Break it Down: The Case for Buying a Whole Chicken (and Exactly What to Do with It)

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

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

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.

Related: 21 New Thanksgiving Dessert Ideas to Try This Year

Freezing and Thawing

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

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 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.

Chicken Know-How

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
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
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

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.

More from Martha Stewart:
Quick, One-Pot Meal Ideas To Feed the Whole Family
20 Classic Comfort Food Recipes from Martha Stewart
36 Dinners You Can Make in Just 15 Minutes!
25 Make-Ahead Recipes For a Stress-Free Thanksgiving Day