Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tightwad Tuesday: Chicken Run

Or a run, on chicken.

In our home, we usually have one. A run on chicken that is. As one of the leanest meats, we eat a lot of it. Well, I guess "a lot" is up to interpretation (I'll get to that), but we probably eat it 2-3x weekly.

In our college years my husband and I purchased, almost exclusively, frozen, boneless, skinless, chicken breast. Why? Because it was the cheapest meat out there of course. WAY cheaper than ground beef. Cheaper even than the available ground turkey. And although we didn't (and still don't) have meat every night, we FLEW through chicken. Because chicken is the NUMBER ONE meat sold in America (by pounds), I thought I'd share what we've learned about buying chicken since then our college years, and what we've done that's dramatically impacted our grocery bill, and out eating habits.

It may have been just about a year ago now that I discovered Louis Rich Ground Turkey. It comes on little one-pound tubes. Twice (or maybe three times?) per year it goes on sale (at russ's usually) for $0.79/lb. I like two things about this turkey: first, is already divided into one pound servings. It is WAY TOO EASY to use more ground meat than a recipe calls for because ground meat almost never comes in a quantity this small. Even so, the acceptable portion size for meat is about 4oz raw. Or, 1/4 of this neat little tube. I'm sure you could already deduce that when these go on sale I buy cases of them. Literally. At least two. The second thing I like about this turkey is that it isn't the leanest of cuts. Although it compares nutritionally to 93% lean ground beef, it isn't as lean as "ground turkey breast", making it perfect for burger and taco applications where a little fat is desirable.

So, first thing we learned about poultry: ground turkey is cheaper than chicken breast. The second came about more recently. After doing a bit of researching (and fine print reading) I learned that frozen chicken breast is "preserved in up to 15% solution to maintain quality". Just what exactly does that mean? It means they glaze the chicken in a salt/water brine to make it taste more tender, and to keep it from getting freezer burn. Genious - except remember, the consumer pays for that salt water.

So, the 2.5lb bag of frozen chicken I used to purchased for $6.48 (on sale) was really just shy of 2.2lbs of chicken - and I paid roughly 2.94/lb for it. It was convenient, and it didn't *look* expensive at what I thought was around $2.50/lb. So after figuring all this out I started pricing fresh, raw chicken breast (which, I assumed, would be more expensive). Turns out, it goes on sale semi-regularly for 1.77/lb. And all of that, friends, is chicken. But the problem I ran into is that this fresh raw chicken is not NEARLY as juicy and delicious as the frozen stuff. Why? That salt-water brine.

So, after purchasing (...counts for a moment) 12 pounds of chicken breast this past week, here is what I did to increase 1) its quantity, and 2) it's quality.

1) A moment ago I made the comment that a standard acceptable portion of meat is around 4oz. As Americans we tend to look at a chicken breast and assume that it, in itself, is a serving. But you see, over the past 20 years, commodity chicken farmers have *learned* how to plump up their chickens* After weighing out each of the hmm... Twelve single breast halves I purchased, I can assure you that each one of them contained 3-4 reasonable servings of meat. So, the first thing I did was to cut them all into appropriate sizes using my kitchen scale. They averaged 4 oz. Quantity: check.
*It goes without saying, here, that organic, "pastured" chicken would be HIGHLY superior in both taste and health-attributes to commodity purchased chicken breast. If you have access and the means to support sustainable meat practices, (i.e. a meat co-op, or CSA program) PLEASE DO SO. Otherwise, keep a keen eye on portion size and remember: whatever went into that meat, is also going into you.

