Wait – Chicken, like the animal?
Yep. At some point in our lives, we realize that the cute little cluckers that we’ve learned about in Old Macdonald’s sing-a-long are the very same ones that we’re eating. Hopefully this isn’t the first time you’re hearing this news…if so, Santa is also…completely and totally real! Obviously!
Poultry (including chicken, turkey, geese, and ducks) is a common and well-liked protein source in many diets all around the world. We all know what a chicken is, but maybe we don’t know as much as we’d like to about the chicken we consume in our diet! There’s a whole lot of information about our feathery friend, so get comfortable! We’ll talk about different cuts, how to cook chicken, purchasing and storing chicken, and the nutritional and physical composition of the bird.
Parts of a Chicken
It’s a little odd to really think about, but meat is just the muscle of an animal. So, when you’re eating chicken, you’re eating the animal’s muscles. You’ve probably heard of “white meat” and “dark meat”, right? The difference between these is the amount of myoglobin the meat has – a protein found in the muscles of mammals. Myoglobin provides oxygen for muscles during movement and exercise. The more a muscle is worked, the more myoglobin it contains, which changes the color to a darker hue. This means that heavily used muscles like thighs will be higher in myoglobin and darker than less used muscles, like breasts. This makes sense if you think about it – chickens use their legs to run around, and don’t often fly, so the muscles getting worked are in the legs, not the breasts or wings. Dark meat is generally more tender because it has a slightly higher fat content, and it contains higher levels of iron and zinc, too!
Breast: White meat and relatively dry. Tenderloins are part of the breast.
Legs: Two segments, both dark meat and juicy.
1. Drumstick: Lower part of the leg.
2. Thigh: Upper part of the leg.
Wings: Two parts that are edible. White meat.
1. “Flats”: Comprised of two bones, these appear flatter!
2. “Drumettes”: One bone, these resemble mini drumsticks.
These parts of the chicken can be eaten with or without the skin. Most of the chicken fat is concentrated in the skin, so you’re adding quite a few calories if you choose to keep the skin on.
There are other parts of a chicken that are consumed in certain cultures or cuisines, but we’ll stick to the meat of the chicken. If you’re interested, you can check out chicken feet, chicken liver, chicken heads, necks, and gizzards.
Poultry is a primary source of protein and fat, so you’ll find mostly protein and some fat, depending on the part of the chicken you eat. Chicken skin is very fatty, and dark meat is fattier than white meat. Thus, the skinless chicken breast is a staple ingredient for so many low-calorie and healthy recipes!
Each ounce of chicken has approximately 7 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat, and no carbohydrates. A good serving size is 3-4 oz, or roughly the size of your palm or a deck of cards. Chicken is also a great source of Niacin, Vitamin B6, and Selenium!
The nutrition facts label below is for skinless chicken breast, roasted. (Yum!)
Classification of Chicken
If you’re interested in buying a whole bird, they are given different names depending on their age at slaughter and sometimes their sex.
Broilers/Fryers: Male or Female, < 10 weeks old. 3-5 lbs. These chickens have soft skin, tender and juicy meat, a flexible breastbone, and are the most common! Despite what their name suggests, these chickens are all-purpose and can be cooked all kinds of ways! Generally serves 3-4 people.
Roasters: Male or Female, 10-12 weeks old. 6-8 lbs. Breastbone becomes less flexible. Roast ’em, grill ’em, braise ’em, stew ’em. Generally serves 5-7 people.
Capons: Neutered male, <4 months old. 12-14 lbs. Tenderness and juiciness are comparable to broilers/fryers! Best roasted, these chickens have a higher fat content – even in their white meat – that others. Generally serves 6-9 people.
Cornish Hens: Crossbred Female, 5-6 weeks old. <2 lbs. Very tender, these chickens are low in fat and serve only 1-2 people. Though traditionally stuffed and roasted, these little ones can also be broiled, braised, grilled, or sautéed.
Mature/Stewing Chickens: Male or Female, >10 months old. Tougher meat, coarser skill, inflexible breastbone. These chickens are best cooked low and slow, as in stewing, simmering, or braising.
Purchasing and Storing Chicken
Chickens are available to purchase in all stages of preparation. Everywhere from a whole, live bird to processed nuggets, you’ll be able to find a type of edible chicken that you’ll like. Yep, you could buy your own live chicken and raise it to slaughter if you’re into that. For most of us, though, I think stopping in the grocery store is the norm.
Whole chickens can be purchased from the store, with the feathers and other inedible parts removed. Roast the whole bird in the oven, stuffed with some goodies to provide lots of flavor!
Half and quarter chickens may also be available.
Chicken parts can be found, too. Thighs, drumsticks, wings, breasts, and tenderloins are common cuts found in any grocery store. These can be bone-in or boneless, with or without skin. These are the most common form of raw chicken you’ll find and use to prepare chicken at home. It’s up to you if you want bones or skin.
Ground chicken is sometimes available as a substitute for ground beef, and can be used to make chicken burgers or chili.
Chicken is also found frozen, as in breaded chicken fingers, nuggets, or even grilled strips. It may be part of a frozen meal, or chunked up in a can of soup. Oh, by the way, there’s canned chicken sitting on shelves, too. I don’t know anything about that – I won’t go near the stuff.
