Cooking a Whole Chicken

IMG_0589Years ago when we started consuming lots of chicken and broth and money was tight, I decided I would buy only whole chickens.  Then we started raising our own chickens and that is how real chickens come – whole :-).  Most people don’t buy whole chickens anymore, but there are lots of reasons to make the switch and cooking a whole chicken is SUPER easy!!

Why cook whole chickens?

  • You will always get more for your money.  One whole chicken will yield 1 neck, 2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 legs, 2 wings, wing tips and carcass bones for stock (up to 1 gallon), organs, and schmaltz (chicken fat).
  • The meat is more likely to be natural.  Chickens in their whole form are less processed than when it is cut into parts and separated, often having ingredients added.  Whole chickens are the most nutritious option and the safest.  Less processing also means less chance for pathogens that might cause food born illness.
  • You also get the giblets – liver, gizzard, and heart.  You can eat them whole if you like organ meats.  You can cook them with the bones for broth to increase the nutrients in your broth (and then remove them).  Or you can feed them to your pets for a healthy natural treat.
  • You also get the bones for broth/stock.  This is a huge economic and health advantage.  You can get up to a gallon or more of broth (liquid from cooking meat) and stock (liquid from cooking bones) from one chicken.  The Swanson stuff at the store would cost you at least $10 for a gallon and it is not packed with nutrients.  There are so many health benefits of real chicken stock that it needs at least a whole post – maybe a whole book.  In short, real broth or stock is an incredibly nutritious and healing food. It is a super absorb-able source of minerals, an excellent source of gelatin/collagen for improving joint pain,arthritis and other ailments, and it is a very soothing drink for your tummy and gut.  It is also super delicious!!  It should be a part of your menu every single week – maybe several times a week.  Really.  (More info: Broth is Beautiful, Bone Broth)

What kind of chicken do I buy?

This is a matter of personal conviction, budget and availability.  The reality is real, pasture-raised chickens fed a careful diet are going to be more nutritious and better for us than the standard issue bird from the store.  The reality is also that many of us could not afford this and may not even have access to better meat.  If you can afford pasture raised birds and you have a source, I highly recommend buying them.  If you cannot, do the best you can with your money and at least buy whole chickens.

What do I do with a whole chicken?

Get over the fact that it is a whole bird, raw meat, or whatever has kept you from buying them before.  Buy one.  Remove from the package.  There should be a neck and some organs inside the bird.  Remove those.  Rinse them and set aside:

  • If you like organ meats, start collecting them in the freezer and before long you will have enough for the best fried liver meal you’ve ever had.  Separate them into baggies – livers in one, gizzards in one, hearts in another, and throw them in the freezer.  Add to these bags when you wash your next chicken.
  • If you don’t love organ meats but would like the nutrients, set them aside to be added to your broth.
  • If they totally gross you out, feed them to the cat or dog.  They will love you for it.
  • I usually cook them with the chicken and chop them up with the meat.  No one even knows that they are there but they add lots of nutrients to our meals.  My kids fight over the hearts so I leave them whole and whoever gets the heart is the “winner”.  They really love this game – not sure why.

Now that whole bird –  give it a cold water rinse – inside and out.  You can pat it dry if you have a notion, but I don’t.  I cook it one of 4 ways.

Boiled:

Place the chicken in a stock pot, cover with water, and cook on high until it comes to a boil.  Reduce the temperature and simmer until it’s done – maybe an hour or a little longer.

I usually use this chicken for other recipes like casseroles, quick soups, pot pies, or chicken salad.  Pull out the chicken when it’s done and set it aside to cool.  Bone and use as needed.  Save the bones for stock (directions below).  Strain the broth and use or save for later.

Salt Baked:

I rarely serve just chicken as the meat course.  Our family can consume 4 meals worth of chicken in one meal if I serve just the meat with veggies on the side.  But when I do, this is the way I cook it.  It is so moist and delicious and incredibly easy.

Preheat your oven to 500 degrees F (that is not a misprint). Take the washed bird and place on a roasting pan – the kind with the rack on top that strains the fat away from the bird.  Generously sprinkle the chicken inside and out with coarse sea salt.  Pat it into the skin.  Place the chicken breast-side down on your rack and pop it in the oven.  Bake for 10 minutes before reducing the heat to 350 degrees.  Set the timer for 40 minutes.  When the timer goes off you will have a beautiful, moist, delicious chicken read to serve.  If you are cooking more than one chicken, add about 10-15 minutes to the cooking time.  If you would like to brown the skin over the breast, turn the chicken over and bake breast side up for another 10 minutes. The picture at the top is a salt baked chicken.  So delicious!