2) In order to increase the quality of my chicken, I did what the Tyson folks do: I brined it. Gasp! Yes, I soaked it overnight in a salt/sugar/citrus/herb solution and you WOULD NOT BELIEVE how juicy, moist, and tasty it is. Here's my recipe
  • Fill your soup pot half full of water.
  • Add to that a half cup salt, and a half cup brown sugar. stir it until it disolves.
  • Add to that one large orange, cut up into 8 or so pieces, and one large lemon, cut the same.
  • Stir in some thyme, and some rosemarry.
  • Add all your raw chicken pieces. Top off with water to cover.
  • Refrigerate overnight (12-16 hours, give or take)
After all my chicken brined, I separated it out into one-quart freezer bags, each containing four adult portions. I found I had enough for roughly 35 single servings, plus about 4 servings of stir-fry chunks (trim pieces). In our home, that equates to 16-18 full meals. Was it worth the 45 minutes it took me to get all that prep done/mess cleaned up? When you consider my approximate $14.04 in savings over buying frozen whole breasts (which would need to be thawed/de-ice-glazed/cut into appropriate sizes anyhow), I'd say $17.55 an hour is a wage worth working for. But, you be the judge.


Now it shouldn't go without noting that, no matter WHAT you're talking about grocery wise, there is always a cheaper option. The cheaper option in this case is to forget the chicken breast, and buy a cheaper cut. Or, forgo the cut chicken, and opt for a whole bird (roughly $99/lb on sale, but those pounds include skin and bones, and other parts you'll throw away). And beans are another inexpensive option.

This may seem tedious, and maybe it's not for you. I understand - some of us wierdos just have a proclivity for making something very small seem like a very big deal. Forgive me if it looks as though I'm trying to split hairs. In our household though, we're making a (very conscious) effort to stay on track financially, and here, meat is a part of that plan.

Do you have any ways you save on the meat isle? Has do-it-yourself prep proven to save you money in other ways? Does anyone have any big theories when it comes to meat purchasing? I've found that it isn't until I try to do something at home (instead of buying something pre-done) that I realize it isn't as hard as I made it out to be - and that it isn't worth the cost. But some things ARE worth that cost. Any examples?


Brian said...

First, if you ever want to borrow our grinder attachment for your mixer just let me know. Second, when we have the time to break them down we do go ahead and buy the whole fryers, break them down, and feed the rest of the stuff to the dogs. It is one of the cheapest ways to feed a dog AND you're giving them what they would already be eating out in the wild! Another thing I did with those carcasses is saved them up in the freezer and borrowed my mom's 20-quart stock pot, loaded it up with veggies, herbs, and spices, and simmered it all day to produce a couple gallons of chicken stock which I then set outside in the February weather to cool and portioned out into standard useful portions. So I say think twice about the whole fryers when they are on sale, you might find yourself saving some serious cash as well as gaining more control over what goes into you and your family's bodies! Plus simmering chicken stock all day rivals baking bread in terms of "comfort food smell".

Julie said...

That looks like a great project. I have been buying whole chickens and am working on a "Stretch a chicken to 6 meals"project right now. It's going well. Have you ever figured out how much chicken you get on buying the chicken with rib meat vs boneless skinless breast? They go one sale .88 regularly and we either buy them or the whole chickens which are either .69 or .79 typically.

Melissa K. said...

Brian, the next time I find a hunk of beef at a good price, I will TOTALLY take you up on that grinder offer.

Julie, you are LIGHT YEARS ahead of me in so many ways. There are things you know about saving in this town that I only hope to learn one day. Where, on earth, are you finding chicken breast for $0.88/lb?

Julie said...

I think you are ahead of me in certain areas and I can double check my package in the freezer but I am almost positive they go on sale for that low. They are not boneless skinless, they are chicken breasts with rib meat but they are almost entirely usable. Usually it's at Supersaver. I could be totally off and it could be over a dollar, maybe it's even 1.88 (and that's why I thought .88) but I don't think so and that's one big reason I don't buy the individually frozen ones anymore. That and the sodium reason you gave. Watch me be wrong though and it's really 1.88. Haha, I could see that. Blame Jocelyn for taking all my brain cells. (Now I have the urge to get the pack out of the freezer but J is almost asleep so it would probably be unwise). Actually I am sure it's .88 because when J was a newborn Hy-vee had a one day sale for .77 each and I got a rain check and filled our freezer with chicken breasts with rib meat. That's what I get for rambling when I'm half asleep.