How to Buy the Best Chicken Possible, Despite All the Confusing Packaging Claims
Give this buyer’s guide to chicken cuts and classifications a thorough read before you shop.
Chicken is the ultimate crowd-pleasing supper staple. The versatile, lean meat—whether you’re working with boneless breasts, bone-in thighs, or even a straight-from-the-store rotisserie bird—takes to a variety of cuisines, flavors, and cooking techniques. Kids love chicken just as much as adults, it’s affordable, and it’s quick to prepare and serve. What could be better?
That being said, between the endless options and confusing claims, the poultry aisle at your grocery store can be a puzzling place. How do those boneless and bone-in pieces differ in flavor, exactly? And what does pasture-raised, free-range, and antibiotic free even mean? We worked with the Yankel Polak, the head chef at ButcherBox (they deliver top-quality chicken, beef, and pork directly to your door) to answer every one of your chicken questions.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts: These are cut from the chest of the bird, with the tenderloin removed. They’re lean, quick-cooking, tender, and juicy (if prepared correctly). Without the bone, however, they are more prone to turning out dry and are a bit less intense in flavor without any fatty, succulent skin. Use an instant-read thermometer to make sure you aren't over- or under-cooking your boneless breasts.
Try them here: Crispy Chicken Cutlets
Chicken tenders: Tenders are cut from either side of the bird’s breast bone. They’re the quickest cooking of all cuts, as they’re quite small. They’re a great, low-fat source of protein that can be prepared many ways, but we're particularly partial to crisping them up in an air fryer.
Try them here: Oven Baked Chicken Tenders
Boneless, skinless chicken thighs: Thighs boast rich, moist dark meat and are taken from the leg of the bird. They’re a bit juicier and more flavorful than breasts and tenders, but still leaner thanks to the lack of skin. Use them in much the same way you use breasts—they hold up well to marinades, too.
Try them here: Sheet-Pan Chicken Thighs with Salsa Verde
Good to know: chicken thighs, drumsticks and wings are typically less expensive than their boneless, skinless counterparts and tend to be a bit juicier and more succulent, too.
Split chicken breasts: Like boneless breasts, these are the tender white meat cut from the chest of the bird with the tenderloin removed. Unlike boneless, skinless breasts, however, split chicken breasts keep the skin and still have the rib bone attached. The bone helps keep these breasts moist and tender because they help distribute heat evenly through the meat. The skin also seals in moisture and juiciness.
Try them here: Pan-Roasted Chicken with Lemon-Garlic Green Beans
Chicken wings: Wings contain three components: the drumette (where the white chicken meat is housed), the middle flat segment with two bones, and the tip, which is typically discarded. Their real claim to fame is the bar food, snack food context.
Try them here: Cherry-Bourbon Chicken Wings
Drumsticks: If you love dark meat, you’ll love drumsticks. They’re cut to include the lower portion of the leg quarter and are especially friendly for kids because they’re handheld (bring napkins!). They are terrific slow cooked, grill up great on the barbeque, or can be baked for an easy, family-pleasing meal.
Try them here: Tea-Glazed Drumsticks
Bone-in Thighs: The chicken thigh is the upper quarter of the leg. It contains quite a bit of rich, flavorful dark meat, made even more succulent with the skin that crisps up on top. These are excellent braised, as the bone lets them hold up well to a slow, saucy cook.
Try them here: Rosemary-Garlic Chicken Thighs.
Whole Chicken: There are so many ways to prepare a whole chicken, especially if you’ve mastered a few simple butchering tricks to break it into the pieces above. See Real Simple’s guided explainer here! You can also cook the whole chicken as-is by roasting it and grilling it, and then using the carcass for soups and homemade chicken broth.
Try it here: Slow-Roasted Lemon and Herb Chicken
A Lesson on Labels
Organic: In most cases, 'organic' applies to the diet of a chicken. To officially be called organic, a chicken must be fed organic food (grown with no pesticides), receive no antibiotics, and be given access to the outdoors. While many have been trained to believe organic is the highest quality chicken, it is only when organic is combined with another label (free-range, see below) that it raises in its quality level.
Free-range: Free range means that chickens have access to the outdoors for at least some part of the day, whether the chickens choose to go outside or not. ‘Free-range organic chicken’ is typically the label you’d want to look for because these chickens are raised in some of the more humane conditions.
Pasture-raised/Pastured: Chickens are raised primarily on pasture. This is a tricky one because there is no official standard around what type of pasture they graze on (full grass vs. weeds, etc.). While that may be up for debate, birds that are pasture-raised/pastured are typically raised in more humane conditions than other chicken you’ll see available.
Antibiotic Free: Antibiotic free means that the chickens were never given any antibiotics in any scenario.
No Added Hormones: Chickens naturally have hormones, so they key here is that they haven't been fed or injected with additional hormones.