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Chicken Playbook

  • By Lucinda Scala Quinn
  • Photos by Marcus Nilsson

If you eat as much chicken as we do, it's important to know what you're cooking and how to cook it well.

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Start with a whole bird and break it down into wings, legs, thighs, drumsticks, and two perfectly butterflied breasts. Season with a sprinkle of salt, a hint of lemon, and some fresh herbs -- and watch as a quick, delicious meal takes shape.
Then use our remastered -- albeit basic -- cooking techniques to hatch your own ideas and recipe riffs. Try fennel instead of carrots, swap soy and chili sauce for tandoori spices, or layer tomatoes in lieu of squash. Add in our test-kitchen tips, and you'll be on your dinner game -- no matter what curveball comes your way.

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Let's Break Down a Chicken

Let's Break Down a Chicken

Buying a whole bird rather than parts has many virtues: It's more economical, the chicken is handled less along the way, it lends itself to a variety of cooking techniques, and you can cut it up exactly the way you want it. Here's what to do:

BACK -- Cut along both sides of the back with kitchen shears or a knife. Cook like other parts, or freeze for future broth.

BREAST -- Anatomically, chickens have one breast, not two. To make skinless, boneless chicken-breast halves, slide a sharp knife along the bone to remove meat, then pull off the skin.

WINGS -- Cheat more toward the breast than you might think
in order to find the joint. You’ll also get a nugget of breast meat
left on the wing.

LEGS -- A whole leg consists of a thigh and a drumstick. When separating it from the breast, pull it toward you so enough skin remains on the breast to cover it. Then cut the thigh from each drumstick, through the joint.

STRETCH IT OUT -- If you have only one chicken but need to stretch a dish to feed a crowd, cut the breast halves and back in half crosswise. Or chop every piece in half with a cleaver.

Watch how to cut up a chicken.

BRAISED: Spanish-Style Chicken

BRAISED: Spanish-Style Chicken

Brown the chicken parts first to create the all-important flavor base. Then deglaze the pan and braise with sherry vinegar and chicken broth. The chicken parts fit snugly in the pan alongside green olives and jarred marinated piquillo peppers.

Freezing and Thawing

Keeping chicken parts in the freezer means you’re halfway to dinner
on any given day.

  • Freeze . . .

    Freeze skinless, boneless chicken-breast halves whole, wrapped individually in plastic wrap, then in foil or freezer paper. Or freeze butterflied breast halves (see How to Butterfly below) individually wrapped in plastic wrap, then stack and wrap a batch in foil. Always label and date the packages.

  • Thaw . . .

    Thaw in the refrigerator if you have time. If fast-tracking is a must, unwrap the chicken, place it in a resealable plastic bag, and submerge it in cold water. One pound of chicken breasts will take less than an hour to thaw this way.

  • Freeze . . .

    Freeze skinless, boneless chicken-breast halves whole, wrapped individually in plastic wrap, then in foil or freezer paper. Or freeze butterflied breast halves (see How to Butterfly below) individually wrapped in plastic wrap, then stack and wrap a batch in foil. Always label and date the packages.

  • Thaw . . .

    Thaw in the refrigerator if you have time. If fast-tracking is a must, unwrap the chicken, place it in a resealable plastic bag, and submerge it in cold water. One pound of chicken breasts will take less than an hour to thaw this way.

SAUTEED:<br>Chicken Paillards with Squash and Spinach

SAUTEED:
Chicken Paillards with Squash and Spinach

A paillard is simply a skinless, boneless chicken-breast half that you butterfly and pound thin. It’s one of the speediest routes to a lean meal: While you prep and saute it, roast some squash and red onion, then place it on top with fresh spinach and crisp fried sage.

Watch how to make chicken paillards and cook this recipe.

How to Butterfly

This method gives you a neat, symmetrical shape for a paillard. Before you begin, remove the small inner “tenders” and cook them the same way.

  • Step 1
    Step 1

    The goal is to keep the meat all in one piece, so make a straight vertical cut down the center of the breast half, but do not slice all the way through. Use a sharp long (not serrated) knife.

  • Step 3
    Step 3

    Turn the breast half around and open up the other side exactly the same way. To free each flap of meat at the narrow ends, make short, scraping cuts with the tip of your knife.

  • Step 2
    Step 2

    Holding your knife at an angle, start to open up one side of the breast half so it will be able to lay flat. Gently pull the widening flap open as you cut.

  • Step 4
    Step 4

    To ensure quick, even cooking, balance out the thickness of the meat by making short, shallow vertical cuts in the opened flaps. Then pound it thin with the flat side of a meat mallet or small heavy pan.

  • Step 1
    Step 1

    The goal is to keep the meat all in one piece, so make a straight vertical cut down the center of the breast half, but do not slice all the way through. Use a sharp long (not serrated) knife.

