What is chicken?
Chicken’s many plus points – its versatility, as well as the ease and speed with which it can be cooked – make it one of the most popular meats around. It’s lower in saturated fat than most meats, especially if the skin is removed, and has a high level of good quality protein, as well as B vitamins, iron, copper and selenium.
The pale flesh has a close texture and a mild flavour that pairs well with many different ingredients. Never eat raw chicken, and always thoroughly wash your hands, utensils and cutting board as soon as you’ve cut or handled raw chicken.
Learn how to test if a chicken is cooked and to joint it:
How to prepare chicken
Certain cuts of chicken can be marinated before cooking, to add flavour and moisture, as well as tenderise the meat. Slash the skin a couple of times to help the marinade penetrate further.
Before it goes in the oven, chicken should be at room temperature, so take it out of the fridge (1 hour for a whole chicken; 30 minutes for a cut) before cooking. Keep it covered, in a cool place.
How to cook chicken
Roast at 200C/180C fan/gas 6 (whole chicken: 25 mins per 500g, plus an extra 25 mins; breasts, 15 mins; thighs and wings, 40 mins).
Grill or barbecue (breast, 7-10 mins; cubes or strips, 5-7 mins; drumsticks and thighs, 25-30 mins; wings, 40 mins).
Stir-fry (cubes or strips, 5-7 mins). Always check there’s no pink meat and that the juices run clear (pierce with a sharp knife or skewer) before serving.
How to store chicken
Fresh chicken goes off very quickly, especially if the weather is warm, so should be stored in the fridge as soon as you get it home. Take off all the wrappings, then wipe it all over (and inside the cavities), with kitchen paper. If it’s come with giblets (the neck, gizzard, heart and liver), these should be removed and kept in a covered bowl in the fridge. Put the chicken on a tray or a plate wide and deep enough to contain any blood or juice that might seep out. Cover loosely. Make sure the chicken stored in the fridge doesn’t touch any food that’s to be eaten raw, or meat that is already cooked.
Whole birds and pieces of chicken will keep for up to two days. Chicken liver or minced chicken should be cooked within 24 hours of purchase.
Giblets can be used to make gravy and stock (but leave the liver out, it can be quite bitter) or stuffing, and should be cooked within two days of purchase.
Availability of chicken
All year round.
Choose the best chicken
As is the case with all meat, buy your chicken from a source you trust – a good supermarket, local butcher, farmers’ market or an online mail order company. Of those five sources, the last four will usually be able to tell you the most about the chicken – where it comes from and how it was reared. Traceability will give you an assurance that the chicken has been humanely treated while alive; the higher the standard of welfare, the better the quality of the meat.
Organic chicken is the most expensive, as the most stringent farming standards should have been adhered to at all stages of the animal’s life, including being allowed to roam outside during the day and being fed a mainly organic diet. As they’re allowed to mature slowly (up to 14 weeks), their flesh is firm and flavourful. Though, because they have had lots of exercise during their lives, they may be less plump than indoor-reared birds.
Free-range chicken should’ve had some access to the open air and are cheaper than organic. Corn-fed chicken have a bright yellow skin, a result of having been fed corn or maize. The colour looks good, but fades on cooking, and doesn’t make much difference to flavour.
Battery (or ‘factory’) reared chicken (sometimes called ‘broilers’) are the most commonly available. They are rarely labelled as such, but the extremely low price is a giveaway. Although such chickens are very affordable, the conditions they experience in their brief lives (up to 6 weeks) may be extremely grim, packed at high densities, with scant room to move and little or no access to sunlight – all of which produces a noticeably inferior and often quite fatty meat.
Read more about animal welfare at the Soil Association.
Various breeds are available. Look out for slow-growing British breeds with firm, flavourful meat such as Oakham White, Cotswold White or Gold and Devonshire Gold or Red. French breeds, such as poulet de bresse, poulet d’or, poulet noir and poulet anglais are also very good, with succulent, strongly flavoured flesh.
Whole birds are good for roasting or barbecuing (especially when spatchcocked). Other portions are also available (either skin on or off, on the bone or boneless), including breasts (fry, roast, grill or barbecue); drumsticks (grill or barbecue); thighs (barbecue or use in casseroles or stir fries); and wings (barbecue or roast).
Whichever breed, type or cut of chicken you choose, look for chicken with clear, soft skin, without bruising, blemishing or tears. Look also for brownish-red ‘hock burn’ on the skin on the legs, as this may be a sign that the bird has not been kept in the most satisfactory conditions during growth.
Alternatives to chicken
Try turkey or duck.