Buying whole chickens and breaking them down yourself can save you some serious cash at the grocery store. It’s a skill that requires a lot of practice (and patience) but the rewards are huge. I no longer buy individual chicken pieces. Ever. I’ve found it way more cost-effective to buy whole chickens and break them down into the cuts I want. Plus, I love chicken butchery… maybe because I know how much money it saves me.

Dollars and Sense

I won’t deny that I’m tempted by those huge bags of frozen chicken breasts that cost about $8 but in the end, I know it’s a waste of money. I can buy a whole chicken for under $4 and get 12 pieces from it. In addition, I’m left with chicken bones and if I add that to about $1.25 worth of onions, carrots, celery, dried herbs, and some water, I get two and a half quarts of chicken stock. (We’ll talk about how easy and virtually effortless it is to make chicken stock soon in Soups, Stocks, and Sauces.) 

The chicken stock alone would cost me over $10 if I were to buy it at the grocery store, and it’s not very good. Even the high quality brands (which still can’t hold a candle to homemade) have additives that I don’t want. The concept is the same as when I talked about produce in How To Stock Your Pantry… nobody is cutting up a chicken to save you time and money. They’re doing it because they can charge you and arm and a leg for it (or a leg and a thigh, heh). And they manage to shamefully convince you they’re doing you a favor in the process. The $5.25 (max) I pay for a whole chicken and all the components of chicken stock gets me 12 pieces of chicken and 2 1/2 quarts of chicken stock. If I let someone in a manufacturing plant do the work for me, the same would cost me around $20. That’s a 380% markup. For some of you, your time is worth the money and I get that. That’s just not the case for me or anyone who needs to lower their grocery bill in a tough economy.

Dark Meat? Blech. 

But you prefer white meat over dark meat, right? I’m with you. I feel like a traitor to my profession by admitting it but it’s true. I tried to convince myself that I preferred dark meat because no self-respecting chef could prefer white meat. Everyone says dark meat has more flavor but truth be told, I don’t like the flavor of chicken. I like what chicken tastes like when you add stuff to it but I’m not down with steaming a piece of chicken, white or dark, and going to town.

I did a little research on the nutritional values of white vs dark meat in preparation for a cooking class, back when I was still in dark meat denial. I wanted to convince my students that, nutritionally, there aren’t that many benefits to white meat so they should choose the more flavorful part of the bird. In my research, I discovered what I already knew to be true: dark meat is significantly higher in fat and calories and contains less protein per serving. In trying to convince others to eat dark meat, I convinced myself to stick with white meat instead. But… dark meat has it’s place. It’s great fried. And barbecued, mmmmm. There are tons of delicious recipes that are better with chicken thighs than with breasts and having them on hand means there’s more variety in my meal selection. Nothin’ wrong with that.

Have It Your Way

I also have more options when I break down a chicken. I can get dozens of combinations of the following cuts by doing it myself:

  • Whole chicken (for soup)
  • Bone-in, skin-on breast
  • Boneless, breast
  • Boneless, skinless half breast (from large birds)
  • Airline breast
  • Tenders (they’re not just sliced breasts)
  • Whole wing
  • Wing segments, for game day wings (I usually cut the wing tip off, despite the photo above)
  • Frenched wing segments, for fancy game day wings
  • Bone-in thigh
  • Boneless, skinless thigh
  • Drumstick
  • Bones (for stock)

Tips for Freezing Chicken

  • Decide what parts you want before you get started then chop away. 
  • Lay the parts out on a half sheet pan lined with parchment, cover with plastic, and put the whole pan into the freezer for 30 minutes to an hour to freeze any exterior liquid. After 30 minutes or so, pull the pan out and drop your chicken parts into freezer bags. You could probably skip the 30-minute step if you like but since I put several pieces of chicken into one freezer bag, it keeps them from sticking together. If you have a vacuum sealer, now is a great time to use it.
  • I freeze them based on part; boneless breasts together, bone-in breasts together, tenders together, etc. 
  • If you don’t want to make stock right away, drop the bones into a plastic bag and freeze them.
  • I almost always break down my wings into segments (wing tips go in with my bones for stock) and freeze 8 wing segments (two chickens) to a bag. That makes a great game-day snack for one (or two if I make something else with it). If I’m feeding more people, I use more bags.
  • Always label your bags. Once they’re frozen, they’re hard to tell apart.
  • Always date your bags with the date you freeze them. The USDA recommends storing chicken in the freezer for a max of 9 months so don’t buy more than you can use in that time period.
  • Buy at least two chickens at a time and get all the work done at once. You can buy more, depending on the size of your family and how much you like chicken.
It takes a lot of trial and error at first and I won’t lie to you, it’s not easy. You have to learn how to break down a chicken (learn that trick here). Then you have to figure out how you’ll use all the parts to know how you want to freeze them. But with some practice and determination, you’ll be well on your way to reducing your monthly food budget. You’ll master it before you know it and you’ll be glad you made the change.