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Chicken
Why Eat It
Varieties
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Chicken is the most versatile of meats. It can be prepared in many ways--roasted, broiled, grilled, or poached, in soups, stews, and pot pies--and with a variety of seasonings, toppings, and sauces. No wonder, then, that it is a staple in practically every culture's cuisine. In the United States, simple roast chicken is a favorite. In Italy, chicken is sauteed with tomatoes, mushrooms, and wine and served alla cacciatore. The Spanish combine chicken with shellfish and rice to produce paella. Shredded chicken is used as a filling for tacos and enchiladas in Mexico. In India, chicken marinated in yogurt and baked in a special clay oven is called tandoori. The Japanese and Chinese use chicken in stir-fries, often flavored with soy sauce and ginger. A favorite of French cooks is coq au vin, or chicken in wine.

Consumption of chicken in the United States has risen steadily since the Forties, when revolutionary changes in breeding and marketing methods made it more abundant and affordable. USDA production figures show that in 1934 (the first year records were kept) 34 million broiler chickens were produced. Today, the industry processes that many in a little over one working day. The price paid for chicken (and other poultry) today, when adjusted for inflation, is only one-third of the price paid in the early Sixties. As a result, annual consumption of chicken has doubled since 1968, from 25 pounds per capita to 49 pounds.

But low price isn't the only factor contributing to chicken's increased popularity. More and more people have made a conscious decision to eat less red meat and more poultry in an effort to lower the fat in their diets. When cooked, light-meat chicken without the skin is 33% to 80% leaner than trimmed cooked beef, depending on the beef's cut and grade. Chicken breast, the leanest part of the chicken, has less than half the fat of a trimmed Choice grade T-bone steak. Moreover, the fat in chicken is less saturated than the fat found in beef.

Yet chicken is comparable to beef in quantity and quality of protein, with 3 1/2 ounces of roasted chicken breast supplying 49% of the RDA for protein for the average man, and 62% for the average woman. Both foods supply approximately the same amounts of other vitamins and minerals, except that beef has slightly more iron and zinc.

Still, not all the chicken we eat is low in fat. If you eat chicken with the skin, you'll more than double the amount of fat and saturated fat; chicken skin derives 80% of its calories from fat, 23% of them from saturated fat. Dark-meat chicken supplies about the same amount of fat as light meat with the skin--about 10 grams of fat in 3 1/2 ounces roasted--and dark meat is slightly higher in cholesterol as well. Dark meat with the skin is the fattiest of all, with 16 grams of fat per 3 1/2 ounces roasted, deriving 56% of its calories from fat.

As with beef, chicken is graded for quality by the USDA only if the processors request and pay a fee for it. As a result, many processors have developed their own standards, and you often find ungraded chickens on the market. The chickens you do find on the market with a USDA grade are likely to be Grade A; lesser quality Grade B and C chickens are usually sold to food manufacturers for use in processed and packaged products. The fat content of the chicken is not a primary criterion for a top USDA rating (which is unlike the grading system for beef). Grade A birds are meaty, well shaped, free of feathers, and have a layer of fat. The skin must be unbroken, free of cuts, tears, bruises, or blemishes. A chicken with a bruised wing could have the wing cut off and be rated Grade C, but if the rest of the bird were of better quality, it would be cut up and the parts sold as Grade A.

Varieties

Types of chicken
Chicken is divided into classes based on age and sex. The meat from small, young chickens is usually leaner than that from larger birds.

Broiler/fryers: The most popular type of chicken, broiler/fryers are six to eight weeks old and weigh 2 1/2 to 5 pounds. They are meaty, tender, all-purpose birds, and despite their name can be roasted, grilled, poached, steamed, or sauteed as well as broiled and fried. They are not a good choice for stewing, however, as their meat will become dry and stringy.

Capons: These are male chickens that have been surgically castrated. This practice results in large birds at a young age, so the meat remains tender. They are usually slaughtered when 15 to 16 weeks old, and they weigh 9 1/2 to 10 1/2 pounds. Capons have a large proportion of white meat but a thick layer of fat underneath the skin, which makes the white meat fattier than that of other chickens. They are best roasted.

Roasters: These birds are a little older and larger than broiler/fryers. They are generally brought to market when they are three to five months old and weigh 3 1/2 to 6 pounds. Roasters have tender, flavorful meat. They can be roasted, grilled, braised, or stewed.

Rock Cornish hens: Developed in the 1800s in the United States by crossing a Cornish game cock with the White Plymouth Rock chicken, Rock Cornish hens weigh 3/4 to 2 pounds--the perfect size for serving one person, though a 2-pound bird could serve two people. These plump-breasted birds are very low in fat, and generally come onto the market at five or six weeks of age. You may occasionally find them fresh, but they are often sold frozen. The traditional way to serve Rock Cornish hens is roasted and stuffed, but they can also be broiled, braised, or sauteed.

