Chicken: One Bird, Endless Options

Photography by Grace Natoli Sheldon | Food styling by Dee Dee Schaefer

It’s not only the country’s most popular poultry, but also the most populous bird on Earth. In amount of birds raised and sold, and pounds eaten, chicken roosts atop the pecking order in United States, with the poultry industry bringing in more than $30 billion in 2017. According to the National Chicken Council, Americans consumed an average of 92.2 pounds per person in 2017, an amount researchers estimate will increase to 94.5 pounds in 2019.

While domestication of Gallus gallus domesticus dates back at least 8,000 years, the modern bird we now know is a relative newcomer to American tables.

In the early 1920s, enterprising housewife Celia Steele of Delaware parlayed an incorrect shipment of 500 chicks (her family usually got 50) into an entirely new industry. She raised the chickens, then sold them locally as meat. Increasing her order each year, by 1926, Steele was raising 10,000 chickens to be sold.

This feathered windfall offered the possibility of, as the Republican Party promised voters in 1928, “a chicken in every pot.” Today, there is no denying the relative truthfulness of that phrase.

In the Kitchen: Chickens bred as meat are raised to specific ages and predetermined weight standards. Young birds weighing up to about 3½ pounds and about 2½ months of age are broilers or fryers. Roasters are younger than 8 months and weigh between 2½ and 5 pounds. Stewing chickens, also referred to as hens or fowl, are 10 to 18 months and weigh 3 to 6 pounds.

Chicken is sold whole, in quarters or as portions of breast, thigh, drumstick, leg (thigh plus drumstick) or wing; it typically is available as skin-on or skinless, bone-in or boneless. Shoppers also may choose from ground meat in varying percentages of leanness; deli-cut or prepackaged slices; and further processed options such as sausages, pot pies and stuffed breasts, or breaded nuggets, tenders and patties.

Young birds, the most tender and juicy, are best prepared with quick and dry cooking methods. Roasting befits slightly larger birds; older, tougher stewing chickens are suited to longer-cooking, moist-heat recipes. Dark meat is ideal for smoking, grilling, barbecuing, braising, roasting or in stews and soups. Lean chicken breast becomes dry and chewy if overcooked; marinating, stuffing with aromatics or cheeses, wrapping with bacon or prosciutto and cooking skin-on add flavor and retain moisture. Bone-in cuts are natural sources of collagen, often preferred for stock — although any portion will work.

Enjoyed worldwide, mild-flavored chicken pairs well with many flavors: from western Europe’s coq au vin and cacciatore to Eastern European paprikash; fiery Jamaican jerk rubs to smoky Mexican mole sauces; rich curries and umami-rich dishes of Asia; or the homiest of whole roasts for a weeknight meal or weekend gathering.

To minimize risk of foodborne illness, refrigerate or freeze poultry promptly after purchase. Always use safe thawing methods such as in the refrigerator, in cold water or using a microwave; designate specific utensils and cutting boards for raw poultry, cooked poultry and other ingredients; and cook all poultry to an internal temperature of 165° Fahrenheit. Although it once was common practice, never rinse raw chicken; research has shown this furthers the spread of bacteria.

In the Clinic: White meat chicken has long been an American diet staple. However, trend data suggests a greater acceptance of darker portions, likely driven by a gradual, continued move away from red meat, lower cost and a shift in demographics and culinary tastes featuring cuisines, such as Latin and Asian, that prefer these juicier,
more flavorful cuts.

A typical chicken is roughly half white and half dark meat. One average skinless thigh has approximately 200 calories and 10 grams of fat, while an equivalent amount of skinless breast has approximately 190 calories and 4 grams of fat. Both portions predominate in unsaturated fats: dark meat is about 62 percent unsaturated and white is 56 percent. Cooking skin-on keeps meat moist and flavorful; if desired, skin can be removed prior to serving or eating.

Chicken is an excellent source of protein, offering about 29 grams per thigh and 36 grams in the same size portion of breast (about 4 ounces cooked). Both are rich sources of vitamins B6 and niacin, zinc and selenium, and contain choline and riboflavin.

Chicken is considered a high-phosphorous food and often is injected with salt and other additives during processing. People with chronic kidney disease, hypertension and other cardiac conditions may need to limit the amount they eat.

In Quantity: Chicken is readily available year-round. Most U.S. sales to retail or foodservice operations are as further processed, portioned or whole birds and are fresh or frozen in multipack cases. Whole birds often are cheaper than portions but require time and labor to prepare. Dark meat generally is less expensive than white.

When selecting fresh whole chickens, look for birds with plump breasts and unblemished skin. For skinless portions, look for firm, opaque flesh and a pink color. Fresh chicken can be kept covered in the refrigerator up to two days. If purchased frozen, whole chickens and portions can be kept in the freezer for up to 12 and nine months, respectively.

Quality grades from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are listed on labels only if the processor requested and paid a fee for the service. Grade A is the highest quality, followed by B and C.


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Heather Goesch
Heather A. Goesch, MPH, RDN, LDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer and recipe developer currently living in the south of France. Read her blog for healthy, seasonal recipe inspiration, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest or Twitter.