Chicken 101: Everything You Need To Know About Cooking Chicken

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Buying, Storing, Preparing, and Cooking Chicken

Lions may be king of the jungle.

But, chickens are king of the kitchen.

Chicken is quick cooking, healthy, available everywhere and cheap. It is the ultimate weeknight protein. No wonder each person in the U.S. eats over 64 pounds of chicken per year.

There is just one problem: chicken is typically boring and unsatisfying.

For years, I just tried to cook chicken as quickly as possible. This resulted in boring and bland chicken dinners and leftover lunches.

The chicken dishes that did turn out well, I made over and over again. And then got bored with those. What a vicious cycle.

This article will teach you everything you need to know about how to cook chicken. Plus, how to buy, store, and keep chicken. So you don’t have to eat that same chicken stir-fry over and over again.

Cooking Chicken: The Basics

What is Chicken?

Starting off real basic here. A chicken is a bird (or fowl) that has bird things like feathers, two legs, two wings, and a beak. They basically can’t fly and go “cock-a-doodle-doo” at sunrise. I always thought Big Bird could be a chicken, but upon further research, he’s more of a giant flightless crane.

Chicken is the most common type of poultry eaten in the world. You’ll find it in most of the world’s cuisines. They are easier to raise compared to cows, pigs, and other animals. It is estimated that there are more than 19 billion chickens on earth at any given time.

One of my favorite things about chickens? They lay eggs that are delicious and full of nutrition. Over and over again for our consumption. They just keep giving. So selfless, those chickens.

Don’t worry, those eggs you get in a carton at the store are unfertilized. Meaning a rooster did not mate with the hen that laid them. Chickens lay eggs almost daily anyway.

Types of Chicken

On chicken packaging, you’ll sometimes see a specific type of chicken. Honestly, I don’t really pay attention to the type much. I just more look at the size and cost when picking the chicken I am going to buy.

Here is a rundown of each type as defined by the USDA.

  • Broiler or fryer – A young chicken less than 10 weeks old that weighs between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 pounds. Use any method to cook. This is the most common type that you can find at most grocery stores.
  • Cornish Hen – A small broiler/fryer that weighs between 1 and 2 pounds. Typically, roasted whole.
  • Roaster – A young chicken between 8 and 12 weeks old and weighs 5 pounds or more. Typically, roasted whole and yields more meat per pound than broiler/fryer.
  • Capon – Male chickens that are less than 4 months old and weigh between 4 and 7 pounds. Typically, roasted. They have large amounts of tender, light meat.
  • Baking or Stewing Hen – A mature female chicken (hen) 10 months to 1 1/2 years old. They have less tender meat than younger chickens, so they are typically stewed or cooked with liquid.
  • Rooster or cock – A mature male chicken with coarse skin and tough, dark meat. Requires long, moist cooking.
types of chicken

Edible Parts of Chicken

This guide on cooking chicken would be way easier to write for just one part of the bird. But, as you’re probably aware, there are a bunch of different parts. Here they are with some general cooking guidelines.

  • Whole bird: Roasting is a super easy and hands-off method that will give you a juicy bird. Grilling is also an option. Spatchcock (remove the backbone) a whole chicken to make it cook quicker.
  • Breasts: Each chicken has one breast with two halves. This is the leanest, healthiest, and most expensive part of the chicken. Breasts can be cooked in a variety of ways such as baking, grilling, pan-frying, braising, or even microwaving (which I don’t recommend).
  • Legs (or leg quarters): The entire leg made up of a drumstick and thigh.
    • Drumsticks: Bottom part of the leg with a bone surrounded by meat.
    • Thighs: Upper part of the leg. The most fatty part of the chicken and arguably the most flavorful.
  • Wings: These tasty little guys don’t always need to be fried. Grilling and baking are two great options. There are two different parts to each wing: the drumette which looks like a smaller drumstick and the flat which is two small bones surrounded by white meat.
  • Bones: To make homemade chicken stock, keep your chicken bones. Store them in the freezer until you have enough to fill a pot. Then fill the pot with some water and aromatics like onion, garlic, and herbs, and simmer away.
  • Fat (schmaltz): All that chicken fat that is sitting at the top of your stock or rendered in your cast iron pan is a great cooking device. Store it an airtight container for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator or freeze. Can you say chicken fat roasted potatoes?

Want to learn how to cut a whole chicken into these pieces? Then check out this post (with a video that shows you how).

whole chicken cut-up

How to Buy Chicken

Does your head spin every time you look at all the different options for eggs? There are like 20 different types at my grocery store: cage free, organic cage free, free-range, organic free-range etc.

