Americans eat a lot of chicken. According to the USDA, Americans consume about an average of 60 pounds of chicken per year, up almost 6-fold (from about 10 lbs per person) a century ago. So, unless you’re a vegetarian, chances are chicken is a staple in your diet.
Deciding how to prepare chicken means answering a lot of questions. Are you going to roast a whole chicken or bake pieces, sautéor stir fry them, will you grill, broil, or stew pieces or would you prefer them poached? If you’ve got pieces will you use them with skin on or off? Do you want light meat or dark, or both? If it’s breast meat you’re cooking, will it be “on the bone” or boneless? Will you serve it with the skin or without?
Let’s go through the maze of chicken choices together.
Which parts of the chicken will you use?
Chicken breasts and wings are white meat, while drumsticks and thighs (the term chicken “leg” means the connected drumstick and thigh in a single piece) are dark meat. If you buy a whole chicken, whether it’s a roaster or another type packaged in one piece or cut-up, you’ll obviously get both types of meat. If you buy a whole chicken and don’t want to roast it, consider saving the back and giblets (the various parts found inside the chicken) for making chicken soup. Here’s a handy guide to giblets. Grocery stores sell pre-packaged selections of several different chicken parts called “Pick of the Chix” and variations on that theme. If you want to use just light or dark meat or a single part of the chicken, you should consider buying a package of just the part(s) you want to use.
How much time do you have to cook the chicken?
Roasting a chicken takes 1-3 hours depending on the size of the bird. Though time-consuming, roasting is easy – it doesn’t require a lot of extra ingredients or preparation. The other methods are quicker, but generally require more ingredients and preparation. Stir-frying small pieces of breast meat is quick, but you should factor in time to cut and season the meat and any vegetables that will go in the stir fry. Boneless chicken breasts also cook quickly if you sauté poach or grill them. As a general rule, cooking at low temperature in the oven or on a burner/cook-top will take the longest time no matter which pieces you cook.
What equipment/appliances do you have for cooking the chicken?
If you have only an electric skillet, a burner or a cook-top, you cannot roast, bake, or broil, but you still have a lot of options. You can sauté or stir-fry, or you can brown chicken pieces on the outside then poach them in a bit of liquid or stew them in a covered pot with lots of sauce and vegetables. Or you could do arroz con pollo, a recipe in which the chicken pieces are browned, then cooked slowly with rice. If you don’t have a large pan, but have a cookie sheet and oven, then forget stewing, poaching or frying, and go straight to baking or broiling. With no indoor cooking facilities at all, but a patio and hibatchi – you can still grill!
Do you need to stretch your budget?
If so, consider a recipe with sauce that so you can add a starch (potatoes, rice, pasta or noodles) and other vegetables to stretch the dish. Plus, you can always add a good bread to saok up the sauce. You can also save money by picking a recipe that uses the less expensive cuts of poultry – typically dark meat or wings. Many stores sell “value packs” – larger quantities of chicken pieces at a cheaper per pound price. If you can use the large amount of meat in a reasonable time and have enough freezer space, consider buying a value pack, splitting it up with some frozen for later use.
Are you trying to make the chicken dish fat-free or with minimal fat?
You know to skip the deep fried chicken, right? (Or have a fried chicken “fling” at a fast food joint once a year – feel awful for the rest of the evening and a bit guilty, then get back to healthier eating at home with the rest of us.)
If a recipe calls for frying or sautéing chicken pieces, minimize how much fat is absorbed by pre-heating the fat and taking out any left on the bottom of the pan afterwards, before moving on to the next step. If a recipe calls for butter, you can make the dish healthier by substituting olive or other oil for part or all of the butter.
Also, removing the skin eliminates much of the fat in the chicken itself. You can still cook the chicken with the skin on (to prevent drying out during cooking – just remove the skin before eating. The skin on a breast of chicken adds 36% more calories, 166% more fat and 100% more saturated fat than the same breast without the skin. If you eat one chicken breast a week and take the skin off, you save a pound of extra weight per year over what you would weigh if you don’t take the skin off.
If you’re really into maximizing the nutritional content of your chicken dish and minimizing the calories and fat, use this database to check out how your recipe ingredients and preparation method stack up.
I have lots of ideas for future “chicken posts”, including what to do with leftover chicken, how to make a chicken dinner for 2 for under $10, and how to make chicken soup for your soul (and those of your nearest and dearest.) If you have other ideas for what you’d like to cover on the topic of “all-you-want-to-know-about chicken-but decided-not-to-ask-your-own-mother (or father)”, click here to send in your thoughts.