Whether dredged and fried, sautéed in butter, baked on a sheet pan, or slow-roasted in the oven, chicken is a fan favorite in the meat department. It is the most popular poultry in the world and found in cultures on almost every continent.
Many of us know exactly what chicken is, but for those of us who need a refresher: Chicken is a type of poultry or fowl that has been domesticated. It is raised primarily for meat, but many are also raised to lay eggs.
With a mild taste and a generally uniform texture, it lends itself to many flavors and cooking methods. Think of it as a blank canvas to try new things and morph it into whatever you are feeling that day. They also just happen to be generally low in fat and high in protein.
This might come as a surprise, but the chicken didn’t begin to gain popularity in the U.S. until the 1950s. Scientists worked to breed a bird that grew quickly on less feed that it took to raise a cow and a new, cost-effective protein alternative was born. Prior to this, it was one of the most expensive meats in the market.
When buying chicken, the skin should have a slight yellow tint and the flesh have a pink-ish hue. Meat should be plump and there should be no odor whatsoever.
White meat vs. dark meat was something that confounded me growing up. I had no idea what it meant. Here is the skinny: chicken breasts and wings are white meat, lean, and mild in flavor. Legs and thighs have darker fibers (hence the name), more fat and you guessed it a more pronounced flavor.
Not only does chicken take flavor well, but you can cook it any which way you like. Whole birds are great to roast in the oven. The thighs are great on the grill. The breasts are great for quick cooking techniques like sautéing and stir-frying. Drumsticks and wings which make for great, well, wings. Ground which is perfect for making chicken burgers and so much more!
A quick guide to some of the label terminology at the grocery store:
Fresh: This means the meat has never reached an internal temperature of 26F which means it has never been frozen. Freezing chicken has the potential to change the texture of the meat and if that is a deal-breaker, look for this term.
Cage-Free: This is defined as unlimited and continuous access to the outdoors throughout their life.
Free-Range: This means the farmer has given the chicken access to the outdoors. It is generally thought that this means a less-stressed bird and yes, a less-stressed bird means a healthier bird which translates to a delicious bird.
Air-Chilled: After a chicken is processed, it is of the utmost importance to cool that bird down quickly to prevent bacteria from growing. Some facilities will dunk their birds in cold water. This can waterlog the bird and sometimes dilute the already delicate flavor of the meat. Air-chilled birds however is cooled with air and air only without introducing any additional water.
Antibiotic- or Hormone-Free: Fun fact these have been illegal to use in chickens in the U.S. since 1959. This label on packaging seems more like a reminder to consumers rather than a special feature of the chicken inside.
Chicken is protein-packed. A 3oz chicken breast touts as much as 27g of the stuff. It also has selenium, a cancer-fighting element, as well as vitamins B6 & B3. It is generally low in fat. The dark meat as well as the skin are where most of the fat is concentrated on a bird.
Do I have to wash chicken before I cook it?
I grew up thinking you should wash chicken before you begin cooking with it. The truth of the matter is, washing it can put you at greater risk for food poisoning. By putting chicken under the tap everything that tap water and/or your hands touch before washing them thoroughly with soap is now at risk for contamination. It is best to drain any juices from the packaging, pat dry with paper towels, and cook.
How do you cook chicken without drying it out?
This depends on the cut of chicken you are cooking as well as the cooking method you are using. That said, my rule of thumb for this is marinating or brining the meat. Both will tenderize while encouraging moisture to stay put instead of seeping out during the cooking process.
Resting meat isn’t just for beef or pork. Chicken should also be allowed to rest as it gives juices a chance to reabsorb. Smaller cuts need only 5-10 minutes while a whole bird should be given 15-20 minutes. I like to tent the meat with foil to keep it warm and prevent anything from getting to it including wandering friends and family looking for a pre-meal nibble.
How long do I have to cook chicken?
This is less about time and more about temperature. For chicken to be safe to eat, the meat should have an internal temperature of 165F for dark meat and 160F for white meat. My advice to cooks is to always have an instant-read thermometer in the kitchen so you are never guessing.