If you have been to the grocery store recently, you may have noticed a dearth of meat in refrigerated display cases. What’s left are things that maybe you might not usually buy: pork butt, skirt steaks, whole chickens and other less expensive, but less widely-used, cuts of meat.
Two techniques, in particular, are good to learn so that you can take advantage of what’s available: processing a whole chicken and mastering the art of braising.
How to process a whole chicken
Learning how to separate and cook a whole chicken is a great skill that will save you money in the long run.
“This is near and dear to my heart,” said Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine. “I feel like everyone should know how to cut up a damn chicken.”
“If you have a cutting board and a knife, it’s not terribly hard,” Dumas said. “Taking the leg quarters off or taking the breasts off it’s fairly intuitive.”
From there, you can experiment with learning how to cook different parts of the bird. For tougher cuts like legs, Dumas said to try braising them in a Dutch oven (more on that later). For tender breasts, Dumas recommended searing and butter basting them until they are sweet and flavorful.
Leftover chicken bones can also be used to make chicken stock or bone broth out of the leftover carcass.
“Making your own stock is probably the easiest thing you can do to make everything taste better,” Dumas said. “A real stock adds a sticky umaminess to a dish that you really can’t substitute with boxed broth.”
Once you have accumulated several whole chicken carcasses in your freezer, Dumas said to rinse them, put them in a pot, cover them with cold water and bring to a simmer in order to best extract the collagen.
Also, resist the temptation to salt your stock. When you taste to make sure your stock is done, Dumas said the stock should be deeply savory, the vegetables should taste “bright and clean” and there should be a distinct stickiness on your lips.
How to braise meat
Braising tougher, less expensive cuts of meat — think pork shoulder and shank, or beef chuck and brisket — until tender, is an excellent skill for home chefs to master during quarantine.
In fact, you may already be familiar with the basics of braising if you own an electric slow cooker, like a Crock Pot. Dumas said that slow cookers are a great introduction to braising that will prevent you from burning any of your ingredients, but you can extract more flavor from your meat and vegetables if you take the time to braise meat in the oven.
Jay Demers, department chair of culinary arts and restaurant food service management at Eastern Maine Community College, said that braising is the perfect technique to learn in this strange time.
“Braising is great because there’s a lot of passive cook time where you can tend to other things,” he said. “It is also a way to take economical cuts of meat and make them not only palatable, but delicious.”
The best cuts of meat to braise will be tougher and come from more heavily-exercised parts of the animals’ bodies. And while a slow cooker can be a great introduction to braising, Demers prefers a Dutch oven.
“My advice, if you don’t already have one, is to buy one from a local merchant between 4 [and a half] and 6 quarts, preferably with more surface area than height,” he said.
Bon Appetit breaks down the basic steps of how to braise to get you started. Demers said that the first step, searing, is perhaps the most important.
“Make sure not to crowd the pan,” Demers said. “To get a proper sear, you need to have the meat making continuous contact with the pan. If you are doing smaller pieces, you may need to do them in batches.”
The meat will start to shrink, and when it is ready to turn, Demers said it will easily release from the pan using a pair of tongs. The cooked side should be well-browned.
“Many people call this caramelization; however, this is a process called Maillard reaction,” Demers said. “That’s a lecture for another day.”
Once you have browned all sides of the meat, remove it from the pan and let it rest. Add any vegetables you are using and “sweat” them, slowly cooking them so they release moisture, while pulling up the tasty brown bits — known as fond — from the bottom of the pan using wine or stock.
“Scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release all this flavor,” Dumas said. “Add the meat and all the juices from resting back to the pan. The liquid needs to come at least halfway up the meat. Return to a simmer, cover and transfer to [an] oven.”
Demers said that small pieces like stew meat will take an hour, or so whereas larger cuts can take several hours to cook through. Once it is done, though, the meat should be tender to the point of falling apart.
Dumas said that braising isn’t limited to meat-eaters, though: vegetarians can enjoy a delicious braised tofu if they want to give this cooking technique a shot.
“Braising is a fun technique for a whole block of tofu,” Dumas said. “I’ll take that whole block of tofu, season it with Chinese five spice, dust in cornstarch and [add] scallions, ginger, garlic [and] dried mushrooms and cook it, slow and low.”
These two techniques may seem intimidating to home chefs at first, but with a little time and patience, they are easy to master. Once you have them down, you will be prepared for whatever cuts the refrigerated meat aisle or farmers market throws at you, now or in the future.