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Whole chicken newbie - what to do besides roasting? Freezing tips appreciated!

  • l

I never buy whole chickens. When I buy chicken, I usually wait until club packs of boneless, skinless chicken breasts go on sale, then stock up and freeze them whole or cut into cubes and divided into portions for future recipes. I'm not against dark meat, I just never seem to buy it unless I'm buying an already-cooked rotisserie chicken from the grocery store.

We're trying to be healthier, and so today I was looking at the grain-fed chicken rather than the regular stuff. (Unfortunately not on sale.) it's dramatically more expensive, but in addition to that, for only a couple of dollars more than four boneless, skinless breasts, I could buy two chickens! So that's what I did! Only now I'm stuck not knowing what to do with them.

My first thought was to roast one for dinner tomorrow and freeze the other. I was going to cut all the meat off the bones and freeze it in portions the way I usually do, but it seems like a lot of work. And two thighs doesn't seem like a good portion of meat the way two breasts does. And two wings? What do I do with those?

Buying the whole chickens seems to make the most economic sense if we're going to keep eating the better chicken, so I'd like to figure out the best way to cook and store whole chickens!

In particular:

- How do I store/freeze them for quick later use?

- What recipes do you recommend for all the parts I'm not as familiar with? (I.e. Everything that's not breast.)

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  1. Once you get used to it, you can butcher a chicken in under 10 minutes. Just check out the videos on youtube, and make sure to use a sharp knife (but not your nicest chef's knife, I usually go for my utility).

    You can cut out the backbone with good kitchen shears (save it for stock), break the breastbone, then barbecue the whole thing under a brick. Taste's great!

    I have a thigh for dinner all the time, and it's certainly enough for me. IMO, it's more filling than breast as it's got more fat and flavor in it. My favorite easy thigh recipe: pre-heat your oven to 375. Dry off the thighs with a paper towel, and season with salt and pepper. Get an oven-safe skillet good and hot (I use cast iron or stainless), then add some vegetable oil. Sear for two minutes on each side, throw some hearty vegetables in the pan, then finish in the oven.

    Cut up pieces are great in coq au vin, which lasts for a few days in the fridge.

    You can also poach the chicken by covering with water, bringing up to a boil, then bringing down to a simmer. You should end up with a flavorful broth and a fully cooked chicken. When it's done, you can shred it, use some of the chicken plus some vegetables for soup, and save the rest for other dishes.

    I cut the wings into two pieces, and cut off the wing tips to save for stock. I save the wings in the freezer, and when I have enough, I make bbq wings.

    The gizzards taste amazing breaded and fried, and I usually make pâté from the liver to spread on toast for breakfast.

    1. After you've eaten your share of roasted chicken, pull the meat off the bones and use the carcass (plus maybe those wings, though I think wings are delicious just like that) to make stock. Freeze your shredded chicken and use it for soups, chicken tacos, chicken salad, etc. You'll find more than enough things to do with a good hearty chicken stock.

      1. Anything you used to use pre-cut chicken breasts for, you can use your whole chicken for. I never ever buy pre-cut chicken now, just because we do save a lot of money buying them whole.

        I like to use my leftover roasted chickens for soup. It adds whole new dimension to the soup. It's so fabulous.

        If I don't feel like roasting it(which I rarely get tired of because there are so many different recipes out there. You can do an herb chicken, or a spicy one, or a bright lemony one, or my favorite salt, pepper, and butter), I'll cut it up and do something different with it. Maybe bread and fry it.

        There are lots of great and tasty things you can do with a whole chicken.

        1. Thanks so much, everyone!

          I just have another quick question about freezing. We eat a lot of curries and soups and things where the meat is in small pieces in sauce. Up until now, I would freeze my chicken breasts already cut up into bits, and portioned out so that I could quickly defrost as much as I needed for that meal.

          With whole chickens, am I better off cooking the meat first to get it all off the bones? Legs have so many random bits of bone and tendon and whatnot in them, I worry about my ability to get all the meat off without mangling everything terribly. Or if I'm going to freeze bits, is my best bet to cube the breasts, and freeze the legs whole for a different type of dish?

          Other threads I've read suggest that the cooked meat doesn't freeze as well as uncooked, unless it's already in a sauce. Has anyone else had this experience?

          3 Replies
          1. re: looz

            It's true, you're better off freezing raw chicken than cooked unless it's in a sauce. If you don't plan to roast it whole, your best bet would be to portion it up as you're likely to use it, then wrap each piece tightly in plastic wrap and place them all in an air-tight plastic bag. I would not cube the breasts first because A) that gives you more flexibility in using them later (you may decide to do a whole breast recipe), and B) cutting them up creates more surface area, thus more potential for freezer burn.

            1. re: BobB

              I'll always use chicken bits - they're so easy to toss into a weeknight meal such as curry, soup, stir fry, etc. In the past I would come home with two club packs of chicken breasts, freeze four breasts whole, and cube the other 8-10, and run out of bits first! I have a foodsaver vacuum sealer, so that helps keep out the freezer burn.

              For lazy times when I don't want to spend a lot of time prepping the bird for freezing, how long does it take to defrost a whole chicken? How about the bone-in legs and breasts? (I'll most likely vacuum those individually.) Will this still be a practical option for nights when I just want to pull something out of the freezer and make dinner?

              1. re: looz

                A whole frozen bird can easily take a day or more to defrost in the refrigerator, so nothing last-minute there. Chicken parts take less time and can be safely defrosted pretty quickly in a bowl of warm water.