Crock Pot:

This is probably the way I cook chicken most.  Place the washed chicken (or 2 if they are small) in the crock pot. Add water, cover, and turn on low.  The chicken will be done in 8 hours.  This is similar to boiling the chicken and will yield lots of meat that is ready for other dishes.

Chicken and Veggies:

This recipe will yield a chicken that has tons of flavor and is ready to eat. In the crock pot place the following:

  • 4 carrots, cut into sticks
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 2 celery stalks with leaves, cut into 4 inch pieces ( I save the insides of all my celery bunches for this recipe)
  • 1 whole chicken
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • water (1 cup is needed, more can be added if you will need additional broth)

Cook on low for 8-12 hours or high for 4-6 hours.  Remove the chicken and vegetables to cool.  Strain the broth and use for broth gravy.  Serve the boned chicken, vegetables, and gravy over rice or noodles.

Broth Gravy:

IMG_0614Roux: There will be a layer of fat on top of the broth. Using a spoon, remove as much of the fat as possible. If you have time to refrigerate the broth first, the fat will rise to the top and can easily be removed. Estimate the amount of fat and add it to a skillet. Turn the skillet on medium and melt the fat (if it is chilled). Add an equal amount of flour or ½ the amount of arrowroot powder, whisking while the powder is added to the fat. Cook for 1-10 minutes – depending on the depth of flavor desired. Use the roux in the broth immediately or remove the roux to a separate container to cool in the refrigerator. The chilled roux can be broken into pieces and frozen for long term storage.

Gravy: Add fresh or chilled roux to simmering broth at the ratio of about 1 tablespoon per 1 cup of broth. For our family of 13, I use 3-4 cups of broth and 3-4 tablespoons of roux. Whisk while it cooks and thickens. It will continue to thicken as it cools. Adjust the taste with salt and pepper.

Broth/Stock:

IMG_0607As you serve or eat the chicken, be sure to save all the bones to throw in the crock pot for stock.  Don’t throw those bones away!!!  I salt baked 2 birds last night.  We used 2 of the chicken breasts in a large pot of dumplings.  The rest of the meat was boned and put into the fridge – enough for at least 3-4 meals this week.  The bones were put into the crock pot and covered with water and a glug of cider vinegar.  The vinegar helps to draw the minerals out of the bones.  I usually will add 4-6 chicken feet from the freezer when I make broth.  Chicken feet contain tons of gelatin that will dissolve into the broth making it super nutritious.  Some whole foods stores carry chicken feet.  I just save them from the chickens we raise.  The bones will be cooked on low for about 16 hours to yield about a 1/2 gallon of stock.  That stock will will be strained off and the bones will again be covered with water and a splash of vinegar.  Cook for another 16-24 hours for another batch of broth.  You can repeat this even one more time but by the 3rd round, there will not be as much flavor in the broth.  When the bones are completely depleted of their nutrients they will just crumble in your hands.

I strain the broth into mason jars and set them in the fridge.  You should have a good layer of fat that rises to the top and seals the broth underneath.  This is similar to the old days when folks preserved jellies by pouring a layer of wax on top to preserve the jam underneath.  As long as there is a good thick layer of fat, unbroken and sealed to the edge of your jar, the broth underneath will keep in the fridge a long time.  Once you break through that fat layer, use the broth within a few days.  You can also freeze broth – glass jars filled 2/3rds full (well below the shoulder of the jar) and frozen with the lid off to allow for expansion works pretty well.  Occasionally a jar will break in the freezing process but not too often. Once frozen, place a lid on the jar.

Conclusion

That is tons of info and kudos if you made it to the end :-).  Cooking whole or large meat pieces is a large part of how I plan our menu.  When I cook chickens like this on Monday, I plan for 3-4 meals using that meat during the week.  Even though there is a bit of time involved in the initial preparation, every meal after that can be put together quickly because the chicken is cooked, boned, and ready.  I also try to put at least 2-4 cups of meat in the freezer for those days when life doesn’t go according to plan.  If there is cooked meat and broth in the freezer, a healthy meal is minutes away from your table.  I will add more recipes in the days to come for using this meat but you probably have favorite chicken recipes of your own.  Buying whole chicken is a great and frugal way to serve your family nutritious, delicious, satisfying, comfort meals.

Do you buy whole chickens?  How do you cook them?

RealFoodWednesdays-1024x844Corn free everydayThis post was shared with other real food information on Real Food Wednesday and with corn-free recipes at Creating Silver Linings

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