When you eat a lot of chicken, like me, it’s important to know what you are getting and how to cook it well. I like buying a whole bird, rather than parts. Not only is it more economical, the meat is handled less along the way and you can cut it up exactly the way you need it. Plus, a whole bird lends itself to a variety of cooking techniques.
This is a quick guide to buying chicken, some basic seasoning, storing and cooking tips, and a simple way to break down a chicken. Add these chicken tips to the hundreds of accessible recipes, how-to videos available on youTube and your own trial, and error, you will be gourmet chicken chef in no time! So go out, buy a whole chicken and see what kinds of meals you can create tonight!
All in the Family
Cornish Hens A specially bred young chicken that usually weighs 1- 1 ½ pounds. A small hen makes one serving and a large hen can be split into two servings. Cornish hens are usually roasted, but can also be spatchcocked (butterflied and roasted).
Broiler-Fryer Chicken A very young chicken weighing 2 ½ to 3 ½ pounds. This size chicken feeds between 2 and 4 people. They can be broiled, roasted, fried or braised. They are also a great choice for grilling and spit roasting.
Roaster Young chicken, weighing 4 to 6 pounds, feeding 4 to 6 people. The larger roaster chickens have more flavor than the small broiler-fryers and more meat per pound, giving you more meat for your dollar. These chickens are great roasted, or poached, shredded and added to casseroles and stews.
Capon Young, male chickens weighing 4 to 7 pounds. This larger chicken feeds 5 to 7 people. These chickens have generous amounts of white meat and large breasts. They have a high percentage of fat, making them succulent and flavorful. This kind of chicken is almost exclusively served roasted with stuffing.
Let’s Break it Down
Whether you want to cut up a whole bird for multiple meals, or to fry all of the pieces, use a clean, washable surface, a sharp knife and even kitchen shears. When deconstructing a whole chicken, the best tool to have is a good pair of sharpened kitchen shears. Shears are easy to maneuver and control. They can also scissor through chicken bones and joints with ease. Look for a pair with a slip resistant handle.
Place the chicken on your work surface with the breast side down. To remove each wing, cut through the joint that connects the wing to the breast. When removing the wings, cut more towards the breast then you might think, into order to find the joint, and leaving a nugget of breast meat on the wing.
Remove both of the legs. The whole leg consists of the thigh and the drumstick. To remove the legs, cut through the thigh joint, bend the leg backwards until the thigh bone pops, separating it from the breast. Cut around the joint to remove the leg. When separating the leg from the breast leave enough skin on the breast to cover it. If you want to separate the thigh from the drumstick, cut through the joint, bearing down firmly.
Separate the breast from the back. Set the bird on its neck end, cut diagonally along the rib cage to the back bone. Or to separate the back, cut along both sides of the back with the kitchen shears. The back can be cooked with all of the other parts or turned into future broth.
Chickens actually only have one breast, not two. To separate the breast into two, place the remaining carcass, skin side down, on the work top. Make a cut through the V of the wishbone then bend the breast back until the keel bone pops. Then pull the bone and the cartilage from the breast and cut in half through the center. To make skinless, boneless chicken breast halves slide a sharp knife along the bone to remove the meat, pull off the skin and trim any remaining fat, skin or cartilage.
If you have only one chicken, but need to stretch a dish to feed a crowd, cut the breast halves and back in half crosswise. Or, chop every piece in half with a cleaver.
Know Your Labels
Certified Organic Chicken that is certified organic have not been given antibiotics. They have access to the outdoors, although the birds may be confined, and are fed 100% organic feed. This is a USDA certification.
Free Range The USDA requires chickens, that are certified free range, are allowed access to the outdoors. All certified organic birds are raised under free range conditions, but not all free range birds are organic. Cage free labelled chickens may not be free range chickens. The difference being- free range chickens have access to the outdoors, where cage free chickens may not.
Natural This term does not refer to how the chickens are raised. Natural means they were minimally processed after slaughter. There were no flavors, colors, preservatives, or brine added during processing.
Kosher Refers to conventionally raise chickens that are processed according to Jewish dietary laws. In Jewish law, salting is required, which also enhances the meats flavor and texture.
Air Chilled During processing, most American poultry is chilled in water. Air chilling takes longer, but may result in a less diluted flavor, and crisper skin during cooking.
To Freeze and To Thaw
Use or freeze chicken within 1-2 days of the date on the package. Discard the package and rewrap the chicken with fresh packaging before freezing. Chicken freezes well for 2-4 months depending on the packaging, for longer storage overwrap chicken with heavy foil.When freezing skinless, boneless chicken breasts whole wrap each individually in plastic wrap, then in foil or freezer paper. To freeze butterflied breast halves, individually wrap them in plastic, then stack and wrap in foil. Always label and date the packages when freezing.
