Of the many, many things that seem oh-so-much better in life on the farm, one thing that I have grown especially appreciative of is the magic of the crock pot and one of our chickens. In a typical week, I make at least one whole chicken, using the meat (and the broth!) to create all sorts of meals for my family–soups, casseroles, tacos, etc. Each week at the farmers market, I have the opportunity to talk with lots of great people and one of the things that I get asked most often is “What do I do with a whole chicken?!” Admittedly, it can be a bit overwhelming, if no one has ever showed you what to do. Fortunately, it is super easy (thanks to that aforementioned fabulous crock pot!) and once you do it, you’ll be hooked. Below is a summary of what I do. I hope that those new to the idea of working with a whole chicken will find it helpful!
1. Fill crock pot with ~2 inches of water, turn it to ‘high’, let the water get hot (with my crock pot, this usually takes around 30 minutes or so), then add the frozen chicken. Note: If you thaw your chicken in the fridge first (which will take 2-3 days), you don’t have to wait for the water to get hot. Depending on the size of your chicken, it will need to cook for ~6 hours. You can check it with a meat thermometer (it is done when the temperature of the thickest part of the chicken, the breast, reads 165F, being sure to avoid contact with the bone when taking the temperature). The meat should come apart easily when using a fork to check for doneness; if it does not, leave it in longer.
2. Once done, remove the bird with some tongs (at least that is what I use); the carcass is very likely to fall apart when doing this, so do not panic when this happens. The organs (our processor leaves them inside; if you have a store-bought chicken, they will likely have been removed for you) will likely still be together, they will be a brownish-gray color and they look just like what you would expect liver, heart, etc. to look like.
3. The bird will be really hot, so I let it cool a bit in a large shallow bowl, pie pan, or on a cutting board until I can handle it without burning myself (~20 minutes). Now, here is where you just dig in–removing all of the meat from the bones. When cleaning the chicken, I find that it helps to have a bowl out that you will use for your “keep” pile and a bowl (or plastic grocery bag, that does not have holes!) that you will use for your “discard” pile, which will have the skin, bones, and cartilage. I typically start with the breasts, because that is where the majority of the meat will come from (and I like the instant gratification of having my “keep” container fill up quickly!), then work my way to the thighs, legs, wings, and back. The dark pigment that will be on some of the meat is perfectly normal-that is where it was connected to bone. I have gotten much better, after my first few chickens, of getting all of the useable meat off of the bones; on a 4.5 lb bird, I would expect you to yield somewhere around 6-7 cups of meat (combination of white and dark meat). I then like to cut the meat into smaller pieces using a knife, rather than pulling it apart with my hands (to avoid being left with ‘stringy’ pieces of meat, which I do not prefer).
4. Congratulations, you can now use this meat in whatever dishes you had in mind! If you do not need all of this meat at once, you can freeze the cooked, cut meat into 2 c. portions (or whatever amount works for you/your family) in ziplock bags. This is will come in handy on those nights when you have no clue what to make for dinner (please tell me I’m not the only meal-planning flunkie out there!) yet need something in a pinch. My go-to meal is a bag of this chicken, some veggies (fresh, frozen, or a combination) and some teriyaki sauce. Served with some instant brown rice (which I cook in some of the saved chicken broth, see below), you have a wholesome, hearty meal in less than 20 minutes.
5. When it comes to that broth, I put a large bowl (big enough to collect the liquid remaining in the crock pot) in my sink, then put a strainer inside the bowl, and then pour the contents of the crock pot into the strainer. The strainer will collect any bits of meat that fell off when removing the bird, as well as any bones, etc. Keep anything that looks good, discard the rest. You can then transfer the broth in the bowl to ziplock freezer bags, ice cube trays (perfect for when you just need a small amount of broth for certain recipes!), or whatever other container you had in mind. If the broth is still piping hot at this point, I typically run cold water over my filled and sealed ziplock bags before putting them in the freezer. When using the broth, you will need to add salt; this is great, because YOU can control how much you add, versus store-bought broth. I recommend starting with a small amount, stirring it in, then taste-testing until it is right for your taste buds. Typically, for 4 cups of broth (if I am making soup, for example), I add 2-3 tsp salt.
Well, there you have it! Hopefully I haven’t left anything out. If you try this and have success, I’d love to hear about it.