How to Buy the Best Chicken Possible, Despite All the Confusing Packaging Claims

Give this chicken buyer's guide a thorough read before you shop.

Chicken is the ultimate crowd-pleasing supper staple. Whether you're working with boneless breasts, bone-in thighs, or a straight-from-the-store rotisserie bird, this versatile, lean meat pairs well with a variety of cuisines, flavors, and cooking techniques. Kids tend to like it (bring on the nuggets!), it's affordable, and it's quick to prepare and serve.

That said, 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 asked Yankel Polak, the head chef at ButcherBox (which delivers top-quality chicken, beef, and pork directly to your door) to answer some common chicken questions.

Boneless Cuts

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: 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: 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: Sheet-Pan Chicken Thighs with Salsa Verde

Bone-in Cuts

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, this is 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: 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. They are arguably the ultimate bar food.

Try them: 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!). Slow cook them, grill them on the barbeque, or bake them for an easy, family-pleasing meal.

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: 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. 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: Slow-Roasted Lemon and Herb Chicken

A Lesson on Labels

Organic: In most cases, 'organic' applies to the diet of a chicken. To officially earn that label, 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 its quality goes up.

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 more humane conditions.

Pasture-raised/Pastured: Chickens are raised primarily on a 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 chickens.

Antibiotic Free: Antibiotic-free means that the chickens were never given any antibiotics in any scenario.

No Added Hormones: Chickens naturally have hormones, so this means that they haven't been fed or injected with additional hormones.

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