Cruelest Cuts

February 20, 2008

How to cut up a chicken

The Observer's recent investigative series, "The Cruelest Cuts," documented the cost to workers of bringing cheap chicken to our tables.

Many readers contacted us, asking for personal action they could take. One you can do easily: Take the time to cut up your own chicken. Today's demand for convenience cuts comes at the cost of repetitive-movement injuries in poultry plants. Cutting up a chicken used to be a basic skill, just something people did without thinking much about it.

Today, we can walk into any supermarket and buy chickens, cleaned and cut up any way we want. Breasts, legs, wings, thighs and a half-dozen variations in between. Boneless or bone-in, skin on or off.

But there are many reasons to do it yourself.

Buying whole chickens is cheaper, for one. At Harris Teeter this week, whole chickens were $1.19 a pound, while skinless, boneless chicken breasts were $4.99 a pound. It's also frugal: You can use the trimmings, such as the backs and wing tips, to make stock.

And these days, many people are buying chickens from other sources. Kosher chickens, organic chickens and chickens raised on local farms usually are sold whole. If you want thighs or breasts, you'll need to get out a knife. All it takes is a little practice.


BROILER: Chickens are given names that refer to their size and age. A broiler, sometimes called a fryer, is 42 to 49 days old and weighs 4 to 5 pounds before being dressed.

FREE-RANGE: Poultry must be allowed access to the outside. Disputed by some sources, who say that the outside access can be very limited and that chickens labeled free-range may still be raised in crowded conditions.

KOSHER: Chicken that is raised and processed under rabbinical supervision, including soaking and salting to remove blood from the meat. Empire is a common brand.

PASTURED: Chickens are raised in small batches on farms and have access to vegetation as part of their diet. Under N.C. regulations, farms can slaughter up to 1,000 chickens a year on the farm. If they produce more, the chickens must be taken to a processing facility.

STEWING/BAKING HEN: A mature laying hen from 10 to 18 months old, that is best cooked with moisture, such as for stock or soup. Can sometimes be found frozen in supermarkets.

NATURAL: Chicken products labeled natural must contain no artificial ingredient or added color and are only minimally processed. The label must explain what the term is describing.

ROASTER: A 3- to 5-month-old chicken that weighs 5 to 7 pounds.


 Keep fresh chicken cold (at least 40 degrees) before cooking and use it within one to two days. Chicken can be frozen indefinitely if well-wrapped, although quality may suffer after about a year.

 There is no need to rinse raw chicken before using; bacteria on the chicken will be cooked by cooking. If you do rinse it, be careful not to splash water that has come into contact with raw chicken on counters and wash the sink well afterward.

 Clean up splashes or drips with disposable paper towels, not sponges or towels you're going to reuse before washing.

 Never cut raw chicken on a cutting board or with tools that you use on other foods before washing them with hot soapy water.

 Chicken can be frozen in the original packaging, or it can be repackaged. If freezing longer than two months, wrap porous store plastic packaging with heavy-duty foil or freezer wrap, or place in a resealable freezer bag to prevent freezer burn.

 Defrost frozen chicken in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave. Never defrost chicken on the counter or at room temperature. Once raw chicken is defrosted, it can be refrigerated for one to two days before cooking. It can safely be refrozen without cooking, but the quality may suffer.

 When buying fully cooked chicken, such as rotisserie or fast-food chicken, make sure it's hot when you buy it and use it within two hours or cut it into several pieces and refrigerate to chill it quickly. Eat within three to four days, either cold or reheated to 165 degrees (hot enough to be steamy). Ready-prepared chicken can be frozen and used within four months.

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