          2. i'm still wondering what exactly you paid premium money for? all industrial chickens are grain-fed -- soy and corn.

            you've gotten some good suggestions so far and i definitely recommend saving the bones and wingtips for stock.

            8 Replies
            1. re: hotoynoodle

              Sorry - antibiotic and hormone free as well. And they just looked different - I've been kind of grossed out by a lot of the chicken I've bought lately, all white and squishy. This was more "meaty" looking, less squishy.

              And from what I understand, while all chickens are fed *some* grain, they're also fed ground up bits of chicken and cow. (Feeding the bits of cow back to the cows was what spread mad cow disease, which is why you can now only feed the cow bits to chickens, not back to cows.)

              Though now that I think about it, grain-fed doesn't necessarily mean *all* grain fed.... sigh.

              1. re: looz

                there are no hormones in chicken feed. antibiotics is what they get to speed growth and as a secondary result, prevent disease.

                chickens can legally be fed other chickens, you're right. kinda gross, but honestly, a chicken will eat about anything, even its kin.

                while i appreciate your health concerns, "grain-fed" on a label is essentially meaningless, and may almost be worse, since chickens should eat a varied diet instead of being forced to consume so much gmo corn and soy.

                honestly, i don't ever buy meat at those wholesale clubs.

                1. re: hotoynoodle

                  These are all supermarket chickens - both the club packs and the "theoretically healthier" ones. I have to say, what really swayed me this time was how it *looked.*

                  So I'm probably another victim of marketing. I've been trying to improve the quality of the food we buy, while still being budget-conscious. It's hard, with so much greenwashing, and the better stuff being *so* much more expensive than regular grocery-store stuff, especially when it's on sale.

                  Out of curiosity, where do you buy your meat? There's an organic butcher near us, that I *swore* I would shop at exclusively when we moved here. But it's just so far out of our budget. I go there for special treats, but that's it.

                  1. re: looz

                    i very much appreciate your budget issues. i share your pain.

                    last summer, the b/f bought an organic/free-range/blah/blah chicken from the local farmer's market. it was absurdly tiny, withe very little actual meat on the thing. he paid $27 for it! i nearly had a stroke. when it was cooked? we were still hungry because it was so small, lol. never again.

                    mostly i buy meat from butchers. real butchers who cut their own meat. this means i can also get stuff like marrow bones and "off-cuts" pretty cheaply. we prefer those types of cuts to breast meat or loins anyway.

                    1. re: looz

                      I think you'll find that your chicken will improve every step you take away from the industrial chicken...even if you don't go all the way to organic, heritage breed, free range chicken that get massages and have Beethoven played to them in the incubator.

                      Here's my personal chicken chart:

                      Sam's individually frozen breasts - awful (sorry Mom)
                      Regular grocery store chicken - also awful (stringy and tough)
                      "All Natural" chicken, meaning no antibiotics all veg feed - WAY better
                      Whole foods chicken, also organic and free ranging (free-er) - Even better
                      Farmer's market specialty $$$$$ chicken - starting to go the other way, don't ask me why, several I've had taste...i dunno...bloody....gamey...we joke that they aren't "dead enough". Can chicken be TOO fresh?

                      Anyhow, I don't think you're a marketing victim, i bet this chicken WILL taste better. But I suggest that if you have a Whole Foods, watch their adds for chicken specials. They had whole chick for $1.99/lb. a while back.

                      1. re: danna

                        Yes they can be too fresh. I belong to a meat CSA and they give you instructions about cooking when you pick up your monthly bag of meat. Every month I get one whole chicken and if they were slaughtered recently they tell us to wait a day or two before making or we can freeze it.

                        1. re: melpy

                          Interesting - I usually by freshly slaughtered (as in a couple of hours ago) chicken, but have never had a problem with flavour.

                  2. re: looz

                    We believe that pasture raised chickens are one of the best you can get out there. Our local WholeFoods has them, sold for $4 a pound. These birds don't look anything like the others, not even the organic ones. The pasture raised ones has a much deeper yellow/orange color in the skin and fat. They say it's because of all the bugs they get to eat outside. The breasts are much smaller, but they have bigger wings and thighs, and longer legs.

                    However, I'm not sure what kind of feed / supplements they get in the barn. I probably should do some research on it. I just hope that the farmers probably don't need to feed them crap if the chickens are healthy to start with.

                    There's only the two of us in the house, and the only whole chicken we have roasted at home were cornish hens. When I buy a regular sized chicken, normally I butcher it up immediately. Once you've butchered a few chickens, you can do it in no time. The most time consuming part, I think, is deboning and removing the fat from the dark meat.

                    If the breasts are too big, I slice off the tenderloins and save them up in the freezer until I have enough. They're perfect for chicken fingers, kebabs...

                    I almost always debone the thighs. There's so much fat interlaced within the muscle. Once I'm done, I either have a slab of meat for roasting, or slice it into strips for stir fry. I usually dice it up and make chicken quesadilla. Sometimes I mix thigh meat with tenderloins.

                    I used to leave the legs bone-in, but they take so long to cook through. I have recently started deboning the legs as well. If I do a horrible butchering job, I simply grind the meat! Plenty of things you can make with ground chicken, burgers, croquettes, meatballs, pies... If you plan to leave them bone-in, try braising them.

                    We usually save the wings until we have enough. Marinate them overnight and they hit the grill or saute pan. YUM. Wings + leg drumsticks are perfect finger food.

                    Of course you have to make chicken stock using the carcasses. Organic chicken stocks are so expensive these days, and they are no where as good as homemade versions.

                    I was skeptical about butchering my own chicken at first, now I'm never going back. It's going to be fun!