Buying a whole chicken is a gateway drug: An introductory guide to the why, how, and sure of butchering, brining, and stock making.

Mercado San Juan, Mexico City.

Mercado San Juan, Mexico City.

You clicked on a link on your friend’s Facebook page to a Pinterest picture of delicious looking food that sent you to a blog with a short recipe “adapted” from a major food magazine for a “quick, easy, and healthy” dinner that called for two boneless, skinless chicken breasts.  Not long after you’re standing in the meat section of the grocery store staring at conveniently cut-up chicken parts, packed sterilely in little containers.  Two organic chicken breasts, no bones, no skin, costs about $8.  You put a container in your cart, spritz some Purell on your hands just in case, and head over a few isles to buy the carton of chicken stock the recipe also requires.  You scour the ingredients lists to find one that doesn’t use MSG, which is bad for some reason, it costs another $4 and into the cart it goes.  You carry on with your shopping, go home, make dinner.  It’s fine.  You quickly forget all about it and watch some tv.  This is typical.

The thing is though, just a few rows down from that package of chicken breasts were whole chickens.  Skin on, bone in, wings, legs, thighs, and yes, those breasts the recipe asked for.  All for a fraction of the price per pound, totaling about $12 for the whole bird.  Meaning, for the same price as the two breasts and box of stock, you instead could have delicious homemade stock, the two parts you wanted, and then two whole more meals worth of food, basically for free.  Buying the whole chicken means you would have had ended up with better food while paying less money.  It’s a no-brainer.  Right?

Except that most people still do opt for the more expensive, portioned parts, and for years I was right with them.  I had long established the easy habit of buying the pre-butchered pieces, and as we all know, easy habits are really tough to break.  It didn't help that I wasn't a confident cook of meat—and in fact had spent a few years avoiding that very task behind a somewhat flimsy vegetarianism—and so adding the task of butchery to where I was already apprehensive seemed, to my ambitiously rationalizing mind, the wrong approach.  My logic was that the easier a meal was to make, the more I'd succeed, thus the more I'd be inspired to continue to cook; that success would beget success.  

That's not an entirely wrong way to go about learning to cook...at least at first.  Repeated enough times though, and easy success feels less like an accomplishment and more like a plateau.  With plateaus come boredom, and boredom quickly kills interest.  After all, if left on too long, training wheels eventually ruin the fun of riding a bike.  Similarly, as much as a tee may help young children enjoy playing baseball, a player will never truly enjoy the game until a pitcher is standing on the mound.  Sure, you're likely to strike out a few times at first, and you're never guaranteed success, but the fulfillment found in hitting a curveball makes the struggle worth it.

The same is true for cooking.  If you want to have more fun in the kitchen, make things harder for yourself.  Get rid of the tee and take some swings at a curveball.  A great place to start is with a whole chicken.

I think you should opt for the whole bird even when—no, especially when—the recipe you're following only calls for a few parts.  Doing so will allow you to begin the transition from simply cooking to actually being a cook; from being subordinate to a recipe to taking charge of you kitchen.  

How?  Here's how this plays out:

Let's say all you needed was boneless, skinless breasts, but you bought a whole bird anyway.  Well, now you have bones to make stock with.  Meaning, you have to learn to make the thing that until now just came in a box.  When you do this, you begin understand what good homemade stock tastes like, how much diversity of flavor can come from just a few variations in ingredients and/or technique, and how all of that differs drastically from the store-bought stuff.  Doing this broadens your palate, adding depth and clarity to your understanding of what it means for something to be delicious.  Understanding brings with it confidence and versatility.  Both of which are close companions of fun.  

Beyond stock, you also have two thighs and legs left over that aren't getting any fresher.  So rather than look up a recipe and go shopping again, you look through what you have in your fridge and pantry and piece together meals using your current skills.  Impromptu cooking forces you to really take ownership of what you know and to pay attention a little closer to what you don't.  Like attempting to speak a language verses merely understanding it, cooking on the spot and adapting to what you have is when techniques really sink in.  And like learning a new language, the more fluent you are, the more you enjoy yourself.  

You may be apprehensive at first, but once you make contact with a fastball, you'll never want to go back to the tee.  

All that from a whole chicken.  So go buy one.  

(I'll wait.)

Ok great, you got a chicken.

