A bag of chicken giblets, of offal. Credit: Sam Schipani / BDN

If you have ever bought a whole chicken from the grocery store, you might have been surprised by the crumpled paper bag inside the bird filled with squishy organs. Many people will throw them away without even thinking about what goodies might be in this bag. These organs — also known as giblets or offal — have lots of culinary potential in the kitchen.

Before you can use them to their full potential, though, it is important to understand the different organs and other parts that are edible and come in a bag of giblets.

“You will generally find a small bag of goodies inside the cavity of the bird that will contain heart, liver, gizzards and the neck,” said Jay Demers, department chair of culinary arts and restaurant food service management at Eastern Maine Community College.

However, not all whole chickens will include all of these elements.

“The packaging should indicate if giblets are included or if the bird is sold without giblets, which [commercially] are called WOGs, [or] Without Giblets,” Demers said. “Sadly not every little bag is an equal representation of giblets, nor are they necessarily from that bird. I sometimes open a giblet bag with no hearts, three hearts [or] extra gizzards.”

If all of the pieces are there, though, they will each have a distinctive appearance that will help to set them apart.

Some organs may be familiar, even to those who don’t have experience with chicken anatomy. The chicken heart is a turgid, thumbnail-sized hunk of dark red meat.

Clockwise from left: A chicken gizzard, heart, liver and neck. Credit: Sam Schipani / BDN

The liver is the softest organ in the giblet bag with a purplish, deep burgundy color.

The gizzard is a stiff, kidney-shaped organ with a light center. The hard-working organ uses grit to break down the food that the chicken eats by collecting pieces of grit and grinding food up into digestible pieces.

Finally, the neck, though technically not organ meat, is often included in the giblet sack, Demers said. It’s a useful part of the chicken that can be used for many culinary applications, from broth to gravy.

“The neck is pretty obvious as it compares to other pieces,” Dumas explained. “[It’s] oblong, cylindrical with bones in it.”

If you are processing your own chickens, you might have to take additional steps to safely remove the edible organs from the bird.

“The ones that you’re getting from a processor have been taking through a little bit more cleaning prior to getting to you,” Dumas said. “One of the other differences too is when you get a liver in a little bag versus the liver is attached to the rest of the organs and the gallbladder, it’s different.”

The gizzard, for instance, needs to be partitioned and cleaned before it is prepared.

“There’s a silvery membrane on that outside of them, deeply colored dark meat underneath that, [and a] grinder plate in the middle,” said Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine.

Cooking the gizzards may require a little bit more cleaning than the other organs.

“[If you] cut on either side, get a lobe of meat. It’s up to you whether you want to remove that membrane or not,” Dumas said. “You have to be a little cautious that they have gotten all the grit out of it. Sometimes gizzards from a commercial processing plant will be cleaned of all the grit whereas for a home chicken you have to remove that grit yourself. [It will also] benefit from a little bit of trimming.”

Each element of the offal will have different cooking requirements and tastes.

“Their textures are very different,” Demers said. “Some love the chewiness of the heart and some prefer the tenderness of liver, which can be easily overcooked and become chalky [or] grainy.”

Once you understand chicken giblets, Demers said knowledge can be applied across the organs of other farm fowl — ducks, turkeys and even geese. The only difference is that larger birds will have larger organs which will require more cooking.