How to Read a Chicken Label

Here are the details on what all the designations on the label mean.

  • Regular or Standard or No Label – Chickens raised in large commercial farms. Generally, chickens are raised indoors in stacked cages with little room to move. Cheapest option, but quality of life for the chicken is low. Also, the meat will be tougher and less juicy due to increased stress and lack of muscle development.
  • Cage-free – Similar to regular except the chickens have a bit more room to move than being confined to cages. Chickens are still raised indoors with no sunlight or a great quality of life.
  • Free-range – Chickens have at least some access to the outdoors. Depending on the producer this amount of time may vary quite a bit. For instance, chickens free-range from a local organic farm probably spend many hours a day roaming around farm living in their most natural way. But, free-range chickens from a commercial farm may only spend a few minutes each day in the sunlight in closed quarters.
  • Organic – At minimum, certified organic chickens were fed organic feed that does not have pesticides, chemicals, or antibiotics.
  • Farm fresh – I’ve seen amazing high quality chicken at my local farmer’s market labelled this. I’ve also seen low quality commercially farmed chicken with this label. So, it honestly doesn’t really mean much. It’s not an official designation so tread lightly.
  • Pasture raised – Typically this is a very high quality chicken that was free to roam on a pasture during the day. They are fed a mix of vegetarian feed, grass, bugs, worms, and whatever else they find in the dirt.
Selecting chicken

A few more words and sayings you’ll see:

  • Antibiotic-free – Just as it is stated, no antibiotics have ever been given to the chickens.
  • No added hormones – Hormones aren’t ever allowed to be added to poultry per the USDA. So, all chicken you encounter will be hormone-free. If it has this label, it’s pure marketing.
  • Vegetarian fed – This is most likely a positive, but there is a bit of a gray area. If you are a vegetarian, then this would obviously be good for you. But, chickens aren’t intended to be naturally vegetarian. They eat things like bugs and worms. This most likely indicates that there are no animal byproducts in the feed (which chickens aren’t supposed to eat).
  • Natural – One of my least favorite words. Per the USDA “natural” simply means the meat is minimally processed and doesn’t have any artificial flavorings, colors, or preservatives added after slaughter. So, that is basically every type of chicken.
  • Animal Welfare Humane Certified – You may see this label stamped on not only your chicken, but other meat you buy. This is a third party organization that has created a set of standards specifically for improving the lives of farm animals. If you see this label, then your chickens have been raised humanely. You can read more about the exact guidelines here.
  • Kosher or Halal – This means that the chicken was raised, slaughtered, and butchered according to Jewish or Halal food laws. However, this doesn’t really tell you much about the quality of the bird. You’ll have to read the full label for an indication of that.

The Bottom Line On Buying Chicken

So, that’s a lot of options, but I have good news: Ultimately, you can rely on your taste buds because happier, healthier chickens produce tastier meat.

The best chicken you can get is from a local organic farm. It will taste better, be better for the chicken, and be better for the environment. But, it will cost you.

At the grocery store, the best chicken you can buy will be organic, free-range or pasture raised, antibiotic free, and air-chilled. This combo is the winner, winner chicken dinner.

If you’re looking for a more affordable option, I suggest trying out different varieties from different grocery stores until you find one that tastes great at your price point. You can then research the producer online to learn more about their farming techniques if you’re interested.

For more on buying chicken, check out this article on everything you need to know about buying chicken.

Chicken on the farm

Where to Buy Chicken

As stated above, if you can afford it, your local farmer’s market has the highest quality chicken.

Whole Foods has several high quality options. Plus, they offer free grocery delivery if you’re an Amazon Prime member.

Another option is getting your chicken delivered directly to your doorstep. Crowd Cow connects consumers to small farms through their online marketplace. They offer high quality pasture raised, free-range, and organic chicken from small farms and co-ops that you can get delivered directly to your home. Order your meat from Crowd Cow here.

Want some more choices for buying chicken online? Check out this article on the best places to buy chicken online.

Other Buying Tips

Start With the “Best Buy” Date

The “best buy” or “sell by” date is always the first thing I look at when buying chicken. If it’s coming up quick, I may pass. If not, I’ll move on to some other characteristics to check for.

You also need to keep in mind when you plan to cook the chicken. If you’re not going to cook it within the next day or so, make sure to pick a sell-by date far away.

One caveat here. I’m a sucker for a good deal. Although I don’t like to mess around with old-ish meat, if you can find high quality chicken (like from a local farm quality) on sale because it’s sell by date is approaching AND it passes the checks below, I say go for it. Grocery stores and markets typically do this. And you can get a great haul.

