The Roast Dinner, or the Sunday Roast, or whatever you want to call it, is a very traditional British Dish. It’s one of the few parts of British cuisine that people seem to appreciate, and for good reason. Across the pond, it’s easy to see inspiration from the traditional Roast Dinner in meals such as Thanksgiving Dinner or a traditional Christmas Dinner. The origins of this meal are debated to this day. But one thing we can all agree on is that the roast dinner is a lot of hard work and takes pretty much all day to cook. But what actually is a Roast Dinner? And is it really that hard? If only someone out there could write an article that discusses these questions and offers a guide to making a decent traditional roast dinner, with some essential tips along the way…
According to my careful research, the roast dinner is a British main meal consisting of roasted meat, mashed or roasted potato, accompaniments including gravy, and varying vegetables. Part of the difficulty of a roast dinner is the amount of elements included, and the length of time required to put everything together. Even a relatively simple roast can feel overwhelming, as timing each element to be cooked perfectly can be very difficult. But it’s okay, we can get through this. Even better, the principles of a good roast dinner apply to many meals. So, let’s get cracking.
The first thing to decide is which meat to roast. This is the centrepiece of our meal and the accompaniments often rely on the meat. Note I say often, there are no real rules here. If you want Yorkshire pudding with chicken, go ahead, you crazy genius, you. Anyway, the most common meat options for a roast are beef, chicken, pork and lamb. The traditional British Sunday Dinner is usually roast beef, but the others are also very delicious. For the purposes of this article, I will be suggesting chicken. Roast chicken is cheap, easy and perfect for newcomers to this dish. It’s also the perfect amount for a family of four, although I will be touching on leftovers in the following article (it ran on too long, what can I say?). So, the basic roast chicken dinner for me will include roast potatoes, stuffing, gravy and a couple of different vegetable dishes.
With any roast dinner, the timings should probably revolve around the meat. Chicken is the fastest cooking option, taking approximately an hour and a half. You can spatchcock your chicken (removing the backbone and flattening it out) to speed up the cooking time, but we won’t be going for that option right now. The first thing to do is to preheat your oven to around 200°C (400°F) and take your meat from the fridge. Now, look at your sink and scoff at the idea of washing your chicken. Seriously, don’t wash your chicken. Unless you’re using bleach (please don’t), all you’ll achieve is splashing bacteria everywhere. Now, you’ll want to roast the bird. This isn’t a recipe per se, but I’ll give you a few tips. Underneath your chicken, I’d recommend laying some vegetables, usually celery, carrot and onion or leek. This will help make your gravy. Now, to season the chicken. This generally calls for some kind of fat to help the skin to brown, butter tastes the best but oil will do. One oft-forgotten step is to get some fat and seasoning under the chicken skin. Salt and pepper are needed, both outside the chicken and in the cavity. The cavity is also a great place to shove some garlic, fresh herbs or whatever you fancy.
Now that the meat is in the oven, it’s time to figure out what else will take time. For me, that’s roast potatoes. I usually peel enough for four, then another one just in case, and put them in a pan with cold salted water to parboil. Turmeric is a great thing to throw in the pan as well, it gives the potatoes a lovely colour and gives you an excuse to use more interesting spices. If you want weird, blotchy, reddish-pink potatoes, add some baking powder (It reacts with the turmeric, as I discovered one evening). The next ten minutes are best spent prepping some other vegetables, let’s say mashed swede and carrot, because that’s easy, delicious and traditional. Once those are peeled, chopped and set aside, remove your potatoes from the pan and get them ready for roasting. Like the chicken, this means applying fat and seasoning, salt and pepper should do. If you want to add some fresh herbs and garlic, hold off for now. Once the potatoes are ready, stick them in the oven. They will take about an hour.
Okay, next up is whatever will take the longest to cook. At this stage, I’d put the swede and carrot in a pan with cold water and let those cook. They can take a while and if they’re done early, it’s easy to keep them warm. Right now, we have the groundwork for a decent roast dinner. We just need stuffing and a couple of other vegetable dishes. Cheesy leeks or cauliflower is delicious, but maybe a bit daunting for a beginner to manage in the hour that we have left. Instead, we’ll get our stuffing together. You can get a half decent package of the stuff and just add water (and a knob of butter) and stick it in the oven when there’s half an hour to go. Or, fry up some bacon, red onion and sage and add that to your packaged stuffing to upgrade it a bit. But, stuffing isn’t difficult to make on your own. A basic British stuffing calls for stale bread or breadcrumbs, onion, sage, and some kind of binding agent like egg or milk. Whichever you choose, it should go in the oven for half an hour or. You can cook it in a dish, or roll it into adorable stuffing balls. My mileage varies.
