lemon Basil Roast Chicken

chicken lemon pen and palate

illustration: tram nguyen


Last week at the community garden, I found this leafy thing in my little raised bed that looked a bit like basil but it could have been a weed. Whatever it was, I didn’t plant it. I wasn’t sure, so naturally I stuck it in my mouth.  What’s the worst that could happen right?  It’s organic!

So, I didn’t die. To my surprise, this unassuming leaf tasted almost exactly like lemon heads, with a subtle anise-y undercurrent. That mysterious plant was lemon basil, which had somehow wandered into my sad little plot. I decided the best thing to pair it with would be a roast chicken, piling on the citrusy flavor with zest and lemon juice.  I’ve tried so many roast lemon chicken recipes that sound promising but inevitably end up breaking my heart. They are usually fine, because a roast chicken is pretty difficult to mess up, but the lemon flavor is never very pronounced. If you can’t get your hands on lemon basil, I suspect this would work really well with lemon grass or just regular sweet basil.

I prefer to use smaller, whole, organic, free-range (you know the drill) chickens.  If you can find one that is air-chilled, even better.  When you are done devouring your chicken, the carcass can go into a freezer bag, expressly devoted to ingredients from which you can make your own stock. (Which you have every intention of doing so, but if you’re being honest with yourself, probably never will. And then the chicken bag will sit, languishing at the bottom of your freezer until it is covered in frost and completely un-recognizable.)  The drippings from this chicken are fantastic, almost better than the bird itself, and are pretty great as a dressing on a simple green salad.


A small whole chicken, about 3 pounds
Zest from one lemon
1 Tbs lemon basil, chopped finely (or if you can’t find lemon basil, run the tender part of a stalk of lemon grass in your food processor until it is finely chopped)
1 Tbs soy sauce
Juice from half a lemon
2 Tbs butter, softened
4-6 sprigs of lemon basil (or alternatively, about 4 stalks of lemongrass, tender parts only, cut to 6″ lengths)
Salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F.

Remove giblets and pat your chicken dry, inside and out.

Mix the zest, lemon basil, lemon juice, and soy sauce into your butter.

Place the chicken inside your cooking vessel.  I use an itty bitty 2 quart french oven, about 7.5 inches in diameter that my chicken fits inside perfectly, but any heavy bottomed oven-safe pot will do.

Rub the herb butter all over your chicken.

With a generous hand, season your chicken with salt and a few grinds of black pepper.

Stuff the cavity with the lemon basil sprigs and the remaining lemon half.  Tie the legs together with kitchen string.  Tuck the wing tips underneath the chicken.

Roast in the oven for about 40 minutes, or until the juices run clear when pierced between the thigh and the leg.  Transfer your chicken to your carving board.  Lightly tent with aluminum foil and let rest for about 15 minutes before serving.

5 Comments Write a comment

  1. Your illustrations are adorable! I love the different varieties of basil–what a nice surprise for you in your garden. As for the chickens, I have done some homework about free range–it’s not what you think. Free range can mean chickens still don’t see the light of day! I know buy from farmer’s markets and ask if the chicken is happy. i.e. are they outdoors on the pasture/field eating what they are suppose to eat (no soy OR corn)!

  2. Thanks for the heads up! I had no idea. I had to do a double take at the grocery store the other day when I saw that the Purdue chicken packaging claimed that their product was “all natural” (quotations mine).

  3. I might have to give this a go! My one piece of advice would be to rest your chicken after cooking ,breast side down for half an hour (maybe 20 for a tiny chook) and loosely cover with foil. This will give you the most juicy chicken possible. A lesson I will never forget that I try to pass on to everyone!

  4. Be careful when it comes to the term “natural” on food items. There is actually no regulations or definition for “natural” that is recognized by the USDA or FDA. It’s better to look for USDA certified organic because companies have to go through strict procedures and meet certain criteria to have this claim on their product. Now, off to find me some lemon basil!

  5. Thanks for the reminder Kitty! That’s a great tip. My chicken was smallish, about three pounds, so I only rested it for 15 minutes

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