So what do you do with it?  Keep reading to learn how to break it down, make stock, and brine it.  In weeks/months to come I'll post recipes with ideas regarding what to do with various parts of a whole bird. 


Section 1: The Breakdown (preceded, of course, by the disco)

There are a lot of great ways to go about doing this and no shortage of videos online that do a fantastic job illustrating various techniques.  Here are a few of my favorites.

One can do worse when searching for good technique than to begin with Jacques Pepin.  This particular video employs an interesting technique which I haven't seen anywhere else.  Pepin uses his knife sparingly and instead pulls the chicken apart.  This is great, especially if you're new to butchering chickens, because it gives you a familiarity with the parts of a chicken and how they correspond with each other without the risk of deforming a cut with misplaced lacerations.  When you get the skin and meat off the carcass (at about the 4 minute mark of the video) you can simply lay it flat and cut out each segment.  Doing so also makes it a lot easier to ensure every piece comes with a sufficient covering of skin (something I still mess up when breaking down a chicken in a traditional manner).  If you want the meat without skin, simply slide your hand between it and the skin and you should be able to remove the muscle without using a knife.  This will leave you with a sheet of skin that you can bake (tip: to keep the skin flat, bake press between two baking sheets with a heavy pan on top) and crumble for a delicious topping on pretty much anything, or role into a roulade.  This video also demonstrates how to debone a thigh, which I almost always do before making stock.  

Here's a more classic approach from a website I highly recommend, stellaculinary.com.  As much as Pepin's method is badass, this method is faster and thus, the one I most often go to.  

This America's Test Kitchen video is great if you want to learn to do break down the bird while leaving the breasts on the bone (for grilling perhaps).

Lastly, if your idea of a great learning environment is having a seizure while being taught by someone who appears to have just done a kilo of cocaine, Gordon Ramsay is your guy.  


Section 2: Make Stock

Stock is the gift that buying a whole chicken gives to you.  Think of all those leftover bones as a "just add water" seasoning packet that comes free with every purchase.  And I don't mean that rhetorically.  You can simply add water, and only water, and you'll be well on your way to making something delicious.  In fact, the problem that stock has these days is the perception that it's a tedious, all-day affair.  Granted, it is exactly that if you're in culinary school or working at a classic French restaurant with a hot-tempered chef, but my guess is you're neither of those things.  You're just a person who is hungry.  The good news is that a hungry person's stock is easy, versatile, and, best of all, doesn't require wearing one of those stupid white hats.

The first step to making a hungry person's stock is to understand the basic idea of what stock is.  The bones a cook is left with after cutting up (or cooking) a chicken aren't devoid of flavor, quite the opposite In fact, they are covered with it both inside and out.  The obvious problem is that these flavorful bones are, well, inedible.  So the whole point of a stock is extracting flavor from said bones and bits.  Now I know that may seem so obvious it's not worth mentioning, but it's actually a crucial thing to understand because it allows you to divide the ingredients of stock into two basic categories: extracted ingredients and flavoring ingredients.  Extracted ingredients are what are actually contributing to the backbone of the stock, building its foundation, and, conveniently, often giving it its name.  So in the case of chicken stock, any actual chicken is the extracted ingredient.  Everything else you add to the stock is not actually necessary, but is instead contributing a supporting flavor to the extracted base.  This is key because it allows you as the cook to decide exactly how and when your stock should be flavored.  Are you making a classic French dish?  Well then by all means, go with the classic stock ingredients: onion, carrot, celery, parsley, black pepper, thyme, etc.  But if you're making ramen, half those ingredients would be completely out of place.  So switch up your flavoring agents to something more appropriate, add ginger and scallion whites, ditch the black pepper and celery, and maybe throw in some konbu or dried shitake mushrooms.  The flavors are all interchangeable and adaptable to each particular use.  

Generally speaking, extraction takes a decent amount of time (depending of course, on how strong of a stock you want), roughly one to three hours for chicken.  Flavoring, on the other hand, is accomplished in under an hour.  This means that you don't even have to do both at the same time.  Extract the base of your stock whenever you have the time, save it in the freezer, then when you're ready to cook, you can thaw and reheat it with the desired flavoring components.  Because onions and carrots are relatively universal stock flavors, I generally add those in with the bones even if I don't know the final intended use of the stock.  Point being, stock is much easier and versatile than it's often made out to be.  