Okay, half an hour to go. It might seem like we’ve had about twenty minutes spare before you put the stuffing in the oven, but that was a cruel trick. That bit of time could be used tidying up or preparing another accompaniment (like the aforementioned cheesy leeks/cauliflower, or perhaps getting some roasted vegetables sorted), or just grabbing a glass of something lovely and getting your bearings. It’s okay, you’ve got this. All we have to do is the gravy and the steamed veg and we’re done. So, prep your greens. Spinach, leeks, cabbage, broccoli are great for this. We don’t want to cook them until they’re mush, because the greens are what give the plate some colour and life. Good food thrives on contrast. This will be the last thing you cook, so just get it prepped and ready to go.
Now, about 75–90 minutes have passed and you have hopefully been checking on your chicken and potatoes ever twenty minutes or so, making sure they cook evenly. Once your chicken is cooked (I test by poking near the leg and seeing if the juices run clear), take it out of the oven and stick it on a plate somewhere to rest, being sure to pour any juices and whatever else in the cavity into the roasting tray. Resting is important. It will stay hot for the 10–15 minutes it needs, don’t worry. The next 10–15 minutes are where everything comes together. If the potatoes, stuffing and swede and carrot are cooked, that’s fine. Turn the oven down and they will be fine. The swede and carrot will stay hot enough in the water. Take a deep breath. Let’s go.
The gravy is, to me, one of the most important parts of the dish. So give it some love and make it from scratch, okay? Bad gravy makes a bad roast dinner. Fortunately, it’s already half-done. Use what’s in the tray that you roasted your chicken in, so the veg and the chicken juices. I will usually put this tray directly on the hob (or stove), and add a tablespoon of flour to the roasted vegetables. Then, give the whole thing a mix and a scrape. It now looks horrible. That’s great. To this, add either water or stock to make up the liquid of your gravy. If you’ve saved your potato water, you can stick it in now, or perhaps the water from draining your swede and carrots. Now you can include some flavour enhancers, so mustard works well here, and some wine or cider. Mix it together and let it cook in the roasting tray while you put your green veg on to steam. This veg will probably take a maximum of ten minutes. While that’s on, finish off the swede and carrots, drain them (either into the gravy or just in the sink) and mash them together, making sure to season liberally with salt and black pepper and a dash of nutmeg if you fancy. A little bit of butter here goes a mile. Finally, when the greens only have a couple of minutes left, I’d suggest decanting the gravy into a saucepan using a sieve. It’s easier than pouring it straight into a gravy boat, trust me.
Alright, we’re pretty much ready to serve. It doesn’t really matter how you go about this, but I usually transfer the chicken onto a serving platter, so I can pour any resting juices back into the gravy. Then I’ll stick the potatoes with the chicken and put everything into prettier serving dishes. Or just let my family get it out of the pan, like the animals they are. Now, we’ve done a relatively complete Roast Dinner and guess what? It took less than two hours. Yes, that’s still a long time, but it’s nothing like the all-day marathon that it’s made out to be. Also, this can be shortened even more by spatchcocking the chicken, cutting the time down by half an hour. That’s right, we can do a Sunday Roast in an hour and a half. That’s practically midweek meal timing.
Yes, this wasn’t a recipe in a traditional sense, more like a loose guide on the order that you should probably do things. The reason it’s not a proper recipe is because, well, these things are kind of personal. People like different things. Some people like a bit of spice, and that’s great. You can alter a roast dinner to fit any cuisine, believe me, Indian spiced roast dinners are amazing (tandoori chicken, Bombay potatoes, caraway carrots and daal with a masala sauce if you’re interested). Or jerk the chicken, add rice and peas, put allspice and scotch bonnets in everything and make it West Indian (yes I love this food too). At the minute, I add chestnuts and sprouts to all my roast dinners because it’s the season for it and I love them, even if prepping chestnuts is the worst thing ever. But hopefully, if you know what you’re doing, your big Sunday Roast can seem that bit more achievable while still being special.