Chicken! The most popular meat in the US, and widely eaten around the world too. Why is it so popular? Well, chickens are easy to raise, and in addition to the wonderful eggs they gift us, the birds themselves are an excellent source of lean protein and a delightful base for soups.
Chicken is also popular due to it’s versatility. It can be baked, fried, seared, ground, broiled, poached, braised; really it can be consumed any way besides raw! Roast it whole or break it down; there are an infinite number of ways to prepare this lovely bird. The meat is tender and takes to whatever flavors tickle your fancy. It is gracious and forgiving as well, especially the dark meat.
Every cook should know how to break down a whole chicken. There are four to eight servings of meat on every bird, plus plenty of skin, bones, and giblets to enhance other foods and make priceless chicken stock.
One of my favorite things about Chicken? The Price. Whole chickens usually go for less than $2 a pound, and these days, that’s a crazy low price for wholesome meat. For about $16 I get about 6 meals, plus carcasses, bones and neck for stock, and gizzards to enhance my homemade sausage.
Break it down!
To help illustrate how to break down a chicken, I’m including this clip from a vintage Hot Kitchen episode # 23, Red Chicken. Although I am cutting up a cooked chicken, the technique is virtually the same.
If you’re new here, the theme music and font are OLD! But the demonstration is solid, so watch and learn.
About the Parts:
Thighs & Legs: Dark Meat. It is the fattiest, most tender part of the bird. Love it grilled because fat is released from the meat. Also delicious baked, fried, and braised. Very versatile. Can be done skin on or off.
Wings: Light Meat. Awesome baked or fried, then tossed in spicy sauce. Naturally bite-sized portions. Very flavorful due to close contact with fatty skin and bones. Use the skinny wing tips to thicken stocks, they’re not really worth eating.
Drumettes: Light Meat. The upper, meatier portion of the wing. Same meat, same flavor, just more of it than the lower portion.
Breasts: Light Meat. As pictured, boneless and skinless. Tender, very lean, very versatile. Not a lot of flavor, but receptive to seasoning. Prone to drying out with high heat cooking. Use low and slow to preserve moisture. Slice thick breasts in half to stretch the budget. Often the breasts are “thin sliced” or pounded out to make the meat an even thickness, which makes it easier to cook evenly.
Tenders: Light Meat. It is a little flap on the underside of the breast, right on the bone. These are awesome deep fried, but can also be grilled or seared for a quick addition to pastas, salads, etc. Treat much like the breast as they are low in fat and prone to drying out.
Neck: Giblet. Lots of fat, connective tissues and bones make this a great enhancement to chicken stock or gravy. Simmer over low heat for about two hours to fully extract.
Liver: Giblet. This small liver is a great addition to sausage, casseroles, soups, etc. when chopped up fine. If you like liver, try dredging & searing it, and eat it as a tide-me-over snack while you cook. I personally don’t care for liver, except for when it is pureed with cream, shallots, and other yummy things and served as pate. I save them up to enhance dishes and make a batch of pate. You need about five chicken livers to justify the hassle of pate.
Heart: Giblet. Firm, rubbery even, the heart is best finely chopped and used as a flavor enhancer. Add it to stock, soup, casserole, sauces, etc. I like to grind it in with my homemade sausage too. Can totally be eaten whole, but it is an aquired taste.
Carcass/Skin (Not Pictured ’cause it’s ugly): Giblet. Render the fat by gently heating the bones and skin for a while. Cool the liquid and skim the fat off the top. This is Schmaltz, a popular ingredient in kosher cooking. Or just cover it all in water, bring to a boil and simmer for two hours. Strain. You’ve just made basic chicken stock. See On Stock Cookery for more about stock
Try picking up a whole chicken and breaking it down. No, it probably won’t go right the first time, but practice makes perfect. And in the meantime, you just procured meat for several meals, saved a bunch of money, and learned a valuable new culinary skill. Whole chicken is a win-win.