The Skinny on... Chicken

Roasters or fryers, breasts or whole birds, here’s your essential chicken primer to help navigate all the options.
Whole ChickenThe Skinny On... Series Cap

If there’s one thing people cook at home, it’s chicken. (In the US, at least. Globally, the most-consumed meat is goat.) We’ve gathered everything you need to know about choosing, prepping and cooking everyone’s go-to dinner.

Play it Safe

While the threat of contaminants can be sensationalized, a good cook takes these three precautions:

1. Don’t rinse the chicken
It sounds counterintuitive, but rinsing raw poultry can cause cross-contamination in your kitchen through random splashes or run-off. Bacteria are killed by heat, not water.

2. Wash your hands
After working with raw poultry, wash your hands with soap under very warm water for 20 seconds (about the time it takes to sing a chorus of “Jingle Bells”).

3. And clean everything else
All cutting boards and utensils also need to be washed with hot, soapy water, preferably in the dishwasher. And wash all kitchen surfaces with an approved cleaner.

Four tips for buying chicken
1. Always purchase by weight, buying what a recipe requires.

2. Check the expiration date; note whether it’s “sell by” or “use by.”

3. Rely on your nose. Raw chicken should smell bright, a little bracing, and quite fresh, not sulfurous or metallic.

4. The pink liquid in the package is not blood; it’s water absorbed during the chilling process, tinted by residual hemoglobin.

Types of whole chicken you might find at the grocery store
  • Broiler-fryers
    About 7 weeks old, between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 pounds. These small birds can be braised, roasted, stewed, steamed or grilled when whole; when cut up, they can also be oven-fried or sautéed.

  • Roasters
    Older birds, up to 5 months, and heavier, too (between 5 and 7 pounds). These birds are best left whole and roasted, grilled or steamed.

  • Rock Cornish Game Hen
    Really just a very small broiler-fryer that weighs between 1 and 2 pounds and is typically stuffed and roasted whole.

  • Capon
    Castrated male chickens between 16 weeks and 8 months old. Normally weighing 4 to 7 pounds, they are nice roasted and appreciated for their tender meat.

  • More chicken vocabulary
    Mere window-dressing without any oversight or enforcement. It means about as much as “jumbo” does to shrimp.

    An even more difficult term. The USDA has offered some guidance as to what "organic" means but there’s plenty of wiggle room within their definitions. That said, if the package includes words to the effect that the chicken has been certified by the USDA, you can be relatively confident that you’re getting a quality product. For even stricter definitions for what organic can mean, look for other entities that may certify the chicken to be organic — and then know the certifying organization as well. If it’s an entity owned by your supermarket, investigate further to see if it is worth anything as a label. If it’s an independent or regional authority, it may carry more weight. But you’ll still need to check with these organizations to know what "organic" means to them. For example, does it only have to do with the chicken feed or does it also mean antibiotic-free?

    Again, window-dressing. It can mean that there were thousands of chickens in a huge barn with a 2- x 2-foot door open at one end; a hen could walk outside if she wanted to, but most never will. Or “free-range” can mean the chickens were indeed raised in large, outdoor lots, allowed to go about their chicken-y pecking. In the end, you must know your supplier if these terms are meaningful to you. Otherwise, paying the mark-up might just amount to tossing money after wishful thinking.

    Boneless skinless chicken breasts
    Each one is more technically a “chicken breast half.” A chicken has only one breast in the barnyard — that is, the large, meaty area under the neck. In culinary parlance, it’s divided in half and becomes two “breasts” — although when left whole, both lobes together, it’s sometimes sold as a “whole breast.”

    Confusing? No kidding. Still, boneless skinless chicken breasts (or breast halves) continue to be the go-to dinner for most of us. Problem is, they can be depressingly stringy — and even flavorless, since the bone adds so much taste.

    The best remedy is to brine the cuts before cooking. Mix 3 tablespoons salt, preferably kosher salt, with 4 cups (1 quart) cool water in a large bowl. Add the boneless skinless chicken breasts, submerging them in the brine. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to 1 hour. The meat will plump considerably and can hardly be overcooked. Just omit any salt in the recipe, since the breasts will already have been salted.

    Ground chicken
    First off, let’s clear up the bureaucratic obfuscations:
    Ground chicken
    Everything’s been ground: skin, fat, muscle, white meat, dark meat, and even some parts you don’t want to know about.

    Ground chicken meat
    Only the meat has been ground, no skin or fat (or other parts), but both white and dark meat.

    Recipe for Perfect Roast Chicken
    It’s amazing how nostalgic people can get over a roast chicken — yet how few make one. And it’s so easy!
    1 Fire the oven up to 425°F. It should take about 10 minutes for a modern oven to stabilize at that temperature. In the meantime, clean the giblets and the neck from a 5- to 6-pound whole chicken.
    2 Spray the skin with nonstick spray and give the bird a light coating of salt and pepper. If you’d like, pull the skin up off the breast meat and stick some herbs in the pocket you made — rosemary, oregano, or tarragon is particularly good.
    3 Now set the bird on a roasting rack put into a larger roasting pan and bake for 15 minutes.
    4 Drop the oven’s temperature to 350°F and continue roasting until an instant-read meat thermometer inserted into the thigh without touching bone registers 165°F, about 1 more hour.
    5 Dinner’s ready!
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