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.”
Knowing your way around a chicken is a valuable thing 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.
The breast can be left on the bone and baked, a boneless breast can be quickly sautéed for dinner, the thigh meat can be cut up for a stir-fry, the legs oven-fried and the wings collected and frozen for snacks. 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.
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.
As Michael Pollan noted in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, commercial poultry growers have researched how to 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 – roughly five times the retail price for whole chickens, and at least twice as much as the other portions of the bird. The downside? To maximize profits chickens are often confined to massive barracks where they are provided growth-promoting feed 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, thus requiring mass poultry growers to use a lot of antibiotics.
When Julia Child debuted in the early 1960s, shoppers purchased more than half of all retail chickens whole. Now, it’s around 10 percent…”
One additional note since I wrote that book. A lot of people want to purchase organically raised chicken, but when it’s prefabricated into pieces, it’s often expensive, especially for chicken breasts. Learning 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: $4.90 to 6.25 per bird
Store-brand organic (Publix Greenwise): $7.60 to $9
Murray’s Organic: $8.40 to $10.25
So, for a couple dollars more, you can go organic and, 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
Below, a terrific video on buying chicken from GrocerySchool.