Last summer I stopped buying pre-cut chicken parts and started buying whole chickens. That’s a big change for someone like me. Let me describe what a whole-bird-buyer gets himself into.
Of course, it depends. I took How to Cook Everything as my first guide. Many alternatives reside on the Web (e.g. here). Here’s what I like to get:
- 4 thighs and 4 drumsticks,
- 4 cutlets and 4 tenderloins,
- 4 wingettes and 4 drumettes,
- 4 wing tips, 2 carcasses, and 2 sets of giblets, and
- a heaping handful of skin and fat.
The thigh: The thigh is cut from the leg. I remove the skin and trim the fat from the thighs as a concession to my health-conscious wife. Yet the thigh is still my favorite piece of the bird because of all the dark meat. I freeze these two at a time. (For more information on freezing, see this Good Eats episode.)
The drumstick: This is also cut from the leg. It’s my least favorite part. The bone-to-meat ratio seems too high and some of that bone (e.g. the fibula, who knew?) is inconvenient to eat around. I prefer cooking drumsticks in things like curries with many supporting members. Confit also provides good results. I freeze these four at a time.
The breast: Chicken breast is the two pairs of pectoral muscles. Only recently did I learn that a breast is halved into pieces like this has been divided into cutlets. I actually prefer to divide the breasts into four pieces: the larger muscle I call the “cutlet” (pectoralis major) and what is known as the tenderloin (pectoralis minor). Most methods I’m aware of keep these two pieces together. Separating the tenderloin from the cutlet makes it easier for me to cook the cutlet evenly. The tenderloin also makes nice chicken strips for my toddler. I like to cook the cutlets alla Milanese or slice them thinly and poach them in a curry. I freeze cutlets two to a packet and tenderloins four at a time.
The wing: The wingette and drumette are cut from the wing. Go here for some nice pictures. I use wings and drumettes almost exclusively for “Wings Night” at my house. I preserve these pieces by bagging them twice. I first bag a small set in a small freezer bag. That bag is then added to a large freezer bag. Double bagging saves me from having to defrost a very large block of chicken wings.
Carcass, wing tips, heart, neck, and gizzard: I make stock from the carcass, wing tips, and the giblets (if included, all the parts wrapped in the packet that’s stuffed into the cavity of the bird). The livers I reserve and saute as a snack. For stock I turn to my pressure cooker. The slow cooker is also convenient. See here for a characteristically great discussion of pressure cooker stocks at Cooking Issues.
Skin and fat: I give the skin a very rough chop, add it to a skillet, and cook over medium heat. With a minimum of stirring the skin gives up its fat. The skin then fries in that rendered fat and turns into cracklings. The cracklings I remove with a spider. Cracklings are good for garnishes or quick (diet-unfriendly) snacks. The rendered fat I store in the fridge.
One size doesn’t fit all
Whole chickens aren’t for everyone. A person has to enjoy breaking down chicken or working on basic skills. There is a learning curve. Tastes vary and paying for convenience makes sense for some. But for those like me who find this fun, the money saved is a nice bonus. For example, whole chickens at our local Wegmans cost less than a dollar per pound. A little labor and twelve dollars gets me all the parts listed above. That’s a lot of food! By my count, that’s five dinners of cutlets, thighs, and drumsticks for my small family (me, my wife, and our toddler). There are also the liver snacks, chicken fat, cracklings, Wings Night parts, and the stock. I probably won’t go back to buying pre-cut birds.