Stewing chickens: These mature hens are usually 12 months old and weigh 4 to 6 pounds. Their meat is flavorful but tough, making them excellent candidates for stewing, braising, and making stock.

Free-range chickens: These are chickens that have been allowed to run freely in the farmyard and scratch for their food, unlike most chickens, which are raised in coops. Some people feel that free-range chickens have a better flavor because the exercise develops their muscles. Exercise also toughens muscles, but free-range chickens are usually slaughtered at a young age, so the meat remains tender. They are no more nutritious than other chickens, however, and may come at a premium price. In addition, they are processed in the same way as other chickens, and therefore are just as prone to salmonella contamination.

Chicken parts: According to the National Broiler Council, over 50% of chicken is purchased cut up as parts. You can purchase whole or half breasts with the bone in, or boneless, skinless chicken breast fillets. Drumsticks and wings are also sold separately. Chicken breasts can be roasted (usually referred to as baked), broiled, grilled, or sauteed. Drumsticks and wings can be baked, broiled, or grilled.

Shopping

One way to get a really fresh chicken is to check the "sell-by" date on the store's label. Chicken can reach the supermarket as early as the next morning after slaughter. The sell-by date is seven to 10 days from slaughter and it's the last day recommended for sale. However, the bird will remain fresh for up to three days afterward if properly refrigerated.

When shopping for a whole chicken, look for a well-shaped bird with a plump, rounded breast, and more breast than leg. You can tell the approximate age of a bird by pressing against the breastbone; if it is pliable the chicken is young and will have tender meat. Chicken parts should be moist and plump. Both whole chicken and chicken parts should have a clean smell.

The color of the skin has no bearing on quality or nutritional value. The poultry industry turns out white and yellow chickens to suit consumer preferences, which vary from region to region. The color of the skin depends on the breed and what the chicken was fed. If the chicken was fed substances containing yellow pigment, such as marigold petals, its skin will be yellow. No matter what the color of the skin, make sure it does not appear transparent or mottled.

Frozen poultry should be rock-hard and show no signs of freezer burn or ice crystals inside the package. Choose packages from below the freezer line in the grocer's case. If there is frozen liquid inside the package, it is likely that the chicken has been defrosted and then refrozen. This does not mean that the chicken is spoiled, but the taste will suffer since the juices that make a bird flavorful have seeped out.

Storage

Fresh chicken is highly perishable and should be stored immediately in the coldest part of your refrigerator. To minimize handling, keep the chicken in its original store wrapping. Be sure that the fluids from the package do not leak onto other foods in the refrigerator; if the package seems leaky, overwrap it in plastic or aluminum foil, or place it on a plate to prevent the contamination of other foods. Fresh raw chicken will keep in a home refrigerator for two to three days; once cooked, it will keep for three to four days.

If you buy whole birds with the giblets, store the meat and giblets separately since the giblets will spoil before the meat. Open the store wrapping and remove the giblets. Rinse the chicken, pat it dry with paper towels, and rewrap it loosely in heavy-duty plastic, foil, or butcher paper. The giblets should be discarded or stored in a container and used within one day.

To freeze chicken, remove it from the store wrapping, wash it, and pat it dry with paper towels. Wrap it in freezer paper or aluminum foil, taking care that odd-shaped parts are fully covered and the package is airtight. Do not try to freeze a whole bird in a home freezer; cut it into parts first. Chicken will keep in a 0°F freezer for 12 months.

Preparation

Keep chicken refrigerated until you are ready to cook it. Wash the chicken in cold running water and pat it dry with paper towels. Pluck out any stray feathers remaining with your fingernails or a pair of tweezers.

Never thaw frozen chicken at room temperature; the outside thaws first and becomes susceptible to bacterial growth during the time it takes for the inside to thaw. Leave it in the refrigerator to defrost on a plate to catch the drippings. Allow three to four hours of thawing time per pound of chicken; chicken parts may thaw more quickly. Use a microwave oven for thawing only if you plan to cook the chicken right away; if that is not possible, refrigerate it until cooking time.

Cut away any visible fat on the chicken, but don't remove the skin before cooking. Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that it doesn't matter whether you remove the skin before or after cooking in terms of fat content. No significant amount of fat is transferred from the skin to the meat during cooking. Skinning poultry before cooking only leads to drier--not leaner--meat. Remove the skin before eating the chicken and be sure to remove any visible fat left on the meat.

Chicken breasts often have a tough white tendon under the fillet, a small tender piece that is tucked underneath the main part of the breast. If the breast is boneless, you can easily remove this tendon with a sharp paring knife. To tenderize boneless chicken breasts, pound them lightly between two sheets of plastic wrap. This also flattens the breasts to a uniform thickness for even cooking.

Keep raw poultry away from other foods, especially salad greens or any food that will be served raw or cooked only briefly. Be sure to thoroughly wash your hands, the countertop, sink, cutting board, and utensils with hot, soapy water.

