Chicken is mild tasting, inexpensive, relatively low in fat, and fast cooking, all of which contribute to Americans’ eating more chicken over the course of the year than any other meat. (And don’t forget, we devote an entire holiday to turkey.) So it makes sense that knowing the best ways to season and cook birds will expand your repertoire in ways everyone will appreciate.

It’s easy enough, because you can use any cooking techniqu —grilling, broiling, stir-frying, roasting, sautéing, braising, and frying—with chicken. And I’ll introduce them all here, while explaining which cooking methods work best with different parts of the bird.

These recipes also demonstrate smart, fast ways to season chicken (and turkey). And since poultry has such a mild taste, I’ll introduce simple companion ingredients that enhance the flavor without overpowering it. You’ll learn how to make some super-simple pan sauces too, and the extra section on Thanksgiving takes the fear out of cooking turkey—with all the trimmings.

If you’re already comfortable working with chicken and turkey, use this chapter to test your boundaries: Change up your go-to seasonings, try new techniques or ingredients, and sharpen your butchering and carving skills.

Chicken Basics

Chicken Lingo

“Natural” Virtually meaningless on labels, since the government’s definition doesn’t tell you anything specific about how a chicken was actually raised, fed, or processed. This description can—and is—used for a whole spectrum of chickens from regular supermarket birds to ones of higher quality.

Free Range A somewhat better choice: These birds technically must “have access to outdoor space” to be labeled this way. But unless you’re provided (or ask for) more info, you’re still lacking helpful details about their living conditions or diet.

Organic This certification is defined and regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It won’t tell you everything, but it indicates the birds can move around at least some of the time, aren’t given antibiotics or other drugs, and don’t eat genetically modified feed.

Heritage or Local Neither is a government-recognized labeling distinction, but the terms are used in the same way as heirloom vegetables, and indicate chicken varieties that are valued for their taste and texture. You can find them at farmers’ markets, some natural food stores, and directly from producers; be prepared to pay more for them.

Preparing Chicken

TRIM EXCESS FAT Flaps of fat—common on whole birds and thigh meat—can drip and burn, so I usually trim them. Stretch the skin with one hand to make it taut. Then, working away from you, cut through it with kitchen scissors (or saw through with a paring knife).

BLOT CHICKEN DRY Pat whole birds or individual parts with a paper towel to remove moisture and make sure the meat browns properly. (You can skip this step if you’re steaming or boiling the chicken.)

Chicken Doneness and Safety

You want to cook your chicken enough to kill anything in the meat that might make you sick—like salmonella and other harmful bacteria—but not so much that it dries out. Try to catch the meat when it just turns from pink to opaque: Either insert a quick-read thermometer into the thickest parts of the breast and thigh (avoiding the bone) or cut a slit with a sharp knife and peek inside. The government (overcautious, in my opinion) recommends that chicken be cooked to 165°F—a temperature that virtually guarantees dryness, especially with breast meat. I suggest removing the chicken when the thermometer registers at least 155°F but less than 165°F. (If you like your chicken well done, steer toward the higher end of that range.)

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