Case is made for buying whole chickens

  • Tue Mar 3rd, 2009 12:45pm
  • Life

By Jan Roberts-Dominguez, Columnist

Two decades ago I was having lunch with the nation’s meat guru and syndicated food columnist, Merl “Call Me the Butcher” Ellis.

Somewhere between the radiccio salad and baked brie, our casual chitchat wound around to the topic of hurried lifestyles and choices families make in getting the evening meal from the supermarket to the dinner table.

In the spirit of the moment, I remarked that the one convenience food I found most helpful was boned and skinned chicken breasts. They were, after all, a healthy choice — and certainly my time was worth the extra 20 or 30 cents per pound (this was 20 years ago, remember!) it cost for the privilege of letting the butcher do the dirty work.

Ellis didn’t just frown. He put down his fork, stared me straight in the eyes and glowered. Then, with his made-for-TV voice — rich enough to cause widespread swooning amongst his adoring fans — I was reprimanded: “My dear … I wouldn’t dream of paying for boned chicken breasts.”

And he was right, of course. Skinning and boning a chicken breast is no big deal. Which is the main reason why I’ve been boning my own ever since that little conversation.

Now, all these years later, I’m tackling the whole bird with the same goal in mind — saving money by performing a tiny bit of labor in my own kitchen.

Consider the price differential between whole and cut-up: Whole chickens can be found for 69 to 79 cents per pound on sale. If you reach for a cut-up fryer, you’re paying far more dearly for the convenience. And if you go for just the breast meat, well, that can run into the $4 and $5 per pound range. Eeek.

Buying a whole chicken saves money. Lots of money.

Now on to point number two: Starting with whole chickens is not just an incredibly frugal investment; the dividends seem endless.

Let’s start with the first night. Roast a whole chicken. If you’ve never done this, fear not, I’m about to walk you through it.

Carve off delectable chunks of white and dark meat and serve with a simple salad and perhaps some potatoes that you baked alongside the roasting chicken and you’ll have a wonderful meal.

Next night, there will still be plenty of chicken left. So pick and carve away at the carcass to collect it all. It has all sorts of potential: in a casserole, on top of a homemade pizza, tossed into a pasta dish or in a salad, stuffed into tomorrow’s sandwich.

After that, it’s time to feed the freezer. Break up what’s left of the carcass to make it more compact for your freezer container. Most likely the pieces will include the back, wings and neck.

Choose a container big enough to add at least one more round of chicken pieces from another night’s roasting. In a separate freezer container, start collecting your leftover bits of vegetables, preferably, onions, carrots, celery and garlic.

When you’ve accumulated enough of each, make your own broth. I’ll tell you how.

Consider another tack. Let’s say you want to prepare a recipe calling for four chicken breast halves. Keeping in mind the concept of feeding the freezer for meals down the road, start with two whole uncooked chickens.

Once the birds have been cut into appropriate parts, you’ve got your four breast halves for the evening’s meal, plus all those extra parts — the legs, thighs, wings and back — to use in any number of ways, either over the next couple of days, or far down the road if you simply pack those pieces away in the freezer.

Cuban style gingered chicken

2tablespoons finely minced ginger

3cloves garlic, minced

1/2teaspoon allspice

1/2teaspoon cinnamon

2teaspoons ground cumin

2tablespoons brown sugar

1/4cup chicken broth

2tablespoons lime juice

1/2cup fresh orange juice

1tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2teaspoons hot pepper sauce

1/4cup finely chopped cilantro

1whole chicken (4 to 6 pounds)

2teaspoons salt

1teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a small bowl, combine all the ginger, garlic, allspice, cinnamon, cumin, brown sugar, chicken broth, lime juice, orange juice, Worcestershire sauce, hot pepper sauce and cilantro. Place the chicken in a large re-sealable plastic bag. Pour the marinade over the chicken. Seal the bag and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight, turning occasionally, to ensure even distribution of the marinade. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes prior to roasting to bring it to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove chicken from marinade and place, breast side up, in a roasting pan. Dispose of leftover marinade. Sprinkle chicken with the salt and pepper. Place chicken in the preheated oven and roast for 20 minutes per pound, or approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes for a 4-pound chicken. When done, the internal temperature of the chicken taken at the thickest part of the thigh near the breast will read 165 to 175 degrees. Remove the chicken from the oven and let rest for at least 10 minutes before carving. Serve sprinkled with minced cilantro.

Recipe by the National Chicken Council/U.S. Poultry &Egg Association

My really good homemade chicken broth

1whole chicken (3 to 5 pounds)

2yellow onions, coarsely chopped into 1-inch chunks (include skin and root end)

1tablespoon canola oil

1head of garlic (see note below)

1(1/4-inch thick) slice of fresh lemon

9cups water

3ribs celery (including the fluffy leaf portions), cut into 1-inch chunks

2carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks

About 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves (stems and leaves)

1-2teaspoons whole black peppercorns

Salt to taste

Cut the chicken into at least 4 parts with a sharp knife or kitchen shears. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot over medium-high heat. Add the chicken parts and onion chunks and reduce the heat slightly. Slowly saute the chicken and onions until the onions become soft and slightly golden and the chicken produces a caramelized glaze on the bottom of the pan. This will take about 15 minutes.

Add the water, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan to scrape up all the cooked-on bits of meat and onion. Add the coarsely chopped head of garlic and the lemon and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for about 40 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the chicken from the liquid and place it on a platter so you won’t lose any of the juices; let it sit for about 10 minutes, until it’s cool enough to handle. Separate the meat from the bones (it will be tender enough that it almost falls away from the bones) and set it aside for a moment.

Return the bones, juice, and skin to the pot. Of the boned meat, return about half of it to the pot and reserve the rest for another meal. You could return all of the meat to the pot, but keep in mind that from this point on, any chicken used in this final phase will have too much flavor extracted to be used in another way down the road.

Add the celery, carrots, thyme and peppercorns to the pot. Bring it to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer for an additional 40 or 50 minutes. Every now and then, press the veggies and chicken bones and meat against the side of the pan with a large spoon to encourage more juices and flavor to be extracted from ingredients.

Remove from heat and let cool. Strain the broth into a large, shallow bowl (so it will cool quickly), pressing down on the vegetables and meat with the back of the large spoon to extract even more flavor; discard the vegetables, meat, bones and skin. At this point, you don’t have to season with salt, but I generally add just a little to really bring out the flavor of the stock

Cover and refrigerate until well chilled so the fat will rise and thicken on the surface. I usually chill the stock overnight in my refrigerator. (If your overnight temperature dips down into the 30s, consider giving your refrigerator a break and simply cooling the broth on your deck overnight in a protected area not accessed by wildlife.) Once chilled, scrape off the fat with a large, shallow spoon and discard. The stock can keep, covered, in the refrigerator for 3 days (including the first chilling down phase) or up to 3 months in the freezer.

Makes about 8 cups broth.

Note on garlic: I know! I know! One whole head seems like a lot of garlic. But trust me, it mellows dramatically during this cooking process and really lends a wonderful depth of flavor to the stock.

To prepare, lay the head of garlic on its side, then slice through at its plumpest spot with a very sharp chef’s knife. Coarsely chop each half into 2 or 3 pieces then toss it all in the pot along with the rest of the veggies.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at