The key? Put whatever chicken you aren’t using that day immediately into the freezer. But, it’s vital that you perform the below checks for quality before you buy like this.

Check For Coldness

Select fresh chicken that feels cold to the touch when buying. The colder, the less chance for bacteria growth.

Check For Color

Look for chicken with a pinkish hue. Fresh chicken will always be this color. Avoid gray or transparency. These indicate that the chicken has been sitting out at the market for some time.

Chicken breast

Fat Is Where It’s At

Chicken fat should be white or yellow. Never gray or pale.

Buy The Right Amount

When you’re serving chicken in whole cuts, base the amount you buy on the number of cuts in the package. For instance, if you’re serving drumsticks for 4 people, you may way to buy 8 drumsticks.

If you’re cutting up chicken, buy the amount based on the weight of the package. Example: you want to make tacos for 4 people with boneless chicken breasts. Assuming a serving size of about 1/4 pound (4 oz.) per person, you’ll need about 1 pound of chicken.

Make the Meat Aisle Your Last Stop

Get your chicken last at the grocery store to minimize the amount of time it is not under refrigeration. In addition, hit up the grocery store last before heading home. You don’t want your chicken sitting in a warm car.

Chicken Nutrition

Chicken Nutrition Facts

Specific nutrition values for chicken can vary widely depending on the part of the bird you’re eating and if you leave the skin on. Let’s use a chicken breast (lean white meat) with skin on (mostly fat) as a starting point.

According to the USDA, 1 medium chicken breast with skin on (about 4.5 oz) has the following nutritional values:

  • Calories: 227
  • Fat: 11.7 grams
  • Protein: 28.3 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 0 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams

So, chicken is your protein powerhouse.

Health Benefits of Chicken

There is a reason why body builder diets consists of mostly chicken and rice.

Note: Coating your chicken in refined carbs and frying it is not healthy. So, the health benefits below don’t apply to fried and/or processed fast food chicken.

Chicken is leaner (aka has less fat) than other meats like pork and beef. It is a great source of high quality protein that your body uses to build muscle and strong bones. Plus, it helps you feel full and control blood sugar levels.

As with other animal products, chicken is a good source of vitamin B`12. This promotes brain development and helps your nervous system function.

Potential Downsides of Chicken

The risk of food poisoning and E.coli contamination are real for chicken, especially those raised in close quarters on a commercial farm. When chickens are raised on top of each other and cages are not properly cleaned, their risk of bacterial contamination increases. To reduce your risk purchase high quality chicken from reputable producers, cook your chicken completely to an internal temperature 165°F, and sanitize any surfaces that come in contact with raw chicken (including your hands).

Fattier parts of chicken like thighs, legs, and skin (aka the best tasting parts) contain higher levels of cholesterol. Also, popular fried chicken is loaded with trans and saturated fats.

Fast food chicken is highly processed. It may contain additives and preservatives that don’t provide any nutritional value. I mean, are McDonald’s chicken nuggets even made of chicken anymore?

Cooking Chicken Tips

Handling Raw Chicken

As mentioned, chicken can be a risk of carrying unwanted bacteria like E. coli. But, as long as you handle and cook chicken appropriate, you’ll be fine.

According to USDA’s Food Safe Families campaign, follow these four steps:

  1. Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often.
  2. Separate: Separate raw meats and poultry from other foods.
  3. Cook: Cook all poultry to 165°F.
  4. Chill: Refrigerate promptly.

It’s as simple as 1, 2, 3 (and 4).

How to cut a whole chicken

Thawing Frozen Chicken

Never thaw chicken at room temperature. By the time the inside is thawed, the outside may have been at room temperature long enough for bacteria to grow.

Instead, use one of these three methods:

  1. Refrigerator (recommended method): Transfer your chicken from the freezer to the refrigerator and let it slowly thaw. For chicken cuts, I typically do this the day before I plan to make. For whole chickens, you may need up to 2-3 days depending on its size. The chicken will last another day or 2 in the refrigerator after thawing.
  2. Cold Water: Place chicken in an airtight bag or package. Submerge in cold water, changing water every 30 minutes or so, until fully thawed. This will take less than an hour for most cut-up chicken parts and 2-3 hours for whole birds and large pieces. Cook immediately.
  3. Microwave: Use your defrost or low microwave setting to thaw your chicken. Cook immediately. I don’t like this method because the outside of your chicken will probably be partially cooked, but it is the quickest.

Note: You can cook your chicken straight from frozen in the oven. It will just take longer.

Marinating Chicken

I have some good news for you. It’s that you don’t need to marinate chicken.

