With so many confusing claims―natural, organic, certified humane―it’s hard to sort out which one is right for you. Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., a senior scientist and a policy analyst at the Consumers Union, in Yonkers, New York, decodes the package labels.
Natural: No artificial ingredients were added during processing. The bird may have been fed antibiotics.
Organic: Raised without antibiotics, these chickens were given only organic feed (grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides), with no animal by-products.
Certified humane: The chickens’ living conditions were above federal standards. They were fed no animal by-products and no antibiotics, except when ill.
Free-range: Although the term implies that the bird roamed free to eat a varied diet (which adds to its flavor), this claim does not have to be verified. To be sure the bird had access to the outdoors, look for both “free-range” and “certified humane” labels.
Kosher: These chickens were raised and slaughtered following Jewish dietary rules. Because kosher processing involves hand salting, the meat is often saltier than others.
2 of 8Anna Williams
Every chicken part has a distinct taste and texture and optimal cooking methods.
Wing: The boniest cut, the wing is considered white meat. It is made up of three sections, the first of which is sometimes cut off and sold separately as a "drumette." Good for: Braising, broiling, grilling, and roasting.
Drumstick: This dark-meat piece is often sold with the thigh attached, labeled as a "leg." To separate the two parts, cut through the joint with a sharp knife. Good for: Braising, grilling, and roasting.
Thigh: Sometimes sold boneless, juicy dark-meat thighs are flavorful and hard to overcook. Good for: Braising, broiling, grilling, and roasting.
Breast: This white-meat section is usually sold in one of two cuts.
Boneless, skinless breast: Ever popular, this is almost always packaged split into halves. (Tenderloin strips come from the upper-muscle portion.) Good for: Broiling, pan-frying, poaching, and sautéing.
Cutlet: Made of pounded or thinly sliced breast meat, this cut cooks quickly and evenly, thanks to its uniform thickness. Good for: Pan-frying and sautéing.
3 of 8Ditte Isager
Why it's great: You can cook large and small pieces of meat at the same time, thanks to the range of heat levels a grill provides.
How it works: Grilling cooks from below, and the amount of heat the meat is exposed to depends on where it's placed on the rack. For large cuts, like bone-in breasts, legs, and thighs, keeping the meat over indirect heat, to the side of the coals or the burner, is best. (Covering the grill with the lid creates an ovenlike effect and speeds things along.) Smaller cuts, like wings, cook quickly over direct heat, right over the fire. For the crispy skin grilling fans adore, move large pieces to direct heat in the last few minutes of cooking.
Why it's great: The meat emerges with a crisp skin and a moist interior, and you can ignore it for most of the cooking time.
How it works: Placed in an uncovered pan, the chicken cooks surrounded by the dry heat of the oven, usually 400° F. Roasting is good for skin-on cuts. (As the skin surface dehydrates, it caramelizes and intensifies in flavor.) There's no basting required. Seasonings can be as simple as olive oil or as complex as a spicy wet rub. After you've removed the meat, make sure to save the pan drippings. Simmered on the stovetop, they make a fast, flavorful sauce.
Cuts to roast:
Drumsticks, 45 minutes.
Thighs, 45 minutes.
Wings, 30 to 35 minutes.
Bone-in breasts, 35 to 45 minutes.
Whole chicken (3 1/2 to 4 pounds), 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Why it's great: A quick-cook, low-fat technique, broiling produces the flavorful char of the grill without the hassle of cooking outdoors.
How it works: Direct overhead heat from the broiler sears the top of the meat, while the preheated broiler pan cooks the underside from below. Small pieces are best for this method, since they cook through fast, before the exterior can burn. (If you're working with large breast cuts, slice them into pieces first.) As with grilling, frequent basting with a marinade or a barbecue sauce will make the meat caramelized and well seasoned.
Why it's great: This gentle, low-maintenance slow-cook method yields tender and intensely flavorful meat.
How it works: Good for large cuts and dark-meat pieces, braising involves gently cooking food in a seasoned broth. Because the pot is covered, the meat cooks through a combination of simmering and steaming (making a well-fitting lid essential). Some recipes rely on just the stovetop. Others start out on a burner, then call for placing the pot in the oven. Both methods produce meltingly supple results that can be eaten without a knife.
Why it's great: A low-fat cooking technique, poaching produces clean, delicate-tasting meat that's delicious served hot, at room temperature, or chilled.
How it works: With this stovetop cooking method, the meat is immersed in liquid, usually stock or seasoned broth, and cooked at a gentle simmer. (Boiling produces tough, stringy meat.) The liquid infuses the chicken with flavor and keeps it moist. Since poaching tends to render skin soft and clammy, remove it before cooking. If you're poaching a whole chicken, discard it afterward.
Why it's great: You get a crispy, golden exterior that seals in juices, minus a lot of the fat that goes with deep-frying.
How it works: Like sautéing, pan-frying cooks food in a moderate amount of fat (usually oil). Most recipes call for filling the pan so the fat covers a third of the thickness of the meat, which means you need to turn it at least once to cook it through. Although you can pan-fry food dressed in little more than salt and pepper, it's best done with cuts that have been coated with flour, batter, or bread crumbs, which seal in moisture and stop the meat from absorbing too much oil. The coating also produces a satisfying crunch with every bite.