Let’s just admit it: Americans chow down on a lot of chicken - 82.2 pounds per person in 2010 alone! So here are 10 things you should know about our favorite fowl, safety tips included.
- Wash the chicken
This may come as a shock to all of you who automatically rinse your poultry just before cooking. It certainly was for me. So what’s the big deal? Cross contamination! Rinsing your chicken is an ideal way to spew nasty pathogens all over your sink and the surrounding area. Rinsing never did get rid of pathogens anyway. Instead, try to get the meat onto the baking pan with as little contact as possible. Then wipe down your counter with hot soapy water or a mixture of hot water and 1 tablespoon liquid bleach.
- Use an old plastic cutting board
There’s an ongoing controversy about the safety of wood versus plastic boards for cutting raw chicken. As it turns out, old plastic cutting boards must be run through a dishwasher to be sanitized. Wood boards, on the other hand, are equally clean after a hand washing.
- Forget to wash your hands
You can’t be reminded often enough: Wash your hands well and scrub under your nails. Have you noticed that chefs and serious cooks don’t have long nails? And they tend not to wear jewelry, either. Both provide great hiding places for bacteria. That mysterious stomach bug you had could very well have been a case of food poisoning from your own kitchen.
- Ignore the magic number
A lot of cooks still aren’t aware that the folks at the USDA dropped the recommended safe temperatures for all cooked poultry five years ago to 165°F. The good news is that this results in juicy, tender meat. (The old temperatures were 180°F for a whole roast bird tested in the thigh, or 170°F for a breast. Both often result in dry-as-cotton meat.)
- Pull it out when it looks done
The best way to know when your chicken has reached the magic number is an instant-read thermometer. “You really can’t tell by looking,” says Diane Van, Manager of the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, who suggests you may want to test your chicken in more than one spot. This is particularly important with a whole roast bird: Test both thighs and the thickest part of the breasts—some of the chickens these days sport boobs big enough to fill a double-D bra.
- Pick your chicken from the front of the shelf
At the market, look for the most distant sell-by date. This means searching in the back of the stacks because the oldest chicken is usually stuck in front. Don’t be afraid to be a nuisance at the poultry case. (The re-stockers of the chicken shelves at my local market roll their eyes when they see me coming.)
- Let your chicken hang around
Cook your chicken within two days of buying it. Home fridges are warmer than the ones in stores (which can go as low as 26°F), and tend to be opened often. Keep it any longer and, even if the sell-by date is way in the future, you’ll probably end up tossing it once you open the package to that telltale, hold-your-nose, the-chicken’s-gone-off aroma. Out to the garbage it goes, leaving you scrambling to figure out something else for dinner. Sound familiar?
- Throw out the scraps
Once this is ingrained into your routine, you’ll wonder why you didn’t start a long time ago. When you’ve got a decent pile of scraps, parts, skin, and bones, dump them in a pot and make a homemade chicken stock. I just can’t bear to spend money on something that’s not only easy to make but also tastes so much better than anything you can buy.
- Trim all the fats
The fat police want us to skim and snip every bit of fat from our meat and stocks, but chicken fat has some winning qualities. It is high in palmitoleic acid, which is thought to be an immune booster, and it can also be a source of oleic acid, which is a good thing for cholesterol. Also, poultry fats are low in polyunsaturated fatty acids, making them more stable than other fats at higher heat.
- Roast or broil it
Isn’t crisp skin and tender, juicy meat what we most yearn for in chicken? But how to reach that double-whammy nirvana? High-heat roasting doesn’t always result in perfect skin, and broiling can dry out the meat. Here’s a chef tip: Pan-roast your chicken.