Updated on 11.21.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Whole Chickens

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Laura writes in: roasting a whole chicken, only costs about a dollar more to buy it cooked at Sam’s Club and mine didn’t taste as good

For starters, part of the problem may have been your technique. I use a default “beer can” technique whenever I roast chickens, in which I insert a tin can or a beer can into the cavity of the chicken. The can is mostly full of some sort of liquid with various herbs and spices, such as garlic and peppercorns. When the chicken is roasting, the entire chicken is balanced on the can.

I do it this way in both the oven and on the grill and it works great in either context. The flavor and moistness of the meat is wonderful when finished.

I’d highly suggest looking for an oven-roasted “beer can” chicken recipe and using it for your next chicken roast. It really does produce a wonderful whole chicken.

Now that we have this issue out of the way, the real question is whether or not the amount saved on buying a whole roasted chicken is worth the additional time. I went to my local Sam’s Club to find prices on roasted chickens. I found whole chickens for sale for $0.89 per pound and pre-roasted chickens for $1.29 per pound. Assuming I buy a four pound bird, I’m saving about $1.60 buying a raw chicken.

So, what about the prep time? I can take a chicken out of the package, insert a can into the cavity, and have the chicken in the oven in about five minutes, according to my own estimate. It would then take roughly an hour for the chicken to roast, which is passive time. I’d then have to stick the tray upon which the chicken baked into the dishwasher, but that time is negligible.

So, if you assume that you have plenty of time to prep your own dinner, roasting your own chicken is the way to go. You’re saving $1.60 (in this example) for about five minutes of work.

However, the key thing to remember is that when you’re buying that whole roasted chicken, you’re basically paying for convenience. There are evenings where busy families simply don’t have an hour to set aside while the food cooks in the oven.

This is the voice of experience here: on evenings where my children have soccer or tumbling class, it can be a juggling act to get a home-cooked meal on the table at any reasonable dinner time.

Lining up a recipe in the oven like this can be a trick, so we often use a slow cooker for meals on these nights. For us, a slow cooker is the best solution to the family time crunch that many families seem to have in the evenings. It enables us to have a lot of flexibility with regards to when we get a meal on the table.

There’s also the health factor. When you prepare food yourself, you have much more control over the ingredients in it. Food sold in stores has a lot of questionable things done to it, from food coloring to imitate freshness to all sorts of artificial things to enhance flavor through chemistry. If I have a choice, I’ll pass on this.

So, if I were doing this, I’d never buy a whole roasted chicken unless it was an emergency. If I had time, I’d enjoy the $1.60 in savings I got from putting five minutes of prep work into the chicken. If I knew I wouldn’t have the time, I’d set up a slow cooker meal. The only time I would consider it is if I had planned to have a lot of time, but something unexpected changing that schedule.

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  1. lurker carl says:

    $1.60 isn’t much to get a cooked bird over the raw version. However, fixing the rest of the meal takes as much time as roasting your own chicken. Unless, of course, you purchase everything else already cooked. My beef with prepared food is the salt content is outlandish.

  2. Cheryl says:

    You probably don’t want to know what makes that pre-cooked chicken taste better than at home…msg, extra salt, other flavor enhancers.

  3. Evita says:

    Trent, you did not calculate the cost of roasting that raw chicken, and the cost of the can of beer either. That would eat up your $1.60 for sure.
    Pennies saved !
    We also like the Costco roast chicken, we buy one each week after the ordeal of groceries and it lasts us two or three meals, plus the soup. Good deal!
    BTW, thanks for the recipe, I had never heard of this but will certainly try it.

  4. valleycat1 says:

    We roast our own chickens. A better way than using a can is to just cut up an orange, lime, or lemon, squeeze some of the juice on the outside & then put the pieces in the cavity. We use a variation of the Glamour magazine engagement chicken recipe. And we don’t have to deal with removing the hot can.

    Also, in our family we eat the entire chicken – the only things we throw away are the fat pocket at the edge of the cavity (trimmed & tossed before cooking) and the heart. If your family is pickier, or you don’t have the time or inclination to make soup with the back (my spouse usually eats it before we get to the soup stage), then you may be better off buying the sale packs of the pieces your family will eat.

  5. Joanna says:

    You’re also not counting the cost of the can of beer, nor the spices used in it.

