Most Valuable Ingredient: Whole Chicken

In this case, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
ChickenMost valuable ingredient

A limited budget doesn't have to mean limited flavor. Our Most Valuable Ingredient series highlights those powerhouse products that are versatile, healthy, tasty and cheap, giving you the best bang for your buck.

There's logic behind that old political promise, "A chicken in every pot." Pound for pound, PointsPlus® value for PointsPlus value, a whole chicken is one of the most versatile, cost-effective meats available. No doubt about it, chicken is a Most Valuable Ingredient.

The Score
  • Here's a quick guide to some common terms you'll see on whole chickens.
  • Broiler/fryer: Slaughtered when 6 to 8 weeks old and between 1 1/2 and 3 1/2 pounds; its meat tastes mild, even delicate.
  • Roaster: Between 12 and 20 weeks old and 3 1/2 to 5 pounds, these birds have more flavor than their younger siblings.
  • Capon: Castrated roosters, capons weigh between 5 and 8 pounds and have a higher fat content and a more succulent texture.
  • No antibiotics added: The producer must document that the chickens were raised without antibiotics.
  • Organic: These chickens are given no antibiotics, must have access to the outdoors and eat only organic feed, which does not contain animal byproducts.
  • Air-chilled: Unlike the majority of chickens sold in the United States, these birds are not chilled in a chlorinated water bath after slaughtering — which can add 5 percent to 12 percent of the chicken's weight in absorbed water. Air-chilled producers like Bell & Evans claim their chickens are more tender and intensely flavored as a result.
  • Kosher: Raised, slaughtered and processed according to religious dietary laws, these birds often place at the top of taste tests.

The Stats
  • When eaten without the skin, chicken is fantastically lean, high in protein and relatively low in cholesterol.
  • Prices for whole birds range from under a dollar up to $4 per pound, depending on the brand and the way the chicken was raised — that's at least 20 cents per pound less than chicken that's been butchered for you. Brand names like Perdue and Bell & Evans cost more than store brands, but their makers say that these chickens offer more flavor and, in some cases, more meat per pound. Organic is the most expensive.
  • A 3-ounce serving of skinless, boneless breast meat is 3 PointsPlus values, and a 3-ounce serving of skinless, boneless dark meat is 5 PointsPlus values.

In Play
When buying a whole chicken, look for skin that's cream-to-yellow in color, never gray or wan.
Store in its original wrap for no more than two days, in the coldest part of the refrigerator. If you don't plan to use it within two days, remove the giblets from the cavity and freeze the bird immediately, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, then aluminum foil. Freeze the giblets separately for use in soup, gravy or stuffing. Frozen chicken will hold indefinitely, but you'll notice a decrease in quality after a few months.
Thaw frozen chicken in the refrigerator — expect it to take at least a day, if not more — or, still wrapped, in a cold water bath on the counter.
When handling raw chicken, always make sure to thoroughly clean everything it touches — cutting boards, knives, counters and of course your hands — to prevent the spread of bacteria.
If you're cutting the chicken into parts, freeze the backbone and giblets: They'll make a rich base for homemade stock. If you're roasting or poaching the whole bird, save the carcass for the same reason — when simmered along with some onion, carrot, celery and parsley, all those bones and little scraps of meat will yield an enormous amount of flavor.

  • Basic roast chicken
    (Note: the larger the bird, the better the results. The breast of a smaller bird may dry out before the thigh meat is fully cooked.) Heat oven to 425°F. Remove giblets and pat chicken dry, inside and out, with paper towels, then add salt and pepper both inside and out. Place chicken on a rack inside a roasting pan — scatter quartered onions and cut-up potatoes and root vegetables in the pan, if you like. Roast for 18 to 25 minutes per pound; chicken is done when a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 160°F, or when the drumstick wiggles freely and juices run clear. Let rest 15 minutes before serving.
  • Basic poached chicken
    Place chicken in a large pot and cover with cold water. Add peppercorns, salt and any fresh herbs you like, as well as chopped carrots, onions and celery. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for 60 to 90 minutes, depending on size of chicken. Use leftover meat in salads, sandwiches, burritos, pot pies — the possibilities are endless. Save the cooking liquid for soups and recipes that call for chicken broth.

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