It seems to me there are two ways of thinking about cooking at home, and each carries with it implications about kitchen organization and practice.
The first, which I like to think of as the "turkey" school of cooking, because it’s an approach best exemplified by the way most people prepare their Thanksgiving meal, views home cooking as a series of discrete recipe-dictated acts, sometimes interconnected, all of which are geared toward the production of a specific meal. Meals can consist of one or more dishes, and each of those dishes, in this way of thinking, is a separate endeavor, each with its own method, requiring a specific set of ingredients and tools.
The second, which I'm going to call the "chicken" school of cooking since I’m going to try to convince you to buy whole chickens, takes a more holistic view. Cooking isn't solely focused on making a specific recipe or meal, but on the general objective of manipulating ingredients, which can then be turned into more complete dishes and meals. The focus is on refining technique and fostering an almost continuous work flow of food production that will facilitate the production of any number of dishes.
While articles about this approach to cooking are periodically published, like this piece on how to more seamlessly incorporate cooking dried beans into your cooking schedule, or Daniel's advice for how to approach quarantine cooking, or even Sasha's Big Duck Project, the turkey school dominates the pages of many food publications because it's the easiest way to organize and present information about cooking.
Some publications offer meal planning guides that suggest grocery shopping once per week or month for a variety of more efficient meals, but even this can be overly prescriptive. Many home cooks, especially less experienced ones, never learn how superior the chicken school can be, both in terms of cost efficiency and the versatility it offers. If you are unaccustomed to thinking about making food without resorting to recipes first, you may think that relying on recipes and their relatively inflexible ingredient lists is the best way to prepare all of your meals.
But there are significant downsides to that approach, and there are many benefits to taking a more holistic view. During the coronavirus pandemic, when we were compelled to cook more regularly and limit trips to the grocery store, the advantages of the holistic approach became obvious to many home cooks. But, even in the absence of a public health emergency, I believe everyone would benefit from adopting the chicken approach, or at least inching toward it.
And one of the best ways to begin moving in that direction is to commit to only buying whole chickens.
Buy Whole Chickens, Cut 'Em Up Yourself
Whole chickens are dollars cheaper per pound than the plastic trays of bundled chicken parts, and only slightly more expensive per pound than chicken backs and offal. Provided you use the whole bird efficiently, provided, too, that you don’t observe any diet that precludes eating chicken or some of its parts, it’s doubly cost-effective. The meat you cook and eat is cheaper than it would be otherwise, and the carcass, which you've already paid for and should use, unless you're intent on throwing money away, can be transformed into chicken stock,* which you otherwise would have to purchase (or buy chicken parts separately just to make).
*In a similar vein, you can use your vegetable scraps, as I do, to fortify the stock you make with the carcass.
While food costs are always important to keep in mind, the main benefit to buying whole chickens and cutting them up isn’t the savings. It's that the practice will make you a better cook, one more adept at figuring out ways to work with what you have on hand to produce good food.
Cooking a bird whole, no matter the method, can only produce one dish and some stock. But by purchasing whole birds and cutting them into their component parts prior to cooking, you multiply the possibilities of what you can produce; more than that, you'll find yourself compelled to produce several different dishes, because those component parts are all best when cooked using different methods.
For example: The carcass is best used for stock, the breast for cutlets, the legs are better suited to braising and roasting, and the wings are best when cured overnight on a rack with salt and roasted until crisp in a hot oven. But the possibilities, which I'll get into more below, are endless.
To do this properly, you will need to learn how to cut a chicken up.
How Cutting Up Whole Chickens Improves Your Cooking Skills
Another benefit of making it a habit to buy whole chickens and cutting them up is the skill you acquire, by dint of regular practice, in handling and butchering meat.
Butchering animals is an essential cooking skill (if, of course, you eat meat), but because of the way our food systems are currently constructed, many home cooks either consciously or unconsciously outsource it to meat packers and butchers.
The easiest and cheapest way to practice taking apart animals is by buying chickens, since other animals, like lambs, pigs, and cows, are a little too large for home cooks to handle comfortably. But the funny thing about most of the land animals we eat is they're all similarly constructed, so a deep familiarity with the best methods for jointing a chicken, say, is easily translatable to the inner geography of a goose or turkey, and being able to distinguish between muscle groups in a chicken leg will help when and if you ever need or want to cut up a lamb leg.
On a more basic level, if you cut up a whole chicken regularly, you will perforce become very adept at cutting up a chicken. In a matter of months, if not weeks, you'll become proficient enough that separating a chicken into breasts, legs, wings, and a carcass will take you no more than 10 minutes. (And because of the relatively high risk of foodborne illness associated with handling raw chicken, you will, by necessity, become better at observing safe practices with respect to handling meat, such as washing your hands frequently and avoiding cross-contamination of surfaces.)
