Once upon a time, I thought buying a whole chicken was a waste. You see, my family turned their noses up at dark meat, and I worried I was not only paying for meat we wouldn't eat, but bones I couldn't use. But I was just plain wrong. A whole chicken is a terrific deal - if you know how to use it.
What follows are examples of how I use a whole chicken, turkey, or other bird. I almost never buy any of these unless they are on sale, and then I usually buy several. But even if you purchase the bird full price, you're likely to save money with these methods.
Step 1: Roasting the Bird
Roast chicken is an easy, satisfying meal. It's also the first step toward using the entire bird - although if you prefer you could use a different cooking method, like grilling or using a rotisserie.
To roast a bird, unwrap it and remove anything inside - usually a neck and gizzards. Place these parts in an air tight container and place them in the fridge; you'll use them later. Rinse the bird, pat it dry, and season it. Here's my favorite method for seasoning and cooking chicken. Place the bird in a roasting pan; if you like, add vegetables like onions, carrots, potatoes, and parsnips, and sprinkle them around the bird. Then roast between 135 to 160 degrees F. until a meat thermometer reads 165 degrees F. While it's cooking, baste the chicken a few times with the pan drippings.
To serve this bird, cut off your family's favorite parts. In our case, that's the breast and perhaps the drumsticks. Serve with the roasted veggies.
Step 2: The Pickin's
There will be plenty of meat still left on the bird after this meal, even if you're feeding a crowd. And here's what I discovered: Although my family won't eat dark meat when it's served as a separate food, they will eat it without hesitation when it's added to other meals. For example, they like it just fine in rice, a casserole, or enchiladas.
So, after the first meal, remove all the meat from the bones, divide it into serving sizes, and place it in freezer bags. You will have enough meat from this to serve at least two more meals; when you're ready to use the meat, you can often just plop it into soup or something while it's still frozen.
Step 3: The Pan
After step 2, I spoon all the juices in the pan into a freezer container, being sure to also scoop up any bits of vegetables or chicken. You can use this liquid for basting, for making gravy or pan sauces, for sauteing, or for making your own stock.
Step 4: The Yuckies
Now all you have left are the bones, the gizzard, and the neck. Don't throw them out! Instead, pop them into the freezer until you have enough of them to make stock. Or pop them in the fridge and make stock the next day.
Honestly, truly, stock is easy to make - and it's much better tasting and more healthy than store bought stock, broth, or bouillon. Click here for instructions on how to make stock.
What to use the stock for? Soup, stew, basting, stir frying, gravies, pan sauces, and in any recipe calling for broth or stock.
Step 5: Using Used Parts
Now all you're left with are the solids used to make stock: the bones, bits of meat, and bits of vegetables. The bones you can finally toss out. The veggies are perfect for the compost bin. The bits of meat, however, you should pick out and put in freezer bags. Stock-making loosens the bits of meat you couldn't remove from the bones previously, and there's plenty of meat in the neck, too. Use this meat to perk up things like rice, burritos or enchiladas, or soups.
And there! You've truly used up a whole chicken. It's a good, old fashioned way of cooking, but once you make a habit of it, you'll wonder why you ever put the bird to waste in the past. Not only have you saved money by not purchasing stock and different parts of chicken for various meals, but you've been a good steward, too. Now, what can you do with that whole ham...?