Keeping chicken parts in the freezer means you’re halfway to dinner on any given day. You can even pre-portion, and pre-season, your pieces before freezing to reduce time and waste.
There are two right ways to thaw chicken. To thaw chicken in the refrigerator, if you have time, place wrapped chicken on a plate, or platter, and leave until defrosted. A whole chicken should be defrosted in the refrigerator and can take 1-2 days. If speed is a must, unwrap the frozen chicken pieces and place it in a closed, re-sealable plastic bag. In your sink, submerge the bag in cold water with the faucet running slightly. One pound of chicken breast will take less than an hour to thaw this way.
Poaching a whole chicken can be a delicious meal in its self. It is also a great way to set up all kinds of recipes including tacos, chicken pot pie, salad, sandwiches, soups and more. A 3 pound chicken yields you about 4 cups of meat. It is also a great way to cook skinless, boneless chicken. Use chicken broth, a flavorful stock, buttermilk, or something unique, as poaching liquid. Flavorful liquid helps keeps the meat moist and add extra flavor through the cooking process.
Bring a large pot of water (or stock) to a boil, add your 3 pound chicken, or pieces, and seasoning, such as garlic, onion, salt and pepper, or vegetables. Reduce the heat to medium, and simmer for 20 minutes, then turn off the heat, cover the pot and let your chicken sit in poaching liquid for 35 minutes. Remove the chicken from the broth and serve. If prepping for other recipes; cool, remove the meat from the bones and shred, as desired, then use or store in the refrigerator. Reserve the cooking liquid to make broth.
To make chicken stock. Strain the reserved poaching liquid through a cheesecloth lined sieve. Then boil it until it is reduced by half, salt to taste, and let cool completely before refrigerating. Store in the refrigerator up to three days or freeze up to two months.
Flavor Flavor Flavor
Spices Don’t forget to build a pantry of your favorite flavors! For Italian, use dried oregano and red pepper flakes. For Indian, try curry paste and Garam masala. A basic spice cabinet can build flavors from around the world! Keep spices, and dry herbs, well sealed and out of light. Taste for pungency before seasoning a dish.
Rubs A simple dry rub comes together in a snap! Think brown sugar, salt, cracked black pepper, onion, garlic, and cayenne. Rub your mixture all over the chicken, in the morning and refrigerate until dinner, to add flavor and protection from heat during cooking. You can also apply the rub to chicken before putting it in the freezer, when it thaws the flavor will start to intensify.
Marinade A marinade, or seasoning liquid, doesn’t tenderize the meat but it is an easy way to impart flavor. Most people generally marinate a few hours before cooking. You can also freeze the chicken in the marinade. If there is no time, do it after cooking. A bit of olive oil, lemon juice and garlic is all you need for a basic, flavorful marinade.
Browning your Bird
Searing a food until it is well browned creates hundreds of new flavors! If you take the time to get it right, the finished dish will be that much more delicious.
Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. Make sure the pan is very hot, add fat and don’t crowd the pan (if air can’t circulate around each piece of chicken it will steam not brown). First, brown chicken, skin side down, and undisturbed. If the chicken doesn’t release when you try to flip it, don’t force it, let it cook until it releases easily.
To spatchcock a chicken: scissor down the back of the whole chicken, leaving the meaty backbone attached on one side, flatten the chicken, season it, place it on a baking pan (open side down) and roast! Wicked easy!
Butterfly the Breast
Butterflying not only gives you a neat symmetrical shape for pan searing, it is also healthy and quick to make. Before you begin to cut the breast, remove the small inner tender, and cook it in the same way as you are the butterflied breast.
The goal is to keep all of the meat in one piece. Make a straight vertical cut down the center of the breast half, do not cut all the way through. Using a long sharp knife, not serrated, hold your knife at an angle and start to open up one side of the breast half. With the breast still lying flat, gently pull the widening flap open as you cut. Once open, turn the breast half around and open up the other side, exactly the same way, to free each flap. To ensure quick even cooking, balance out the thickness of the meat, by making short, shallow, vertical cuts in the flaps. Then pound thin with the flat side of a meat mallet or a small heavy pan.
Whether you start with a whole bird or break it down into wings, legs, thighs, drumsticks or a breast, perfectly cut in two. Season it with salt and pepper, some fresh herbs, like thyme or rosemary, or some lemon. Cook it any way you’d like: spatchcock, bake, fry, broil, poach, sauté, braise, and watch as a quick, delicious meal takes form. Use some basic cooking techniques, mix in your own ideas, and you’ll be ready for dinner; no matter what comes your way!
Your turn! If you have any tips or advice for buying, seasoning, storing or cooking chicken, let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear what you’ve got!