It has been a while since our fine-feathered dinner went from funky chicken to fancy chicken.
But lately, the sticker price of the first white meat, especially the popular boneless, skinless chicken breast, is enough to turn a poultry lover into a full-time vegetable eater. One package of two pieces for $7 or more? Time to rethink dinner. Boneless pork chops and London broil are better deals.
Several things have conspired to drive up chicken prices. High fuel and feed costs, plus a reduction in production, are pushing prices ever higher. Still, there are ways to get more meals for your money as long as you're willing to branch out from your steady diet of boneless, skinless white meat.
If you learn how to use the rest of the bird, plus master the art of carving, perhaps even butchering, you can enjoy chicken and still have money left for dessert. Thighs and legs, plus white meat on the bone, are better values and offer additional taste, too. Yes, they have more calories and fat grams, but it's likely you are adding breading, sauce or something else to that breast meat to make it taste like something. We all agree it's healthier, but the taste factor ranks low.
Chicken breasts roasted on the bone and with skin just taste better and need nothing more than salt and pepper to season them. Don't eat the skin and save the calories and guilt.
Keep this in mind when you buy chicken and other meat or produce: The more the product is processed and handled, the higher the cost. A rotisserie chicken is about $8. The same size raw bird is about half that and, if you watch for sales, you can get it even cheaper. A few weeks ago, roasting chickens were two-for-one at Sweetbay. All stores have regular deals on chicken. This week it might be drumsticks; next week breasts and the week after whole birds.
Buy chicken breasts on the bone with skin and you'll pay about $2.79 a pound. Once the processors have stripped off bone and skin, the cost is closer to $5. There is some waste on the cheaper price, because of the bone, but the benefit on the wallet is hard to ignore. If you must buy boneless, skinless breasts, consider splitting them lengthwise to make cutlets. They cook quicker and two half-breasts become four servings just like that.
Stock up when chicken goes on sale. I have limited freezer space but there's always room for a few packages of chicken when prices dip. I am a big fan of chicken thighs and those can go as low as $1 a pound.
Chicken tenderloins can be used lots of ways, including the Chicken Schnitzel recipe that accompanies this story. They can get pricey, too, but 2-pound bags of Purdue tenderloins were on sale at Publix last week for $4.99. They are usually $6.99 and even then, that's $3 a pound for pure meat, no waste. I can get a lot of mileage out of that bag: Mojo-marinated and grilled; draped in barbecue sauce; grilled and added to a Cobb salad; oven-fried and served with a chipotle ranch dipping sauce, or served in curry sauce over rice.
Chicken salad is popular at my house and I'll either make it by roasting a whole chicken or chicken breasts on the bone with skin. A vat of chicken salad made Sunday is used for lunches during the week. When I find rotisserie chickens chilled and on sale for about $5, I use those for my salad. Saves money, time and my electricity.
Another way to save money on chicken is to use less. Two pounds of breast meat can easily feed six people if you use it in a casserole or stir-fry. Most nutrition experts say Americans eat too much meat and an adequate serving size is 4 ounces so 2 pounds should theoretically feed eight people. That might be stretching things too far, but you get the point.
There are economical cooks who can get several meals from a whole chicken roasted at home, using the meat in salads, pasta, quesadillas and broth for soup. If the whole chicken is intimidating, consider buying it already cut for which you'll pay about $1.89 a pound. Drumsticks are even cheaper at $1.69 a pound and can be surprisingly versatile.
I saw leg quarters — where the leg and thigh are attached — for 99 cents a pound last week at Publix and they were delicious braised with pearl onions and a bit of bacon. The original recipe called for cippolini onions but they're expensive and a pain to peel. A bag of frozen, peeled pearl onions work just fine. Legs and thighs are also good for a one-dish paella that features red pepper and sausage. Buy and freeze leg quarters when they're on sale, and when you find red peppers on sale, you're golden.
Wings are another inexpensive way to get your chicken fix and add variety to the dinnertime offering. I prefer to use the meatier drumettes. A favorite lemon pepper coating elevates them beyond the Buffalo treatment. Plus, I can grill them and save the calories from frying.
Will soaring prices dim Americans' love affair with chicken? The average individual consumption is 60 pounds a year, and since steaks can be as much as $12 a pound, we're likely to swallow those high prices. But keeping a keen eye out for sales combined with a willingness to break the routine will give us all more cluck for the buck.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.