The Frugal Chicken


September 2, 2010 by Leah

I did something for the first time yesterday that will shock many people who know me. That’s right, I made chicken stock. The shock value lies in the fact that I love to cook and it’s almost unbelievable I wouldn’t have done this before. The time was ripe, though; as part of our economy drive, I have been working on improving my “homemaking” skills that never really got off the ground (like bread making).

I’ve been getting to know and love the whole chicken over the past year. The first time I remember hearing about someone roasting a chicken, the cook in question was a reporter friend of mine who was always scraping by on little to no money and a diet of beans and rice and the occasional roast chicken. From this example alone it dawned on me that a whole chicken held some serious potential for frugality.

I roasted a whole chicken for the first time last fall when I was still trying to impress Aaron into dating me (thanks, Anna, for turning me on to Alice Waters’ bird-flipping method, btw) and since then have made several, all turning out more or less delicious.

While the point of this blog is to follow our journey into frugality, I really think that paying the premium for organic food will have a positive financial impact on our long-term health. (Also, I love food.) Since moving to Southern California where one can find pretty much anything one wants to buy, the chicken-purchasing options (free-range, organic, grass fed, air chilled) have multiplied.

First, I discovered a free-range organic chicken in a bag for a bit over $16 (not prohibitive, I decided, based on the fact that we could make at least four meals out of it) at my local Sprouts “farmer’s market” grocery store. (I go there for the bulk foods section.) It was good, but it had still been filled out with a saline solution of some kind, which I found strange with the “organic” label. It’s common for poultry labeled “all natural” to be plumped with saline solution, particularly if you buy it from the frozen foods section. Even chicken that isn’t injected with saline solution is generally water chilled (in this country, anyway), which means it spends enough time in a heavily chlorinated water bath (with many other dead chickens) to absorb between 2 and 12% of its body weight in water – and you end up paying chicken prices for that water weight.

Last weekend, I discovered that Whole Foods (which is much more conveniently located than Sprouts, being a mile from our house and across the street from the actual Sunday farmer’s market) offers organic air chilled chickens for something like $3.79 a pound. This made a 4.3 pound chicken just over $16, and the entire weight was bird. (And it was wrapped in paper, not plastic. Cool.) I bought it, as well as some boneless, skinless, air-chilled, organic breasts from the same supplier ($8 for two, or $7.99 a pound). (Fine cooks tend to think boneless, skinless chicken breasts are the most boring things in the world, but they are hard to beat for convenience.)

Not content with my step up to air-chilled chicken, we decided the thing to do would be to cook this bird on the grill. As always, I seasoned the chicken the day before we were planning to use it. For cooking, we used the traditional “beer can” method: you stuff aromatic herbs (garlic, basil, rosemary) into half a can of good beer (Trader Joe’s Simpler Times Lager, in this case) and insert the beer can into the chicken’s cavity. (Some people call this “beer butt” chicken, for obvious reasons.) Then you sit it up on a hot grill, but not directly over the coals, for what turned out to be just over an hour – or until all your meat thermometers scream at you that the chicken is done. (PS: Charcoal chimney. Get one. Best thing ever. No lighter fluid taste.)

This was one yummy bird – flavorful and crispy skinned, even though we overcooked it a tad due to my incredulity that it could be done so fast. The taste was definitely superior to water-chilled chicken – it tasted like a more honest chicken. (We found the same thing when I finally baked the organic, air-chilled breasts in an almond crust last night – the chicken itself was REALLY good, and a completely different animal from, say, boneless skinless frozen chicken breasts that I will never again buy for the freezer.)

Here’s where the frugality kicks in: we had dinner from the chicken one night, and leftovers for lunch the next day. (That’s two meals.) I picked the rest of the meat off the bones to reserve for a chicken, leek, and white bean soup I love to make. (Another two meals, at least.) During this process, it hit me that I could be doing more with the mostly meatless carcass than throwing it in the trash. So, I dug out the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (just kidding, it was actually next to my bed) and looked up how to make a chicken stock. It was brilliantly simple and allowed me to use up some limp carrots and celery that had been languishing in the back of the vegetable crisper. The only thing about making chicken stock is you have to be home as it “barely simmers” for four to five hours – but, you don’t have to do more than occasionally check on it, and you can stop the process at any time and run out on an errand if need be.

By early yesterday evening I had 11 cups of homemade chicken stock. Normally I pay $2 to $3 for a carton (four cups) of low-sodium organic chicken broth, and homemade stock is infinitely better and can be used in many, many ways. So I not only saved the money (say $8) I would have spent on three cartons of broth, I saved hauling them home and then throwing them in a landfill. Talk about frugality! I’m completely taken with this stock thing and will start trying to buy more meats on the bone to keep up this trend.


3 thoughts on “The Frugal Chicken

  1. Juskimo says:

    Get a canner (you can get a 16 qt canner pretty cheap, probably less than $20) and can excess soup/broth (as well as fish, veggies, fruit, etc) and you will be able to store leftovers without having to keep them in the freezer (and keep your energy consumption down). I am going to can a bunch of peaches from the farmers market while they are in season so I will have them throughout the year.

  2. leahkathlyn says:

    Excellent idea! You may be reading about such experimentation in a future blog post. Aaron and I were just having the conversation today about how all the canned stuff in our pantry (soup etc.) is disgusting compared to homemade (I was threatening to eat some Progresso chicken noodle since I have a yucky cold and also because it would be wasteful not to eat it) and Aaron countered with the fact that we should have emergency supplies, being in an earthquake zone. Then both of us fell silent as we contemplated the depressing culinary options that would be at our fingertips if an earthquake befell us (Progresso and Chef Boyardee would about cover it).

  3. Kim_F says:

    I love making my own stock!

    Here’s another frugal tip in regards to making stock. Get a container to keep in the freezer. Use this container to store various vegetable bits that haven’t gone bad and are technically edible but that you wouldn’t necessarily eat (carrot tops including the greens, veggies that are on their way to going bad before you can eat them fresh, the carrots and celery that have gone mushy, veggies leftover from a meal that are fine but you won’t probably eat as leftovers, vegetable peelings, vegetable leaves you don’t like to eat as greens, the rooty bits from root vegetables….really, the possibilities are endless)

    Make sure everything is washed, chop it up into manageable sizes for the container (or containers) you’re storing them in and just keep adding them to the container as you go along. When the container is full, make some stock with the thawed out contents. My rule of thumb is generally 3-4 cups of veggie stuffs for every two cups of stock I eventually want to produce. I personally always brown some onion and some fresh crushed garlic in the bottom of the stock pot before doing anything else, and I’ll often use cheese cloth to contain the less chunky things, as well as using it to add bunches of herbs to the mix…but experiment, have fun. The possibilities are endless!

    OH! Actually, another tip that I suppose is frugal too…but I do more as an environmental thing (water conservation) and a health thing (taking advantage of water soluble vitamins and minerals that leach out of foods when cooking.) I have another large container (gallon and a half, maybe?) that I keep in the freezer for tossing in the water left-over from doing things like steaming veggies or soaking beans. I then use that water for making stock, adding additional water to the stock pot only as needed.

    Another good thing about these freezer containers is that, if you’re like me (and it seems like you probably are) on this front, you often have a lot of empty freezer space from tending to not buy a lot the things that occupy space in so many people’s freezers. But, a full freezer is more efficient than an empty freezer….so by creating things to freeze that I’ll use later you’re also reducing the energy load your freezer is creating.

    Anyway… I’m loving your blog so far, seriously!

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