As with any skill, being comfortable is the first step toward becoming proficient, and overcoming any obstacle that makes cooking a chore, like dreading the cold, dead touch of raw chicken meat or taking 30 minutes to cut up a chicken into pieces, will afford you more opportunity, time, and leisure to focus on how to turn that chicken into something delectable.
What You Can Learn From Buying Whole Chickens
When I started cooking, before I started cutting up chickens, I got into the habit of roasting chickens whole. This made me think chicken breasts were a terrible, perpetually dry cut of meat. No matter that I can now quite easily cook a chicken breast that isn't dry as cardboard; it still carries that association in my mind, and if I didn't buy whole chickens as a matter of course, I'd probably never purchase chicken breasts willingly again. But because I do buy whole chickens, I have to eat chicken breasts quite frequently, which in turn has pushed me to learn about different ways of cooking them. For example, after a long time of turning to chicken cutlets to use up the breasts, I learned that I found it more convenient and sometimes preferable to slice and velvet them for stir-fries.
The same principle applies if you, for example, dislike chicken thighs, or legs, or you can't get behind the idea of wings; the same goes for using the carcass you're left with for stock. Because you have purchased it and because, hopefully, you don't want to waste anything, you'll have an added incentive to use it for some purpose. Over time, with enough repetition, that incentive will compel you to use it in new, delicious ways.
Buy enough whole chickens and you will discover delicacies that are hiding in plain sight. While so far I've confined the discussion here to major cuts of chicken—the legs, the breasts, the wings, the tenders—there are many other parts that are much more delicious. Above you'll see pictured some of my favorite parts: the wings, of course, because who doesn't love chicken wings, with their perfect proportions of skin, meat, fat, and cartilage; but also the oyster, the heart, and the bit of cartilage that's attached to the breast bone.
Not pictured are the gizzards and liver, which are tasty in their own right (the bird I took apart for these photos didn't come with the liver—a shame—but made up for it with four gizzards, which I saved in the freezer), nor are some of the other bits of the bird, like the pygostyle (the triangular bit of fat and cartilage and a little meat known as "the Pope's nose"), which is praised by a lot of people in the context of a whole roasted bird but rarely ever otherwise.
You don't have to eat any of these things; all of them, save the liver, can be thrown in the stock pot. But they are right there for the taking every time you buy a whole bird, and they aren't available to you if you only buy legs and breasts in bundles (the oysters might be, but there's no guarantee). Acquiring the parts pictured requires no more skill than is necessary to cut the thing up, although a sharp knife helps (it doesn’t even have to be a special poultry knife).
The oyster is located right above the joint where the thigh connects with the body; if you were to envision it on your own body, it's a little lower than where your love handles are, flush with your spine. The heart is usually tucked in the bird's cavity, sometimes in a bag, and requires very little prep; you can, if you wish, butterfly it so it lies flat and cooks more evenly, but those are both optional steps. There's a bit of delicious cartilage behind the sternum. To remove it, identify the point at which the sternum changes color from clear white to bone-colored gray, and slide a knife right through it—it shouldn’t offer much resistance at all; if it does, you’re hitting the bone.
None of these parts are difficult to cook: I typically salt them heavily, lay them on a sheet pan, and slide them under my broiler. The heart, cartilage, and oysters don't need much more than a few minutes on each side to cook through; the wings take a bit longer on each side to crisp up the skin all around, and require a couple more turnings.
These tasty snacks, which I typically eat right after butchering the chicken as a treat, aren't the reason to buy whole birds, but they are a wonderful bit of collateral pleasure and added incentive. They offer an extreme example of turning the turkey school of cooking on its head, and of the delights you may find in prioritizing the processes of cooking over the strict demands of a series of unrelated recipes.
Recipes Aren't Bad!
This is not to say that recipes are useless, nor does buying a whole bird and cutting it up on a regular basis preclude the use of recipes. While there is a bit of a disconnect between the parts available on a single chicken and a lot of chicken recipes—like this easy and tasty number for braised chicken thighs with cabbage and bacon, which calls for six to eight thighs—you can easily hoard chicken parts in your freezer until you have enough to make all or half of a recipe. The same goes for breasts, or wings, or any of the offal; a couple months of cutting up whole birds will give you enough frozen livers to make paté or chopped liver.
But adopting this practice can change your relationship with recipes for the better. For example, when Tim published his recipe for chicken nuggets, I knew immediately that I would make it as written—and I did, and they were good—but I also filed a few of the techniques he employed away for future reference, like salting the cut bits of chicken far in advance of pulsing them in the food processor (the better to make a cohesive, seasoned ground meat mixture), the proportions of the seasoning for the amount of meat, the size of the chicken patties and their attendant cooking time, and the method for dredging and frying. In the future, I may or may not follow the recipe exactly, but I'll likely remember some of those techniques the next time I have a surplus of chicken leg meat. Whatever I make may not be as good as the nuggets I'd make if I followed Tim's recipe exactly, but it'll be good enough to eat, probably.
And if it's not, I'll be butchering another chicken the week after, so I'll get another try, if I like.