Food, particularly meat, has become more expensive, thanks to the pandemic. Supply chain issues, packing plant outbreaks, it just adds up over time. Buying turkey pieces for stock last week, I experienced some sticker shock. Seriously, $4 per pound for turkey necks? For a couple dollars more than the price of a few necks or two wings, I bought a chicken. That episode reminded me home cooks everywhere need to learn how to cut up a whole chicken.
After reviewing dozens of videos on this subject, I decided to use this one by the wonderful Melissa Clark of The New York Times to demonstrate what’s arguably one of the most valuable lessons a home cook can master. Why is it so important? Here’s an excerpt from The Kitchen Counter Cooking School:
“If there’s one skill that I think people need to learn is how to cut up a whole chicken,” said Rick Rodgers, the author of 35 cookbooks. “Roast chicken is iconic, we all love it and that’s a great skill to learn, but being able to do something with all the various parts of chicken is something even more people need to know in terms of how it fits in with their daily life.”
Why learn how to cut up a whole chicken?
Knowing your way around a chicken is a valuable lesson to learn. On average, a whole chicken costs about the same as a package of boneless skinless chicken breast, whether it’s a standard supermarket chicken or a more expensive organic variety. Used efficiently, a single chicken can provide the goods for two or three meals for a small household, plus offer up to two quarts of stock. It’s a win-win-win.
Leave the breast on the bone and bake either in a microwave or toaster oven. Quickly pan-sear or stir-fry a boneless breast for dinner. Thighs are great for braising, the legs are great in air fryers. I collect wings and freeze them, then thaw out when I have enough for a sports game snack. The remaining meat can be used in a seemingly endless parade of dishes: salads, pasta, burritos, casseroles sandwiches and so on, virtually any recipe that calls for cooked chicken.
As Rodgers notes, you not only get the eight chicken pieces, but all the bones, the back and the giblets, too. Given that popular brands of stock average about $2.50 per quart and remnant bones from just one chicken can yield up to two quarts, one chicken can provide about five bucks worth of stock.
Chicken is the No. 1 Food Search Term
In commercial terms, it’s hard to beat the importance of chicken. It’s the No. 1 search term on recipe sites such as Epicurious.com, Allrecipes.com and Foodista.com. On Google, worldwide traffic for “chicken recipes” dwarfs requests for beef, fish or vegetarian recipes. Americans consume an average 60 pounds of chicken annually, edging out beef as the nation’s preferred meat. American chicken growers process 38 million chickens daily – one for every man, woman and child in the state of California every single day. Annually, that’s 43 billion pounds each year, says the American Meat Institute, equivalent to the weight to 860 luxury cruise ships.
How Chickens Have Changed
As Michael Pollan noted in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, commercial poultry growers engineer chickens through breeding to grow significantly greater portions of breast meat. From a monetary point of view, it makes perfect fiscal sense. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts fetch as much as $6 per pound. That’s roughly five times the retail price for whole chickens, and at least twice as much as the other portions of the bird.
When Julia Child debuted in the early 1960s, shoppers purchased more than half of all retail chickens whole. Now, it’s around 10 percent. There’s a strong financial incentive to grow bigger-breasted chicken.
The Downside of Commercially Raised Chickens
To maximize profits, chickens are often confined to massive barracks where they are fed around the clock but given little exercise.
As depicted in the documentary Food Inc., some birds grow so big, so fast they ultimately cannot support themselves under the weight of their mighty breasts and fall down. Detractors of the industrial poultry process say that the system ratchets up the stress level for the chickens and breaks down their immune systems. As a result, they’re fed a blitz of antibiotics.
Upgrade to Organic for the Same Money
Many home cooks want to purchase organically raised chicken, but when it’s prefabricated into pieces, it’s often expensive and seemingly out of their budget. This is especially true for boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Learning how to cut up a whole chicken can make buying organically raised poultry more economical. At my local grocery this week, I found the following variations in pricing for whole chickens, each about 3 ½ to 5 pounds:
Basic commercial chicken: $7.50 to 8.75 per bird
Store-brand organic (Publix Greenwise): $8.60 to $10.25
Murray’s Organic: $9.40 to $12.50
So, for a couple dollars more, you can purchase organic. If you use the chicken wisely, end up with the goods for multiple meals and some chicken stock for your freezer. So go ahead. Give it a try. Even if it doesn’t look beautiful, you know what? It will still taste the same.
Eating Well: Supermarket Guide to Buying Chicken
This story was originally published in 2018. It has been updated. This story may contain affiliate links.