Choosing Chicken

Chicken is available all year round, either fresh or frozen. Don't limit yourself to roasting and think of the excellent casseroles that can be prepared with older birds.

Choosing chicken

For fresh chicken, look for an unblemished skin that appears reasonably smooth and moist, the breast should be plump. Corn fed chickens would have a corn-yellow tinge on the skin.

Many people consider free range chicken to have more flavor. Free range chicken is allowed to roam and eat outdoors as opposite to chicken raised in controlled environments and fed a controlled diet. Organic chicken is free range chicken raised without synthetic pesticides and supported with organic chicken food - free from hormones, pesticides, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.

Regulation differs from one place to other on what is free range and organic, so quality varies very much. Free-range and organic chicken tend to be leaner while other types of farm chickens have thicker a layer of fat under the skin.

When buying frozen chicken, just look for unblemished skin and see that the freezer racks are clean with no frozen drops of liquid or other evidence of thawing and re-freezing.

Serving sizes

As a rule of thumb, estimate ½lb chicken meat on the bone per person for both, whole chicken or chicken joints. Boneless, skinless chicken should be treated as any other lean meat; estimate 1/4lb per person.

You will have to make allowances and estimate in excess for a poussin and similar birds, as most of the weight is skin and bone and they do not have that much meat -although the meat they have is very tender. Some large roasters will yield more servings than the 1/2 lb per persona as they will have large breasts and the ratio meat to skin is better.

Ultimately, the yield will also depend on the age and appetite of the people at the table.

Types of chicken

Chicken parts may have light meat - breast and wings - or dark meat - legs, drumsticks and thighs. Light meat is leaner and cooks faster; it is considered the noble part of a bird by many.

Young birds are tender and moist, suitable for both, grilling and roasting -dry heat cooking methods -or braising and stewing - moist heat cooking methods. Older birds are tough and need long slow braises to be edible. It is the age of the bird what determines how tender the flesh will be and fully grown birds don't usually find their way to the shelves.

How much do you want to work for your chicken?

You can get chicken in several fashions.

  • Live - never seen in a shop, go directly to the farmer or raise yourself for the table. You will have to do all the killing, bleeding, plucking and eviscerating. We tend to forget chickens don't originate in a package.
  • Dressed - killed, bled and plucked. Uncommon in shops, may be found in a farmer's market, local butcher or farm with their own meat and poultry shop.
  • Ready to cook - dressed and eviscerated, usually head and removed.

You will find chicken ready to cook whole or cut up, either fresh - chilled - of frozen.

Whole birds

Poussins - young chickens - 6 to 8 weeks old - with a weight 1-2 lb (400 - 900 g) and tender meat although not much of it; good for grilling with nothing more than a little fat - cooking oil or melted butter - and seasoning -salt, pepper, your favorite herbs. You will get no more than 2 servings out of one bird, often only 1 serving. A coquelet is a small cock chicken in this range of weight and age.

Cornish hen - special breed of chicken eaten young - no more than 5 weeks, 2 lb (900g) weight - and usually very tender, a delicacy. Expect 3-4 servings from one bird. You may also find it under the name rock Cornish game hen.

Broilers - young chickens - 6 to 12 weeks - with a weight range 1 1/2 lb to 2 1/2 lb (700 g to 1.1 kg) and they can be either sex. Flesh should be tender, skin smooth and cartilage very flexible. Roast on a fairly high heat. Pre-heat oven at 375° F (190° C) and estimate 20 minutes per 1 lb weight plus 20 minutes. A Bird will feed 32-3 people, depending on weight.

Fryers - a young chicken, usually male, in the same age range than a broiler but with a weight range 2 1/2lb to 3 1/2lb (1.1 kg to 1.5 kg) and also good for roasting or frying, if cut into pieces. A bird will feed 4-6 people.

Roasters - birds 3 1/2 - 5 lb (1.5 - 2.25 kg) young and sex is not an issue, although they are usually male. Still a young bird though older and heavier than the previous categories; flesh is still tender and skin smooth, but the less flexible cartilage is a telltale sign. Roast at 325° F (60° C) and estimate 25 minutes per lb plus 25 minutes. Baste regularly. A bird should serve 5-6 people; also good for frying in pieces.

Pullet - a young hen - 4 to 9 months old - with a weight 2 to 5 lb; good to roast, fry, braise, stew or broil.

Capons - castrated male chicken, from 10-12 weeks to a maximum 40 weeks old and 5 - 8 lb (2.25 - 3.5 kg) weight. The flesh is very tender, the birds have large breasts. Treat as a large roaster. A bird would feed 8-10 people.

Boiling fowl - a mature hen with tough flesh and coarse skin from 3 1/2 - 6 lb weight and usually 10 months or more old. Great for soups and stock or long braises with wine, beer, cider, stock and your choice of herbs and spices. Cook until tender, usually for 2 hours or more.

Rooster - a mature male chicken, 10 months or older, 4 - 6 lb (1.8 - 4 kg) weight. Tough flesh, coarse skin and dark meat; use for stock or long, slow cooking stews, in a similar fashion to a boiling fowl.

Chicken in pieces

Chicken joints - sold as individual portions. Grill, with or without marinating, skinless and boneless chicken breast, and chicken drumsticks or thighs with or without skin. Braise or stew chicken thighs, drumsticks, chicken pieces and breast on the bone. Coat with egg and breadcrumbs then shallow fry chicken tenders or fillets. Allow 1/2 lb (250 g) chicken on the bone or 1/4 lb (125 g) skinless and boneless chicken per person.

Giblets - use to make broth or stock. Chicken livers can be fried and served on toast or in a salad, or made into a paté.