Here are my basic stock guidelines:

  • First, ask yourself how hearty of a stock you want.  For a richer, fuller tasting stock, first brown the bones (and veggies if using) either by roasting or sautéing, and then simmer the stock longer.  This will lead to what is known as a "brown" stock.  If you forego the roasting step, you'll have a "blonde" stock.  Both are delicious.  
  • Decide what flavors will work best with the stock's intended use.  If said end use is yet to be decided, feel free to add basic flavoring ingredients (like onions and carrots), or just skip them altogether and flavor later.  
  • Always start extractions in cold water.  The slow warming of the water pulls more gelatin out of the bones, leading to a richer stock.
  • Don't boil a stock.  In emulsifies fat into the broth and makes the stock cloudy.  Also, it's a waste of energy.  Cover your stock pot and cook on low.  In fact, I recently read an interview with David Chang where he advocates treating the stock like tea, just covering it and taking it fully off the heat.  
  • If you're going at this by traditional methods, occasionally skim of the scum that rises to the top during the beginning of cooking.  As for the fat that settles on top of cold stock, you can throw it out OR cook breakfast potatoes in it OR use it to make chicken gravy and then slather that on some biscuits.
  • If you can, buy a pressure cooker and always use that.  It's crazy easy and cuts the cooking time down to a third of the classic approach.  Easier and quicker means you'll more often make it.  
  • Another easy stock tip I recently heard that plays into the low temp idea is using a crock pot.  Throw your chicken bones in that, cover with water, turn on, go to bed, and strain in the morning.  

This quick video from the Food Network does a great job illustrating how to make a simple, classic stock.

This chefsteps video below is more to the style of how I typically go about it:

Point being, don't fret.  Add water to bones.  Add flavor to that.  And you're on your way to a delicious stew.  


Let's talk about brining!

Chicken breasts have a serious problem: they're too lean.  And I'm not saying that in some sort of Paula-Dean-praise-be-to-gluttony-yall type of thing, I mean, because chicken breasts have such a minuscule amount of intermuscular fat, and because for safety reasons you need to cook them to such a high internal temperature, they're prone to drying out.  This happens because as the temperature raises in meat, the muscles contract and expel moisture.  A fattier, tougher cut of meat, like pork shoulder for example, which is often cooked to a very high internal temperature in braises and BBQ, is saved from ending up dry because at those high temperatures its fat liquifies and its collagen breaks down into gelatin.  Both of these things serve to rehydrate the dried out muscle fibers.  Because chicken breasts are wont for both fat and collagen, they're left with no safety net as the temperature climbs.  Thus, most chicken you eat is dry, chalky, and, well, terrible.  

There are two ways around this.  One is to cook the chicken to a much lower temperature and then hold it there for an extended period of time.  This works because the same harmful bacteria in chicken that die instantly at 165F also die at prolonged exposure to lower temperatures, as demonstrated by this USDA graph I snatched from the sous vide primer on the Cooking Issues blog.  

bacteria_time_temperature2.jpg

If you can hold chicken at 140F for 35 minutes, it'll be just as safe as if you had cooked it 25 degrees higher, but will not have lost all that extra moisture.  I've done this and can attest to how great chicken breasts safely cooked to medium are.  The problem is, in order to achieve this result you need a cooking device that allows you to hold temperatures perfectly stable.  The only option for home cooks is to buy an immersion circulator, and while these are getting drastically more reasonable (down from $800 to as little as $200), and while I can't recommend buying one enough, it's still pretty likely that most of you won't go down this path.  

Ok, so you don't have a circulator but you still want to not ruin perfectly good chicken when you cook it to safe temperatures.  What do you do?

The answer: brine it.

Since the problem with chicken is loss of moisture, and because you can't prevent this from happening by cooking to a lower internal temperature, brining is the solution that both adds more moisture to the bird before cooking and changes the structure of the meat in a way that allows it to hold onto more moisture when cooked.  It also seasons the meat throughout, not just on the outside, and pleasantly firms up the texture of the final product.  Point being, it's an incredibly valuable technique, one that you should use often. 

If you are interested in learning more about the science of brining you can watch a 3-part series of videos on it over at stellaculinary.com.  Or you can go right to the source and buy Modernist Cuisine, which has an incredibly informative section on brining.  