Marinate chicken pieces in the refrigerator, not at room temperature. Chicken can spoil if it sits out even for three hours on a warm day. Don't use the marinade as a sauce unless you bring it to a rolling boil for several minutes before serving. Better yet, make extra marinade and store it separately until you are ready to serve it.

Baking in parchment: Boneless, skinless chicken breasts stay moist and tender without the addition of fat when they are baked in cooking parchment or aluminum foil. Place the chicken breast in the center of a square of parchment or foil and top it with thinly sliced vegetables--mushrooms, summer squash, and red peppers--and add seasonings. Tightly wrap and bake in a 425°F oven. Cooking time: 10 to 15 minutes.

Frying: Fried chicken--chicken that has been coated, breaded, and deep fried--is popular in the United States. Unfortunately, it is one of the unhealthiest ways to prepare chicken, since the breading absorbs a lot of the oil used in frying. Light-meat chicken with skin, batter-dipped and fried, contains 277 calories and 15 grams of fat--49% fat calories--per 3 1/2 ounces. If you prefer fried chicken, fry it without breading or batter and remove the skin before eating. Skinless light-meat chicken that has been fried without a coating contains 192 calories and 6 grams of fat--28% fat calories--in 3 1/2 ounces.

Oven frying: This method produces crisp chicken without the trouble of dealing with hot oil, or consuming the extra fat. Dip the chicken in buttermilk, then roll it in a mixture of dry breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, pepper, paprika, and dried oregano. Cook in a 425°F oven, in a broiler pan so the fat drips out. Cooking time: 35 to 40 minutes.

Poaching: Poaching in water or broth is the best way to prepare chicken that will later be eaten cold. Use a heavy hand with seasonings: Try dried (but not ground) rosemary, sage, thyme, and oregano; or ginger, garlic, and scallions. When poaching chicken breasts, strain the seasonings out of the poaching liquid after the chicken is cooked and reduce it. Mix 1/3 cup low-fat plain yogurt with a tablespoon of flour and mix well. Add the yogurt to the reduced liquid to make a sauce to serve over the cold chicken. When poaching a whole chicken, use the cooking liquid as the base for chicken soup. Cooking time: for breasts, about 15 minutes; for whole chicken, 35 to 40 minutes.

Roasting and broiling: Of all the cooking methods, roasting a whole bird at a low temperature melts away the most fat. Cooking times vary by the size of the bird and the cooking method. Whole chicken is cooked when the white meat registers 180°F on a meat thermometer. When the chicken is thoroughly cooked, the juices will run clear, not pink, and the flesh will turn white. Bone-in parts should be cooked to an internal temperature of 170°F and boneless parts to 160°F.

Steaming: Place boneless chicken and sliced vegetables in a shallow heatproof dish. Set the dish on a rack in a large covered skillet or Dutch oven. Add 1 inch of water to the skillet, cover, and cook on the stovetop until the chicken is cooked through. A concentrated, flavorful broth remains in the dish and can be used as a sauce over the chicken. Cooking time: five to eight minutes.

Stir-frying: Boneless chicken breasts are best for stir-frying because they are easily sliced and cook quickly. Slice the chicken into 1/4" pieces, cutting across the grain. Cooking time: three to four minutes.

Homemade chicken broth: It's easy to make your own broth to use in cooking or as the basis for soups. It's healthier, too, than buying canned broth, since you can control the amount of salt you add and can remove fat from the stock after cooking. Use stewing chickens, chicken backs, or the leftover carcass from a roast chicken. Place the chicken in a large stockpot with yellow onions with the skins on (to add color), celery ribs, carrots, bay leaves, whole peppercorns, thyme, and salt. Cover the ingredients with water and bring to a boil. Remove any debris that floats to the top, reduce to a simmer, and cover. Once done, strain the liquid to remove the vegetables, bones, and any meat pieces. Let the stock cool completely and refrigerate. Remove any fat that congeals at the top. Cooking time: three to four hours.

Nutrition Chart

Chicken Breast (skinless, boneless)/3 ounces cooked

140
Total fat (g)
3
Saturated fat (g)
0.9
Monounsaturated fat (g)
1.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.7
Dietary fiber (g)
0
26
Carbohydrate (g)
0
Cholesterol (g)
72
Sodium (g)
63
Niacin (g)
12
Vitamin B6 (g)
0.5
Phosphorus (g)
164
Selenium (g)
24

Dark Meat Chicken (skinless, boneless)/3 ounces cooked

178
Total fat (g)
9.3
Saturated fat (g)
2.6
Monounsaturated fat (g)
3.5
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
2.1
Dietary fiber (g)
0
22
Carbohydrate (g)
0
Cholesterol (g)
81
Sodium (g)
75
Niacin (g)
5.6
Vitamin B6 (g)
0.3
Phosphorus (g)
156
Selenium (g)
25
Zinc (g)
2.2


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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