The Frugal Whole Chicken (or, Waste Not, Want Not)

Aunt Lee Geok's Roast Chicken - whole by avlxyz on Flickr!A few days ago, I was inspecting the whole chickens that were on sale at the local grocery store. The price was quite nice – $0.88 a pound – and although it was a different brand of chicken than what I usually buy, I was considering making the purchase (we tend to buy free range chickens, which cost more).

Just then, I overheard a person behind me talking about how buying a whole chicken was a “waste of money” because you’re paying for parts you don’t use. This lady immediately bought a two pack of chicken breasts which – lo and behold – cost about as much as the whole four pound chicken I was looking at.

As she walked away, I couldn’t help but smile. A whole chicken is an incredibly frugal deal that provides the materials for several meals if you’re sensible about it. Here’s the game plan for turning a whole chicken purchase into several delicious meals.

Meal #1: The Chicken Itself
Cooking a whole chicken is really easy. All you have to do is unwrap it, remove the neck and gizzards (usually already separated for you – but save them for later), rinse it down well, rub the skin with salt (two tablespoons or so) and pepper (a few dashes) and a bit of vegetable oil (two tablespoons or so), then cook it.

“How do you cook it?” is the next obvious question. If you have an oven or a grill, one very simple way to do it is with a can of beer. Just open one up, drink about half of it, then insert the can into the chicken’s cavity, open end inside the chicken. Then, you can literally sit the chicken on the can or use a beercan chicken rack. Toss it on the grill over indirect heat (off to the side) or in the oven at a low temperature and cook it until you get a temperature reading of about 165 degrees Fahrenheit from the breast. That’s it.

Then, just cut off the tastiest parts – most people enjoy the breasts, legs, wings, and thighs. Don’t worry about knowing how to cut it – just get the pieces off that you want. Serve it with a side vegetable, and you have cheap meal #1.

Meal #2: Leftover Pieces
When you’re done eating the chicken, you’ll have a carcass with quite a bit of meat still on it. Spend some time carefully extracting these little pieces of cooked meat and save them in a baggie in the freezer.

Why? This stuff is the perfect basis for any dish with chicken in it. Use it on a homemade chicken pizza, in a casserole, or in soup. Any recipe that uses diced chicken can use this stuff. Usually, you’ll have more than enough left to satisfy any recipe you might have.

Meal #3: Even the Waste Parts
Now, what about those leftover “junk” pieces you don’t want to eat? Even those are useful. Throw all of the leftover pieces (bones, skin, neck, gizzards, all of it!) into a big pot, add enough cold water so that the pieces are thoroughly covered, add a dash of salt and a dash of pepper, toss in a few vegetables (I like a small amount of onion, celery, and carrots – maybe 1/2 cup each), then crank it up to a boil. Once it’s boiling, drop it down to a low simmer and just let it cook all day – four hours, minimum.

When it’s done, remove the bones and strain what’s left, removing the chunks. The remaining liquid is chicken stock, and it’s infinitely useful in all sorts of dishes. It can be the basis of a soup, the liquid ingredient in a savory casserole, stir fry, curries, or anything else. Any recipe that uses bouillon or broth can use this liquid instead and will taste substantially better for it. You can freeze this stuff in freezer bags if you’d like.

One good way to do this is to have the whole chicken on Friday or Saturday evening, remove the extra meat after dinner, then boil the remnants the next day while you’re doing other household tasks.

A Look at the Costs
Let’s say, hypothetically, that you can get a whole four pound chicken for $7.50. You’ll also need perhaps $3 worth of vegetables to go with it, $0.50 in cooking materials, and you might burn $0.50 worth of energy in the cooking process. That’s a total of $11.50.

From that, you can produce a meal of chicken and vegetables to feed a family of four, a meal worth of leftovers, a bag full of chicken pieces in the freezer for a future meal for a family of four, and a bag of chicken stock for another meal or two. That’s five complete meals and the key ingredients for eight more meals.

What’s the Lesson Here?
For the most part, being frugal with food is just like being frugal with anything else: the more stuff you can reuse, the less expensive day to day life becomes. An ordinary whole chicken seems like a ho-hum purchase, but when you look at the possibilities that it provides, it becomes a much stronger purchase.

Here’s another example. Let’s say that you often buy vegetables, but only intend to eat part of it. I know, for example, that my family tends to eat about one and a half sliced zucchinis as a side dish, leaving that other half of a zucchini as a waste. Just go ahead and slice it and throw it with other miscellaneous vegetables into a freezer bag – whenever you have a leftover vegetable, just toss it in there. Then, once every few weeks (when the bag gets full), toss a bit of olive oil and a bit of garlic in a pan and make a stir fry out of the leftover vegetables. It’s an incredibly cheap meal (plus you can toss in some of those leftover chicken pieces).

If you spend a few minutes thinking about what you can do with the left over elements of any meal you prepare, you can usually come up with a tasty use. And when that tasty use keeps you from tossing those pieces in the trash, then it’s as good as found money.

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