Chicken basics - buying, handling & cooking chicken

If you are grocery shopping for chicken, the range of choices and questions that arise may startle you.  What type of chicken to buy (depending on your recipe)?  What to watch out for when you go shopping?  How to handle chicken safely?  These aren't sexy subjects or perhaps even questions you’ve thought to ask.  But you’ll want to know the answers if you plan to cook chicken.

This post begins what I call “Chicken basics: a 3- part short course.”  First, we’ll cover how to buy and safely handle chicken; the next post will feature chicken shish kebob, my favorite simple, summer chicken recipe; and the third installment will be an overview of other ways you can cook chicken.  There will be lots more chicken recipes too, after the basics. 

Much of this information comes from the USDA website, a great source for information on food safety and labeling.  For another good source of information on these topics check out the FDA site too. 

In the US, chickens are labeled and sold by age and size. The basic categories are:

  • Rock Cornish game hens – young, very small birds (under 2 pounds) sold whole and best roasted 
  • Broiler/fryers – young chickens, usually 2 ½ - 4 ½ pounds, can be purchased whole, cut up (including backbone and gizzards – liver, heart, and neck which are good for making soup), or in pieces (without the backbone and gizzards). This type can be used for cooking method.  Grocery store packages of legs (drumsticks) or leg quarters, wings, breasts or breasts with ribs, or thighs are usually broiler/fryers.
  • Roaster – older, 5-7 pound chickens.  Capon is typically older and can be smaller (4 pounds) than other roasters.  I’ve seen references to it and understand that it typically has generous amounts of white meat, but have never cooked it.
  • Stewing chicken – Older and less tender than other types, so it is best used for stews (cooked in liquid for an extended period.)  

When buying chicken, look at the “use by” or “sell by” date.  Such dating is not required, but is typically provided.  See whether the date is use or sell-based and follow it.  (Don’t use or buy it after that date, although if you freeze chicken before the date, you can use it afterwards if you follow other safety guidelines.)  Choose chicken that has pink looking (not grey) flesh.  Chicken may contain retrained water from a chilling process and may also contain MSG, salt and/or water, as long as label discloses that fact.  It pays to read the label carefully.

Here are the guidelines I use for safely handling and keeping chicken – my poultry commandments so to speak: (These are only summaries of very important safety tips.  For further information, check the USDA website.)

  1. Keep raw chicken separate from other foods – in your shopping cart and in your kitchen.
  2. Do not wash raw chicken before using it.  (Washing is not necessary and potentially spreads harmful bacteria.)
  3. Wash your hands, your equipment, and the area in you work in, both before and after handling raw chicken.
  4. Do not use equipment on (or with which) you handled raw chicken for serving cooked chicken or for any other food preparation unless you have thoroughly washed them with hot water and soap.
  5. Do not leave chicken out on a counter for an extended period, whether it is raw or cooked.  Defrost frozen chicken in a microwave or by leaving it in the refrigerator and put cooked chicken in the refrigerator within 2 hours of finishing the cooking process. 
  6. Cook fresh chicken no later than 1- 2 days after by the “sell by” date (if it has such a date on the package) and cook defrosted chicken within 1- 2 days after defrosting and refrigerating it.    
  7. Cook chicken until it is done – do not serve undercooked chicken.  (You cannot remove any bacteria in chicken by washing or freezing the chicken.  The only way to eliminate the bacteria is to properly cook the chicken.)  Chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F according to the USDA, in order to be safe.  The only way to be absolutely sure chicken has reached that temperature is to use a food thermometer.   (I don't always use a food thermometer, but hey, I'm not perfect either!)
  8. If your chicken has marinated when it was raw, do not put the extra marinade on the cooked chicken unless you boiled it first.  Discard unused marinade – it cannot be reused for other chicken or put into another dish. 
  9. If you stuff a chicken, do not put the stuffing inside the chicken until you are ready to cook it and take the stuffing out immediately after the chicken is cooked. 
  10. Eat cooked chicken that has been refrigerated within 3-4 days after it has been cooked, or freeze it. 

OK, that’s a lot of information and rules – chicken recipes and cooking tips are coming, I promise!

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