Bone a whole chicken all by yourself? It's a frightening thought to many cooks, but a good sharp knife and expert guidance from a professional butcher can turn you into a boning whiz in no time. Why bother? Why not let your supermarket butcher do it for you? Because you pay more. Which is more important, your time or your money? Merle Ellis shows boning techniques on Page 25.
Not content with all of the good press they have received in recent years because their product is among the least fat- and cholesterol-laden meats available, some of the country's major chicken producers/processors are determined to gild the lily. Whether their current project has more advertising value than real nutritional merit is questionable.
Several of the country's largest chicken processors, primarily Perdue and Holly Farms, whose major market areas are east of the Mississippi River, are now peddling "skinny" chickens to their supermarket customers.
What's a skinny chicken? It may be a chicken that has been bred to produce more muscle than fat on a high-protein, low-fat diet. Or it may simply be a chicken that has the large leaf fat deposit usually found in the abdominal cavity and any other visible fat removed during processing.
And what is the consumer getting for this redesigning of the chicken? In reality, a small amount of fat reduction and probably a higher price at the market. Removing the fat involves higher labor costs, which usually are passed along to the consumer.
In this day of trade-offs, however, that may prove to be appealing to some shoppers who are willing to pay more for a product that requires absolutely no attention before being popped into the broiler or oven. For others it will simply be more advertising hyperbole that adds to their food costs.
A spokesman for Foster Farms, one of California's largest chicken processors, said they have been producing less fatty chickens on a high-protein, low-fat diet for some time because that's the way Californians like them.
About all they can do to join in this latest trend is to pull the abdominal and other excess fat before marketing the bird. Such a project is under consideration, he said, but he also pointed out that consumers who are watching their fat intake already remove the fatty skin and all visible fat from chicken before they cook it.
At Zacky Farms, another of the state's large chicken processors, marketing manager Jim Stockham said they, too, "are watching what's happening in the media" concerning this latest marketing development, but they are not marketing "skinny" chickens.
This latest trend, if indeed it does prove to be a trend, is one more step toward having someone else do everything in the kitchen except heat up the range. In families where everyone works or in small households where elaborate food preparation tends to create leftovers that often go to waste, it's easier to buy ingredients that take little preparation time.
But--and this is an important point--such convenience is getting more expensive all the time. Chicken is a good case study. It illustrates beautifully the dilemma of which is more important--your time or your money.
Is it really worth the cost to have a butcher cut up and bone a whole chicken for you? Particularly when, with just a little practice, it isn't all that difficult to do? Merle Ellis, a former butcher who writes the column "The Butcher," which appears in The Times, doesn't think so. But then he is so expert at whacking chickens apart, he makes it look as easy as breaking an egg.
"Here's where you can really save," Ellis told The Times in an interview recently. "Sometimes I go to the market and they are selling boneless chicken breasts for $3.69 a pound and they've got whole chickens on sale at 69 cents a pound.
"You can buy three chickens, take them home, cut them up and bone out the breasts. Even if you threw everything else away, you'd still save money over paying the premium price the butcher is charging for boneless chicken breasts." If you keep the rest of the chicken, including the bones, which could go into a good soup pot to make a rich chicken broth, you will have saved yourself a sizable amount of cash.
But cutting up and boning a chicken yourself does take a little time. And it takes a certain amount of skill, not to mention a modicum of knowledge about a chicken's anatomy. The most important thing it takes, however, is a good sharp knife. There is absolutely nothing as frustrating for anyone attempting to cut up and bone a chicken--or anything else--as a dull blade.
If you don't have a good steel or some other good knife sharpener, buy one. What it will do for your morale alone will be worth the price. Knives that cut cleanly and easily make happy cooks.
Once you have a good sharp knife or two, the next step is to buy a whole chicken and try your hand at cutting it up. Next will come learning how to bone the individual pieces. Don't let a few mistakes deter you. Just think of all the money you're saving.