Keep in mind that the more processed and convenient a food is, the less “whole” it is. (Literally, processed foods and whole foods are opposites of each other). So you may not be getting the full nutritional value if you eat 3 oz of chicken nuggets vs 3 oz baked chicken breast. Not to mention the added sodium and preservatives to these processed foods!
Okay, so you’ve gone through the grocery store and picked your favorite cut of chicken. It’s pink and raw and hopefully not dripping out of the package anywhere. What now?
First of all – if it’s dripping, it needs to be wrapped up better. We don’t want chicken juice dripping all over the place, as that’ll spread germs. Gross!
Raw chicken needs to be refrigerated in an airtight package or container. You can keep it in the fridge for about 1-2 days before you should either cook or freeze it.
If you’ve purchased a package of multiple breasts/thighs/whatever, it’s best to store each one separately upon freezing. This way, they won’t stick together and become a megabreast which is impossible to get apart.
The easiest way to freeze chicken is to wrap each individual piece in plastic wrap, then place them into a larger freezer bag. Whenever you need one or two, you can pull them out easily to thaw, then reseal the bag to keep the others airtight. Slap a date on the freezer bag so you know how long they’ve been in there if you happen to bury it with all your other freezer stuff. It’ll keep in the freezer for six to nine months.
If you’ve purchased individually wrapped cuts already, you got it easy! They’ll cost a little bit more at the store for the convenience packaging, but it saves you from having to handle raw chicken and wrap them up.
For cooked chicken, place leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3-4 days. Cooked leftovers will last in the freezer for 4-6 months.
To thaw frozen chicken, place the cut in the fridge for 24 hours. Or, if you only just decided chicken’s on the menu tonight, place the chicken in a bowl of water to slowly bring the temperature down. In a super pinch, the microwave’s thaw setting will also work just fine!
How to Cook Chicken
Here’s the beautiful thing about chicken. There are so many ways to cook it, cut it, and season it that it’s just so versatile. But first, of course, some prep.
Do not rinse raw chicken – it could contain bacteria that would get spread around your kitchen, whether you see water droplets flying around or not. Instead, pat the chicken dry with paper towels.
Cut off any visible fatty pieces. Thighs are notoriously fatty and can be frustrating – you’ll end up cutting away a large portion of what you bought! Breasts may have a long streak of fat along the side, or a blob of it toward one end. Yeah, it’s a little gross…just cut it away and toss it. (Remember to use a sharp knife in order to avoid slips!) Don’t kill yourself over trying to cut off every single white part – fat adds to flavor and juiciness, and once it’s cooked and melded together, you won’t even notice it!
From here, how you cook your chicken depends on your recipe. Perhaps it’s as simple as seasoning and roasting boneless breasts (a staple in my house!). Maybe you have a back patio with a grill and want to cook whole legs, brushed with barbecue sauce. (I’m coming over!). Maybe you’re dicing them, coating them with cornstarch, and panfrying them for little fried chicken balls. No matter what your aim is, there are a ton of things to do with chicken and ways to cook it.
Bake/Roast it, grill it, braise it, slow cook it, boil it, sautée it. Slice it, dice it, butterfly it, stuff it.
And so many flavors pair with chicken, too! Lemon garlic, Italian, Cajun, Greek, chimichurri, tandoori, Chinese, Japanese, etc. etc. etc. Spice rubs, herbs, pastes, marinades. O.M.G.
Overwhelmed? That’s okay. Start with the most basic – a boneless, skinless chicken breast – and add some salt and pepper. Pick a flavor you know you like – Italian? – and grab some Italian spices. (You can buy them separately or just buy an Italian spice blend in the spice aisle!) Shake ’em on. Roast it in the oven. Bam. Good to go.
Times, Temps, and Safety
It’s easy to say “stick it in the oven until it’s done!” But, what do you set your oven to? How do you know when it’s done?
If you’re working off of a recipe, it may tell you times and temperatures. That’s grand, but don’t let it be your end-all. If it calls for 20 minutes but you think it needs an extra few minutes, give it the extra few minutes.
I usually bake my chicken at 350°F for about 20-25 minutes, depending on the size of the breast I’m using. But when time is getting close, I grab my trusty meat thermometer and stick it in. Yes, literally every time. My husband cooks, too, and he will always ask my opinion. “Is it done!? It looks like it’s cooked all the way through.” Really? Do you have x-ray vision? No. I hand him the meat thermometer.
Your chicken needs to be cooked to at least 165°F in the thickest part.
Yep. Big and bolded. That’s so, so important. 160 is the temperature at which all bacteria will be killed, and the extra 5 is to give a little safety margin. You don’t want to get sick from bacteria in raw chicken.
If you don’t have a meat thermometer, you can do the following things:
1. Buy a meat thermometer immediately, because you’ll literally use it all the time and save yourself the second-guessing of “is it done?”.
2. Cut the chicken open to see if it’s done on the inside.
There should be no pink at all – chicken will turn white once it’s cooked. You can run a fork along the inside of the cut. If the meat is flaky and light, it’s good to go. If it’s not flaking, give it another few minutes. The juices will also run clear, not pink.
Get cooking with chicken and I promise you’ll be so excited to try new recipes and flavors! Chicken is a great source of protein in the diet, and relatively low calorie for the goods you’re getting!
Salt and Skillet Recipes
Hungry for More?
Learn more about chicken at the National Chicken Council’s website!
Have you ever roasted a whole chicken? What are your favorite chicken recipes? Link me to some of your faves in the comments, I’d love to try them out!