The Daley Question
March 5, 2013
Q: What is up with boneless, skinless chicken breasts? I buy them at my local supermarket and they weigh between 7 and 10 ounces each. They're huge. I sometimes trim them down and use the trimmings for stir fry, but part of the reason for buying these is that they are pan ready. If they take a lot of prep, the convenience factor is gone. Also most whole chickens are in the 5-6 pound range rather than the 3-4 pound range that you expect (and that most recipes are written for) for a fryer. I recently cooked a recipe using bone-in breast quarters and by the time the center was done, the rest of the breast was approaching that dry shoe leather consistency. It's exasperating.
—Nancy Krauss, Rockford
A: I hear you, Nancy Krauss. Seems most everything food in the United States is supersizing, doesn't it? Take comfort in knowing you are not alone in being annoyed.
I forwarded your question to Nathalie Dupree, the television cooking show star and co-author of "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking," because I remember her telling me once that today's Cornish game hens reminded her of the smaller chickens she grew up with. Dupree, a resident of Charleston, S.C., fired back a sympathetic email.
"It is maddening. The chickens are the size of turkeys and the turkeys are frequently the size of chickens," she wrote. "One thing to try is going to ethnic markets and seeing if they have the smaller size. In mine, the larger is in one part and the smaller in the back."
As for the chicken breasts, Dupree suggests slicing the breasts horizontally and pounding them.
"Granted this removes their convenience,'' she adds.
William P. Roenigk, senior vice president of the National Chicken Council, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group, says chickens are bigger, with some 40 percent of chickens weighing in at six pounds or more, according to federal statistics.
Why? The cost per pound goes down in processing, Roenigk says, and these larger birds provide more boneless, skinless meat that can be used to make chicken nuggets, patties and strips for restaurant use. Roenigk says when the restaurant business slows, and that's usually in the winter, some of these big birds end up in the supermarket meat case.
"We get more comments about them now,'' he says of the larger chickens.
What to do? Look for a different, smaller bird with a less ample breast.
"Go with a more traditional chicken, like a heritage breed. The proportions are more what you're looking for," says Jeannette Beranger, research and technical programs manager for the American Livestocks Breeds Conservancy in Pittsboro, N.C.
Finding these heritage chicken can be challenging. Beranger suggested contacting local farmers or breeders, and looking online at the Eat Well Guide (eatwellguide.org), a cyber-directory of "fresh, locally grown and sustainably produced food in the United States and Canada."
You can also check in with your local supermarkets, groceries, farmers markets or, as Dupree suggests, ethnic markets for smaller chickens and chicken breasts.
Whatever bird you buy, do pay attention to how you're cooking it. Roenigk agrees that many recipes are timed for smaller-size chickens. What matters, he adds, is getting the chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees in the thickest part of the bird.
Use an instant-read thermometer to be sure the chicken is done.
Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.
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