  6. Katie says:

    There’s also the time involved in cleaning up, which is higher than with roasting. (And I’m unconvinced that most of us can roast a chicken with only five minutes work, given the various steps involved in rubbing herbs on the outside and the like and then periodically checking the temperature). I do agree that the flavor is better for home-roasted ones once you get the technique down.

  7. Kate says:

    I don’t know what it is with our local grocery store’s roasted chickens. They always look shriveled and weird. The Costco ones don’t look that, just our local place.

    Either way, for those of us with food allergies and/or food restrictions (kosher, halaal, celiac, etc.), I don’t think there’s a question. Homemade every time!

  8. AnnJo says:

    If you can plan ahead, brining a chicken in a salt and seasonings brine for a few hours can make a world of difference in both flavor and juiciness. (For seasonings, I use garlic, whole peppercorns, a bay leaf, and rosemary, marjoram or thyme.) Just be sure not to add extra salt when you cook it and before you taste the finished product. I suspect brining is part of the technique for some of the commercial roasters.

  9. kc says:

    Google: Mimi’s sticky chicken. Unbelievably tender & delicious: slow roasted chicken with herbs and spices. Plus no screwing around balancing a chicken on a beer can.

  10. moom says:

    The chicken we cook at home is much better. I prefer minimal additions apart from the chicken itself. Also we use organic chicken. The main downside is that it does generate a lot of mess and our dishwasher can only partially clean the stuff.

  11. Marie says:

    In the summer you have to factor in the electricity the oven uses and the electricity the air conditioning uses counteracting the oven. I have 13 recipes for leftover shredded chicken, all of which only involve the microwave or stovetop and don’t heat up the kitchen either. We get rotisserie chicken 2-4 times a month in the summer and the extra cost over raw is worth every penny to us.

  12. EdTheRed says:

    If I may suggest, cans have plastic liners, Trent. Maybe it’s not releasing BPA, but why risk it? You may want to consider putting the aromatics directly in the bird.

    Great column, I agree wholeheartedly on cooking the your own bird! The store-bought rotisserie chicken is always greasy.

  13. I make a fine roast chicken (iffen I do say so myself), but Costco’s can’t be beat. I think they inject the meat with something that gives it flavor and moistness. Even in my present state of unemployed penury, I can afford a buck extra for a delicious meal with no clean-up and plenty of left-overs for future sandwiches. Plus the carcass to use in making chicken stock.

  14. SLCCOM says:

    If you roast your chicken at night when it is cool it cuts costs. I can’t stand additional heat,so I do all my cooking at night, generally between 10 PM and 1 AM. Rewarm with the microwave, and enjoy! I also will cook a larger quantity at once, so I only have to cook a couple of times a week for the 2 of us. Make two main meals at once and alternate them until one is gone.

    BTW, we have no good idea of how much sodium and salt is “healthy.” The studies on these are association and recall, not scientifically based. Neurotically parsing every mouthful is, in my opinion, unhealthy in itself.

  15. Sara says:

    i really don’t usually like the store chickens. They are very salty. I don’t even salt my chickens when I cook them. Why is prepared food always so salty. It bothers my taste buds. But I never ate the Costco chickens. The ones in my local markets seem very scrawny as well. Very little meat on them.

  16. tb says:

    can’t buy prepared food with foodstamps so i’ll pay less and not have to deal with salt and msg…and my dogs like the liver and gizzards! oh, and less packaging too!
    your mileage may vary.

  17. Melissa D says:

    A super super easy roast chicken recipe from either Daniel Bouloud or JGVongerichten, I can’t remember: put whole chicken in roasting pan. Sprinkle liberally with at least one TBS salt. Roast at 450 for an hour. The skin is super crispy, the meat very juicy. Bonus points for surrounding it with halved small potatoes tossed with olive oil and salt.

    And don’t forget that you can make tons of chicken stock from one carcass — I cover it with water in the slow cooker and keep it on low all night. Freeze in muffin tin for easy use afterwards (if you want a mug of chicken soup rather than a large pot of something). You can throw in onions, celery and garlic, but I like the neutral stock as a base for most of my soups.

  18. Essie says:

    You should weigh that fresh chicken after you cook it for the price per pound comparison.

  19. Tom says:

    Apparently pre-roasted vs raw was closer than I thought, but I prefer to buy whole chickens over butchered parts (chicken breasts, thighs, whatever). Whole chickens are consistently a dollar a pound or less, whereas the parts are consistently a $1.50 – $2.00 and up
    Once you’ve butchered one or two, you it quickly becomes easy to separate the bird into the pieces you want.

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