  • Step 2
    Step 2

    Holding your knife at an angle, start to open up one side of the breast half so it will be able to lay flat. Gently pull the widening flap open as you cut.

  • Step 3
    Step 3

    Turn the breast half around and open up the other side exactly the same way. To free each flap of meat at the narrow ends, make short, scraping cuts with the tip of your knife.

  • Step 4
    Step 4

    To ensure quick, even cooking, balance out the thickness of the meat by making short, shallow vertical cuts in the opened flaps. Then pound it thin with the flat side of a meat mallet or small heavy pan.

ROASTED: Spatchcocked Chicken on Bread with Herbs and Lemon

ROASTED: Spatchcocked Chicken on Bread with Herbs and Lemon

Spatchcocking a chicken means scissoring it down the back
(we leave the meaty backbone attached) and then flattening it. Smear it with butter, season with chunky sea salt, and place it on a platform of bread to absorb the juices for the fastest, easiest no-waste roasted chicken ever. While it’s still hot, scatter fresh herbs over it and squeeze on some lemon juice for a fresh sauce that basically makes itself.

Watch how to spatchcock a chicken and make this recipe.

Chicken Know-How

  • Cut It Up
    Cut It Up

    The best tool for cutting up a whole chicken is a good, sharp pair of kitchen shears. They’re easy to maneuver and control and can scissor through chicken bones and joints effortlessly. Look for a pair with comfortable, slip-resistant handles.

  • Get Crispy Skin
    Get Crispy Skin

    Lucinda Scala Quinn shares a tip to ensure crispy skin on a roasted chicken: Clean the bird and put it on a roasting rack set over a rimmed tray to catch all juices in the fridge overnight. "This will dry the skin out. It's something I do at home if I have time, and at work for a photo shoot."

  • How to Poach

    Poaching is the gateway technique to tacos, chicken potpie, salads, sandwiches, soups, and more.

    Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a three-pound chicken and seasonings such as garlic, onion, and ginger. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 10 minutes.
    Turn off heat and cover pot. Let chicken sit in poaching liquid 45 minutes. Remove chicken from broth. When cool enough to handle, strip meat from bones, and shred to desired size.

    A three-pound bird yields about four cups of meat.

  • How to Serve
    How to Serve

    Simply cut any whole cooked bird into serving pieces and transfer to a platter. Serve the spatchcocked chicken recipe on its bed of toasted bread: Transfer the beautiful tangle to a platter and top with the accumulated juices.

  • What to Know About Browning

    Searing a food until it’s well browned creates hundreds of new flavor compounds. If you take the time to get it right, the finished dish will be delicious.
    Remove chicken from refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking.
    Make sure the pan is very hot, add fat, and don’t crowd the pan. If air can’t circulate around each piece of chicken, it will steam, not brown.
    Brown chicken, skin side first, undisturbed. If it doesn’t release when you try to flip it, don’t force it. Let it cook until it releases easily.

  • Bonus Broth
    Bonus Broth

    Strain poaching liquid through a cheesecloth-lined sieve, then boil until reduced by half. Salt to taste and let cool completely before refrigerating for up to three days or freezing for up to two months.

    Use your broth for soup, stew, or risotto.

  • Cut It Up
    Cut It Up

    The best tool for cutting up a whole chicken is a good, sharp pair of kitchen shears. They’re easy to maneuver and control and can scissor through chicken bones and joints effortlessly. Look for a pair with comfortable, slip-resistant handles.

  • How to Serve
    How to Serve

    Simply cut any whole cooked bird into serving pieces and transfer to a platter. Serve the spatchcocked chicken recipe on its bed of toasted bread: Transfer the beautiful tangle to a platter and top with the accumulated juices.

  • Get Crispy Skin
    Get Crispy Skin

    Lucinda Scala Quinn shares a tip to ensure crispy skin on a roasted chicken: Clean the bird and put it on a roasting rack set over a rimmed tray to catch all juices in the fridge overnight. "This will dry the skin out. It's something I do at home if I have time, and at work for a photo shoot."

  • What to Know About Browning

    Searing a food until it’s well browned creates hundreds of new flavor compounds. If you take the time to get it right, the finished dish will be delicious.
    Remove chicken from refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking.
    Make sure the pan is very hot, add fat, and don’t crowd the pan. If air can’t circulate around each piece of chicken, it will steam, not brown.
    Brown chicken, skin side first, undisturbed. If it doesn’t release when you try to flip it, don’t force it. Let it cook until it releases easily.

  • How to Poach

    Poaching is the gateway technique to tacos, chicken potpie, salads, sandwiches, soups, and more.

    Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a three-pound chicken and seasonings such as garlic, onion, and ginger. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 10 minutes.
    Turn off heat and cover pot. Let chicken sit in poaching liquid 45 minutes. Remove chicken from broth. When cool enough to handle, strip meat from bones, and shred to desired size.

    A three-pound bird yields about four cups of meat.