The basics of brining are such: you dissolve salt into water, put meat in that water, then because of diffusion (not osmosis) the salt slowly makes it's way into the meat.  Easy right?  Well, yeah.  Kinda.  But there are ways to mess this up.  The main one being, adding too much salt.  A little too much salt can transform pleasantly brined food into something unenjoyably salty.  So how can you prevent this from happening?  Well, there are two routes.  The first is to spend decades cooking professionally until you have so much accumulated experience that you can simply taste a brine and know that it will perfectly season meat.  This is what the chef that I work for does.  

But if you're not a seasoned profession (pun unintended, but accepted), then I suggest you go with route number two and get a calculator and a digital scale.  Those two tools will allow you to accurately calculate the salinity of your brine.  Conventional brines are usually around 5%.  If you want to brine conventionally, simply weigh out enough water that would cover the meat, multiply that final weight by .05, and that total is the amount of salt you need to add.  The downside to conventional brining is that a 5% brine is actually too strong (you only want a final concentration of salt in the meat at a max of 1%), and thus if you leave the meat in the brine for too long it will end up unpleasantly salty.  Conventional brining is great in quicker applications when you want to cook what you're eating that same day.  The stronger brine will quickly be absorbed by the outer layer of meat (which is most prone to drying out when cooked), and save your dinner.  Adding sugar to the brine in a concentration of up to 20% (but most commonly closer to the same percentage of salt) will mask the saltiness of your final product, and because those added sugars will caramelize, will help with browning when cooked.  

But if you have a little more time, a much more preferable method is equilibrium brining.  It calculates the concentration of the brine based on the optimal final concentration of the meat.  So if you want a final concentration of 1%, you would add at least an equal weight of water to meat, calculate the final weight of both (minus the weight of bones), then add 2% salt.  The salt will diffuse evenly, 1% staying in the brine solution and the other moving into the meat.  Chefsteps.com (which was founded by a few of the genius type people that wrote Modernist Cuisine) has a great page on equilibrium brining, including a very helpful video, which you can watch below.  As much as I'm sure my above explanation is flawless (right? ...guys...?) watching a video will better help you understand the process, especially how easy it actually is.  There is also great information not included in the video on that page.  So if you haven't already, click this link.

Because brining pushes the muscle fibers in meat slightly apart, it not only increases the absorption of moisture in meat, but also the absorption of flavor.  In this way it is a much more preferable method of marinating (which only flavors the outermost layer of meat).  To make a marinating brine, simply infuse the brine with the flavors you want to impart to the meat (herbs and spices work best).  To do this, heat your brine to a simmer and allow the additional ingredients to steep and flavors to infuse.  Then, cool the brine down in the fridge and add your meat.  If you're impatient, you can also factor in the weight of ice to the final brine strength, allowing you to chill the brine with ice without diluting it.  

Lastly, a great technique I recently came across is the simple but intimidating sounding, cryo-brining.  Developed by the folks over at the aptly named Ideas in Food blog, cryo-brining utilizes the typically negative affects of freezing to assist the brine in penetrating the meat.  When meat is frozen the moisture in it turns to ice, and because water expands when it freezes, this ice punctures the surrounding muscles, causing them to lose moisture when meat eventually thaws.  This is why frozen meat is almost never as moist as fresh.  Cryo-brining is a process of freezing meat in a brine so that when it thaws the brine is able to replace that lost moisture.  The benefit here is that all those little fissures in the meat caused by expanding ice work as a tenderizer.  Cryo-brining allows you to reap the tenderizing aspects of freezing while avoiding the drying consequences.  Plus, for those of us who bought a whole chicken but don't necessarily want to eat a whole chicken, it allows you to preserve uneaten parts for much later without a loss in quality.  I've does this with leftover chicken breasts and can vouch for how well it works.  Read the short post about it over at the Ideas in Food blog for pictures and their explanation of the technique.  


That's, well, not even close to everything.  But it's a lot, and it's something.  And hopefully it's enough to get you confidently buying and utilizing whole birds.  Remember, the point with all of this is to enjoy your time in the kitchen more, and I strongly believe that the more you know, the more confident and relaxed you'll be when you cook.  Knowledge will allow you the freedom to experiment and adapt.  Most of all, your food will taste better.  Something you and those at your table will surely appreciate.  

Have any questions or comments?  Leave them below or email me at brett@fourchordkitchen.com.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need a drink.