That’s right, you don’t need to marinate (soaking chicken in a typically acidic liquid) chicken anymore. It basically doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t make chicken more tender, moist, or flavorful (all the things that marinating is supposed to do).

The thing is, marinade doesn’t penetrate past the surface of chicken. So, any benefit is just on the outside of the chicken. Since that is the case, you might as well dip your chicken into a sauce right before your cook it.

In fact, I wrote this article on why you don’t need to marinate chicken and what you can do instead.

This reverse marinated chicken recipe is a much better, quicker, and hassle free technique for flavorful chicken.

What else can you do instead of marinating? Brining (soaking it in salty water or letting it sit after seasoning with salt), serving chicken with a sauce, brushing sauce on chicken during cooking, and doing a quick marinade just to coat the chicken are all options.

Read more about these techniques and why you should stop marinating chicken in this article.

Cooking Chicken: The Methods

Bake/Roast

Roasting chicken in the oven will give you a juicy, tender, and crispy bird. This is probably the most foolproof way to cook a delicious chicken. Plus, it’s super easy. Bonus points if you roast it with potatoes or other veggies to make a simple one-pan meal. This is my go-to method.

Works For

Whole bird, breast, legs, thighs, drumsticks, wings

Method

  1. Let chicken come to room temperature by sitting out 15-45 minutes depending on the size.
  2. Preheat oven to 425-400 F.
  3. Season chicken with salt (if not using a marinade or brine). If using marinade, remove and pat dry.
  4. Place chicken in a roasting pan, baking dish or rimmed baking sheet.
  5. Roast chicken until browned and internal temperature is 165 F or when the juices run clear when a knife is inserted to the bone between the leg and thigh if applicable. 20-75 minutes depending on the size.

Roast Chicken Recipes

Buttermilk Marinated Roast Chicken Recipe

Buttermilk Marinated Roast Chicken

Braise

If you’re looking for a hearty one pot meal, braising is your answer. Cooking chicken in a flavorful braising liquid like stock, apple cider, or a vinegar mixture will give you juicy chicken and a sauce to pour over grains or beans. Skip the marinade or brine since you’re cooking it in liquid.

Works For

Whole bird, breast, legs, thighs, drumsticks

Method

  1. Let chicken come to room temperature by sitting out 15-45 minutes depending on the size.
  2. Heat oil in a Dutch over or large oven safe skillet.
  3. Season chicken with salt.
  4. Place chicken in skillet and cook on each side until browned.
  5. Add chopped vegetables, aromatics and/or potatoes of your choice and cook until starting to brown.
  6. Add a braising liquid (e.g., stock, tomatoes and juices, apple cider, vinegar mixture, etc.) and bring to a boil.
  7. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until chicken is falling off the bone, 30 minutes to 3+ hours.

Braised Chicken Recipe

Grill

I love grilling because I get to be outside and I can make a mess without getting yelled at. And because grilled food takes on a blackened char taste that can’t be replicated in the oven. Grilling is especially great for smaller cuts like wings and drumsticks. And don’t sleep on a marinade here. Make extra of it so you can pour over your chicken when serving.

Works For

Whole bird (spatchcocked), breast, legs, thighs, drumsticks, wings

Method

  1. Prepare grill for medium-low heat.
  2. Let chicken come to room temperature by sitting out 15-45 minutes depending on the size.
  3. Season chicken with salt (if not using a marinade or brine). If using marinade, remove and pat dry.
  4. Oil the grates where you will cook your chicken using a paper towel rubbed with olive oil.
  5. Place chicken on grill and cook, turning occasionally, until charred in spots 15-60 minutes depending on the size.

Grilled Chicken Recipes

Pan-fry

Cooking chicken all the way through via contact with a hot pan and oil can be a challenge. So, pan-frying can only be used on thin cuts like breasts. For extra quick cooking and crispiness, slice the breasts in half through their thickness. Or slice into bite-sized pieces for stir-fry.

Works For

Breasts

Method

  1. Let chicken come to room temperature by sitting out 15-45 minutes depending on the size.
  2. Heat a skillet over medium heat.
  3. Season chicken with salt (if not using a marinade or brine). If using marinade, remove and pat dry.
  4. Add olive oil and chicken when the oil is shimmering.
  5. Cook, turning chicken occasionally until no longer pink and cooked all the way through. 4-20 minutes.

Pan-fried Chicken Recipes

Sear + Roast

Okay, I lied. I said roasting is my go-to method, but actually it’s this searing + oven roasting combo when cooking legs, thighs, and drumsticks. Fat renders off during the searing so the chicken ends up cooking in its own fat. You will get the crispiest skin. So delicious. Not the healthiest option though.

