Beak to Talon (do chickens have talons?)

The cornerstone of this lifestyle is getting the most out of everything we do, and everything we use. Often, that also means we’re cooking with base ingredients we’ve made ourselves (like whole oat flour), and that tends to elevate the final product in pretty dramatic ways. It also means some extra effort, so sleeves up.

This is especially true for chicken, which is a culinary goldmine for end product, but also for extra ingredients. They’re one of the few animals we can regularly buy whole, and that means we have the opportunity to really make it worthwhile.

A whole chicken, depending on size, represents about a $5.00 to $6.00 investment. This guy was right in there, and I’m proud to say isn’t a garbage bird. It’s not a heritage breed or anything like that, but it is hormone and antibiotic free, and it hasn’t been processed or injected with any brine or chemical solutions. It’s just a chicken:

I found this chicken hitch-hiking on I-95

From this, we’ll have: (2) boneless, skinless breasts; (2) tenders; (1.5) POUNDS of ground chicken; (1-2) quarts of chicken stock; and some amount of schmaltz (rendered chicken fat). That is an immense amount of yield for the price of a few trips to the coffee bar.

So, let’s break it down:

Easier thank you think.

On the cutting board, clockwise from top left: de-boned wings and drumettes; de-boned legs and thighs; boneless, skinless breast; and tenders. The pot is all of the bones and skin we worked off the chicken.

This took me about four (4) minutes. I use the Jacques Pepin method, and you can find a video of him explaining his process on youtube. It’s about nine (9) minutes long, and well worth your time. I’ve actually changed my technique a few times, and am always on the lookout for a new, better way to break down a chicken depending on how we’re using them at the time. (Now that I think about it, I’m probably on some sort of watch list.) Previously, I was using a classic butcher’s method that yielded bone-in thighs and legs, but as we’ve starting using the ground chicken more, I switched it up to a process that produces boneless versions of those cuts.

So, now what? Well, I’ll cover the stock parts with water, and simmer all day, until everything breaks down. For my stock, I use only chicken and water, and a few bay leaves. For a long time, I followed the traditional route of including celery ends, onions, and carrots, but I found that locked me into western dishes only. Meaning, those extra flavors don’t always mesh well with Asian cooking. By sticking to the bare minimum, I can use this stock for chicken gravy or ramen broth with equal success.

Once the stock is done, I’ll strain it out into a cambro and let it cool in the fridge overnight. The fat from the skin (and other parts of the chicken) will settle on the top and solidify, and is easily scooped off for other use. It’s called schmaltz, and it’s really fantastic stuff with a million uses. I’ve done everything from adding it back to a soup for extra body (or using it to sweat the aromatics) all the way to using it instead of butter in a pie crust for a bacon-and-egg breakfast pocket pie.

And this is all just from the bones.

For the actual chicken, this time around I’m grinding the legs and wings:

The stand mixer rides again!

Ground chicken is the single most useful protein in our kitchen (excluding eggs, but they’re a category themselves). This is a medium grind, and we use it for everything from spaghetti and meatballs to pot stickers to breakfast sausage. I measured the yield, and this is almost exactly a pound and a half.

Of note, this ground chicken is very different from anything you’d get at the grocery store. Due to the inclusion of the skin, and focusing on the dark meat, this has about an 80-20 ratio, which is the same as a well-marbled beef chuck roast or a pork butt. In using it, I’ve found it’s closest to a mix of ground pork and veal, but without the sleepless nights.

This week, this batch is headed for chicken bratwursts (post forthcoming). When we do our bulk buys and processing, I’ll use a vacuum sealer to portion and freeze for future use.

As for the tenders and the breasts, this week I’ll probably be frying them into nuggets as has been requested by my kids. Having the breast in one big piece like this is also super useful for making roulades, or quick-grilling in the summer. You can split the breast, and poach one for chicken salad, and use the other for Chicken Parmesan; or cut half into strips for fajitas or stir fry, and use the rest for a quick chicken soup with your stock. You get the idea. It’s chicken breast.

So, this is all from one chicken. A single animal, every molecule of which is being put to some purpose, and I feel good about that. Further, I buy these twelve (12) at a time and produce enough food to stock a butcher’s window, or keep us in supply of high-quality ingredients for a month to six (6) weeks.

While we tend to operate on a large scale, the ability to break down a whole chicken is just as useful on a one-bird level. With a little extra effort, you can turn your $5.00 bird into several great meals, and give yourself some really handy culinary byproducts as well. Give it a shot, then do it again. You’ll come around.

8 thoughts on “Beak to Talon (do chickens have talons?)

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