  • Bonus Broth
    Bonus Broth

    Strain poaching liquid through a cheesecloth-lined sieve, then boil until reduced by half. Salt to taste and let cool completely before refrigerating for up to three days or freezing for up to two months.

    Use your broth for soup, stew, or risotto.

BAKED:<br>Maple-Mustard Chicken Legs with Potatoes<br>and Carrots

BAKED:
Maple-Mustard Chicken Legs with Potatoes
and Carrots

A simple paste of maple syrup and two mustards is all you need for these savory-sweet baked chicken legs. Just add carrots, potatoes, and shallots (they all caramelize in their juices) for a great one-dish meal for two.

Labels to Know

There's a lot of lingo to decipher on food labels,
here are the chicken terms you need to know.

  • Certified Organic
    Certified Organic

    No antibiotics, access to the outdoors (although the birds may be confined), and 100 percent organic feed are among the USDA standards.

  • Natural

    All this term means is that the chickens are minimally processed after slaughter: No flavors, colors, preservatives, or brines are added during processing.

  • Air-Chilled
    Air-Chilled

    During processing, most American birds are chilled in water (thus absorbing some). Air-chilling takes longer but
    seems to result in a less diluted flavor
    and crisper skin.

  • Free-Range

    The USDA requires that the chickens are allowed access to the outdoors.
    All organic birds are raised under free-range conditions,
    but not all free-range birds are organic.

  • Kosher
    Kosher

    These conventionally raised chickens are processed according to Jewish dietary law. Salting is required, which also enhances flavor and texture.

  • Certified Organic
    Certified Organic

    No antibiotics, access to the outdoors (although the birds may be confined), and 100 percent organic feed are among the USDA standards.

  • Free-Range

    The USDA requires that the chickens are allowed access to the outdoors.
    All organic birds are raised under free-range conditions,
    but not all free-range birds are organic.

  • Natural

    All this term means is that the chickens are minimally processed after slaughter: No flavors, colors, preservatives, or brines are added during processing.

  • Kosher
    Kosher

    These conventionally raised chickens are processed according to Jewish dietary law. Salting is required, which also enhances flavor and texture.

  • Air-Chilled
    Air-Chilled

    During processing, most American birds are chilled in water (thus absorbing some). Air-chilling takes longer but
    seems to result in a less diluted flavor
    and crisper skin.

BROILED:<br>Tandoori Chicken Wings

BROILED:
Tandoori Chicken Wings

A tandoor clay oven grills and roasts at the same time, but you can get a similar effect by broiling. Chicken wings are ideal for this technique: The meat is protected by a garam-masala-spiced yogurt marinade, and the wing tips get crisp. Glaze the wings with store-bought mango chutney after cooking.

All About Flavor

  • Spices & Herbs
    Spices & Herbs

    Build a pantry of favorite flavors. If you love Italian food, have bay leaves, dried oregano, and red-pepper flakes on hand for seasoning. Thai or Indian: Jarred curry paste or the spice blend called garam masala will punch up any chicken dish. Keep spices and dried herbs well sealed and out of the light, and taste for pungency before seasoning a dish.

  • Rubs
    Rubs

    A simple rub -- a blend, for instance, of brown sugar, coarse salt, coarsely cracked black pepper, ground coriander or cumin, and a smidge of cayenne -- comes together in a snap. Rub it over chicken in the a.m. and refrigerate until dinner to add flavor and protection from direct high heat. Or rub the chicken before you freeze it; when it thaws, the flavor will intensify.

  • Marinades
    Marinades

    A marinade, or seasoned liquid, doesn’t tenderize, as popularly thought, but it’s an easy way to impart flavor. Although cooks generally marinate a few hours before cooking (freeze the chicken in the marinade, if desired), if there’s no time, then do it after cooking: A simple dousing of olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic is all you need.

  • Spices & Herbs
    Spices & Herbs

    Build a pantry of favorite flavors. If you love Italian food, have bay leaves, dried oregano, and red-pepper flakes on hand for seasoning. Thai or Indian: Jarred curry paste or the spice blend called garam masala will punch up any chicken dish. Keep spices and dried herbs well sealed and out of the light, and taste for pungency before seasoning a dish.

  • Marinades
    Marinades

    A marinade, or seasoned liquid, doesn’t tenderize, as popularly thought, but it’s an easy way to impart flavor. Although cooks generally marinate a few hours before cooking (freeze the chicken in the marinade, if desired), if there’s no time, then do it after cooking: A simple dousing of olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic is all you need.

  • Rubs
    Rubs

    A simple rub -- a blend, for instance, of brown sugar, coarse salt, coarsely cracked black pepper, ground coriander or cumin, and a smidge of cayenne -- comes together in a snap. Rub it over chicken in the a.m. and refrigerate until dinner to add flavor and protection from direct high heat. Or rub the chicken before you freeze it; when it thaws, the flavor will intensify.

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