Works For

Whole bird, breast, legs, thighs, drumsticks

Method

  1. Let chicken come to room temperature by sitting out 15-60 minutes depending on the size.
  2. Preheat oven to 400-425F.
  3. Heat a skillet over medium heat.
  4. Season chicken with salt (if not using a marinade or brine). If using marinade, remove and pat dry.
  5. Add a few glugs of olive oil to the skillet. Once it is shimmering, add the chicken, skin side down (breast side up if whole).
  6. Sear for 3-5 then transfer to oven.
  7. Roast, flipping halfway through (except for whole bird) until internal temperature is 165F or when the juices run clear when a knife is inserted to the bone between the leg and thigh (if applicable), 15-60 minutes.

Poach

Making chicken soup? Need a salad topper? Then poaching your chicken is your method. It may just give you the juiciest breast you’ve ever had. It is basically cooking chicken submerged in liquid at a low temperature.

Works For

Breast

Method

  1. Let chicken come to room temperature by sitting out 15-60 minutes depending on the size.
  2. Fill a pot or skillet with 2 cups of cold water for every large chicken breast you will be cooking.
  3. Add chicken breasts ¾ tsp kosher salt per cup of water.
  4. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat.
  5. As soon as the water starts to boil, flip the breasts.
  6. Remove pot from heat and cover with a lid.
  7. Let chicken continue to cook in the hot water until internal temperature reaches 150F, about 5-10 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes before slicing for the internal temperature can come up to 165F.

Poached Chicken Recipes

Cooking Chicken FAQs

When cooking chicken, how do I know when it’s done?

There are two things to look for to tell if chicken is done cooking. First, you can cut into the chicken at it’s thickest point (or in between the thigh and leg if available). If the juices run clear, then the chicken is done. If there is still some pink or red juices, it’s not done yet.

The other option is to take the internal temperature of the chicken if you have a thermometer. You are shooting for 160-165F. 

What are the healthiest cuts of chicken?

Chicken breast is the leanest and healthiest cut. So, if you’re watching your fat intake or cholesterol, you should opt for skinless breasts. Keep in mind that this is also the most expensive cut.

What is the healthiest way to prepare chicken?

All the methods listed can be considered healthy. The one method to avoid from a health standpoint is frying. But this isn’t outlined in this article because we believe you should feel great every day. And cooking food in fatty, processed oil doesn’t help you achieve that goal.

What are the best tasting cuts of chicken?

Depends on your preference! But, I think thighs are the tastiest cuts. They also the fattiest cuts (funny how that happen), so not necessarily the healthiest option.

How long does fresh chicken last?

According to the USDA, fresh chicken lasts 1-2 days in the refrigerator. A whole chicken will last up to a year in the freezer while chicken parts will last 9 months. Cover in an airtight container.

How long does cooked chicken last?

According to the USDA, cooked chicken lasts 3-4 days in the refrigerator. Cover in an airtight container.

Can I eat the skin?

Heck yeah you can eat the skin. It’s one of the most delicious parts of the bird. But that is because it contains a lot of fat. So again, not the healthiest, but we all deserve to splurge every once in a while.

Should I marinate chicken?

This is totally up to you. Marinating and brining adds an extra cooking step and additional planning. But, you do get some great results.

I like to marinate chicken when grilling, but typically don’t when using other methods because I feel I already get a pretty delicious chunk of meat. There is no need for this when braising since you’re already cooking it in looking.

Should I rinse chicken before cooking?

No, don’t rinse chicken before cooking. This will help you avoid spreading any bacteria to other foods

What is the pinkish liquid in packaging?

Some people get scared and think that pinkish liquid in the package is blood. But, it’s not. It just water that was expelled from the chicken during the chilling process.

Chicken… It’s What’s for Dinner.

No doubt about, cooked chicken comes in many shapes, sizes, and flavors. If there is one food that I think most people can agree they like, it’s chicken. Unless you’re vegetarian or vegan, of course.

Next time someone says “tastes like chicken” – which I hope you don’t hear anyone say for awhile – you can now ask them “what kind of chicken? Broiler, Cornish hen, roaster, hen, capon, or rooster?”

If you’re hungry for chicken, but don’t feel like going grocery shopping, check out Crowd Cow. Crowd Cow partners with small farms and co-ops to bring you free-range, pasture raised and organic chicken (and other meat) options. Visit Crowd Cow here to get chicken delivered straight to your door.

More Chicken

Chicken Recipes

Sheet pan lemon chicken
Sheet Pan Lemon Garlic Chicken

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