ALL ABOUT CHICKEN
butchery & broth
Throughout my storied time as a soup maven, I have received several questions on various soupy subjects. Hands down, nothing seems to stump the masses more than chicken. So, I thought this would be a good place to start. Hopefully we can clear away some of the confusion and you will see that chicken is one of the easiest proteins to work with while being affordable and very versatile. I will light the path to a beautiful relationship between you and chicken so you can soon begin to love it as much as I do.
Ultimately, the bird just wants to be treated well. Over the years, we have all witnessed people being downright rude to chickens: discarding the more desirable dark meat, for the less interesting, “healthier” breast, and overcooking it into a dry, chalky nightmare. The examples go on and on and eating it is enough to bring you to tears. When it comes to chicken, the most important thing to do is treat it right.
In order of importance to the benefit of the finished product:
1. Season it well;
2. Cook it properly;
3. Buy nice chicken;
4. Buy it whole.
If proper seasoning is the only lesson you learn, you’ll still be eating a vastly tastier chicken. Even if you’re buying low quality boneless, skinless chicken breast and cooking it to death. First, you should be seasoning your chicken with salt 24 hours in advance. Short of that, any amount of time is better than none at all. I often stop at the grocery store on my way to work and salt the chicken when I get there for dinner that evening. Second, you should be using kosher salt. I use Diamond Krystal Kosher because it’s better—it is less dense than its Morton counterpart, giving you more control. Morton Kosher is, however, more widely available. I do keep both brands in my kitchen, but I only use Morton to clean my cast iron skillet because the salt crystals are friggin’ HUGE. This is not great because it takes the salt longer to dissolve and penetrate the food. Adjustments must be made, and you can end up with a product that is too salty. If you are using Morton, just use about a tablespoon less. When salting chicken, be sure to cover every bit of the skin & exposed flesh. Salt it as if you were salting a very icy sidewalk in front of a nursing home. Salting your chicken properly ensures that it will be juicier and taste more like chicken.
There are 3,000 different ways to cook chicken. We’re not going to get into all of that. When I say cook it properly, I mean, to the right temperature. And that temperature is 160 degrees—165 max! If you don’t have an instant read thermometer, get one. I use this one, I find it to be the most reliable and it is less than 5 dollars. When the thermometer starts to read around 155, get ready to take the chicken off the heat. The heat will carry over which will allow the temperature to continue to rise after it has been removed from the heat. If you’re concerned about getting sick, get over it. You’re not going to get sick. If you enjoy eating dry chalk chicken, then go ahead and live your life, but I don’t want to hear about it. Ever. Cooking your chicken to the right temperature guarantees that you will have a delicious, juicy, tender piece of meat.
Better chicken tastes better and is more forgiving to under-seasoning and overcooking. By better, I mean higher quality. The indicators that tend to make a difference are antibiotic free and air chilled. At the grocery store, I look for Bell & Evans. Buying higher quality chicken is also better for the environment. But, if you’re on a smaller budget or can’t get to a store with a wide selection, just buy whatever chicken you can afford. Season it well and cook it properly. It will be yummy.
Buying a whole chicken is cheaper than buying pieces and it gives you the luxury of options. I buy a whole chicken and butcher it myself. I use the wings and backbone for chicken broth, and the breast, thighs, and drums for soups and other preparations. If you aren’t comfortable butchering a chicken or you don’t know how, you can ask any butcher to do it for you. Just be sure to let them know that you want to keep the backbone. If you’d like to learn about it, I will show you.
HOW TO BUTCHER A CHICKEN (like I do)
It takes but a few keystrokes on the ol’ YouTube to find a veritable treasure trove of videos on chicken butchery. Honestly, you can just forget everything that I have said and am about to say and just watch this Melissa Clarke video. BUT there is more than one way to…skin…a…chicken? And I am going to show you how I do it. This order of operations and technique is what works best for me and has been developed over the last few years of cooking and pulling no less than 10,000 chickens.
First, remove the wings by bending them back one at a time for easy access to the shoulder joint. Using a paring knife or kitchen shears, cut down where the wing meets the breast. This will expose the ball joint. While holding the wing, run the knife in a circular motion around the joint allowing it to separate from the breast. If using scissors, you can simply snip the joint and cut the breast meat away from the wing. Next, with the chicken laying breast side down, take your scissors and cut from bottom to top along each side of the spine then pull the spine out. Lastly, remove the legs. Because you have already separated the backbone, the legs are pretty much only hanging on by skin. You can very easily take your knife or scissors and cut around the thigh to separate the whole leg from the breast. Now you have five pieces of chicken. I'll stop here but if you wanted to butcher it completely, you would separate the thighs from the drumsticks and separate the two breasts for 8 pieces. Now you can use what you need and freeze what you don’t. Salt what you’re going to cook now and put it in the refrigerator until tomorrow. Grab your wings and spine and come over here.
Yields around 8 quarts
5 - 8 pieces of chicken wings and/or spines
2 carrots cut into thirds
1 whole head of celery cut into thirds, including leaves and root end
2 or 3 yellow onions halved
2 heads of garlic halved crosswise
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorn
2 tablespoons kosher salt
A handful of herbs - bay leaf / thyme / dill / parsley
Place all ingredients into a 12-quart stock pot and fill the pot with cold water. Bring the water to a low boil. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer with the lid off for 4–12 hours. It should not be violently boiling at any point. If scum starts to form on the top, skim it off. The broth will reduce by a third or more. If possible, place a lid on the broth and allow it to steep off the heat for 1–4 hours. Steeping the broth creates deeper flavor and let’s everything cool down so it’s easier to strain. Pass it through a wire strainer and discard the solids. Now you have really great broth that will make amazing soup and enhance any dish in which you choose to apply it. Refrigerate up to 4 days or freeze up to 3 months.
I feel that this is about as much as anyone can stand to read about chicken. So, it ends here. Go out into the world with your newly found poultry knowledge and come back next time for the topper offer of this subject - CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP.
- the BMer
This weekend in Pittsburgh. On Friday, check out my favorite event of the year - Pittonkatonk. On Saturday, in the Northside, it’s the Mexican War Streets Yard Sale. While you’re bopping around the War Streets, stop through Mayfly and pick up some tomatillo & cucumber gazpacho. Then I’ll be heading into the woods for a few days. I hope everyone has a swell holiday.