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How to Adapt Chicken Breast Recipes to Use Whole Chickens

How To Adapt Chicken Breast Recipes To Use Whole Chickens

Can you imagine a group of 8-year-old girls spending ten minutes talking about chicken skin?

True story.

When I taught third grade, one of my favorite parts of the year was when I introduced Literature Circles, a time when kids were put in groups of four or five and all read the same book together in their ‘circle.’ They decided on their own reading schedule, came up with their own discussion questions, and had “book talks” daily, which I recorded. (On cassette tapes, in case you’re wondering. And yes, thank you, I do feel old now.)

The risk with giving kids all that agency is that they might head off on a tangent before you realize it. I knew that the group of girls discussing a Ramona book one day seemed to be stuck on one topic for a really long time, and when I finally listened to their conversation on tape, I was rolling with laughter.

The scene was in the Quimbys’ kitchen, and the girls, older sister Beezus and young Ramona, age 8, were in charge of dinner. They had an awful time getting the skin off the chicken they were supposed to be preparing, and the author described the tug-of-war scene in great detail.

But it was that detail that the girls simply could not capture in their minds. Every time they tried to figure out just what the characters were actually doing in the scene, they couldn’t agree.

The problem quickly became clear as I reviewed their heated discussion: Not one of the third grade girls had ever seen raw chicken that wasn’t boneless, skinless chicken breasts! The idea of chicken with skin on it at all, clearly a standard part of dinner in the early ’80s when the book was written, had become foreign and unintelligible.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s Monday Mission, that unfortunate turn of our culture has likely created a great deal of food waste in the name of convenience.

And convenient it is! One of the standby foods that many people rely on for a hurried evening is the famous “boneless, skinless chicken breast.”

The Demise of Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts

puerto rican chicken (22) (475x356)

We all know real food isn’t easy, and switching to buying pastured chickens usually makes such a hit on the food budget that people have to use whole chickens because they can’t afford boneless, skinless breasts OR even more likely, many small farms only offer the whole bird.

So there you are: figuring out the “real food” lifestyle with 53 family favorite chicken recipes strewn about, and every single one begins with “boneless, skinless chicken breast.”

Before you start writing love letters about how much you miss b.s.c. b. or tear your hair out and run to the nearest grocery to take advantage of their $1.79/lb. CAFO chicken breast sale, hear me out: There’s hope. I have some ideas for you.

I received this question from a reader on Facebook this summer:

What are your suggestions for transforming boneless skinless recipes into ones for whole chicken?

She shared a recipe link to a dish with 4 chicken breasts, salt and pepper, olive oil, garlic, lots of cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh mozzarella, and balsamic vinegar.

Here’s my answer:

For that particular recipe, or really any one that is very chicken centered, I’d say there are at least three ways to make it happen with whole chickens:

1. “Harvest” the breast right out of the raw chicken and just make the recipe as is. (Of course, you’d need multiple chickens to get four breasts). Then you stew the rest of the bird and use the remaining meat for casseroles and soups, and making chicken stock.

Roast Chicken and spices

2. Use roasted chicken taken off the bird and mix it all in with the rest of that recipe, the sauce and tomatoes, with cheese on top. Does it really make or break the recipe if the chicken is all in one chunk or not? For many recipes, I would guess not. The main flavors are the fresh herbs and cheese, along with the balsamic vinegar, and in this case, the tomatoes are very plentiful too.

chicken with rice green beans (9) (475x356)

3. Use 2-3 cups chicken, either cooked chicken taken off the bone OR bits  snipped out of the breasts of the raw chicken with kitchen scissors, and incorporate rice to carry the rest of the flavor/sauce and fill out the recipe.

You can only use the equivalent of two whole chickens (4 breasts) occasionally, so you don’t want to use the first strategy too often with favorite chicken recipes, you know? You’d be spending all the rest of your meals on soups and chicken casseroles to use up the reminder. But this way you could use just one bird, get all the flavor of the dish, and not be starving after dinner.

That Puerto Rican Chicken recipe pictured at the beginning of this section – the one with the bacon? Yeah, yum. That’s one that we used to love for company, such wonderful flavors (there’s cheese inside). To adapt that one, I’d cook rice, take chicken pieces and all the many spices from the recipe, mix them together in a casserole dish with the same vinegar and oil in the recipe, add chopped bacon, and top with cheese and make a casserole. All the same flavors, a little less “fancy” since they’re not flattened and wrapped, but honestly? Less work, very similar flavor – it’s a win-win in my book.

So Don’t Throw Those “Chicken Breast” Recipes Away!

For me, I’d rather do a little bit of “harvesting” of the breast meat, snipping out chunks with my kitchen scissors (on Amazon), and then stew the remainder of the bird. I’d still get a mix of light and dark meat for soups and casseroles and be able to make stir fry, chicken bakes with sauces and cheese, and pasta with chicken rather than shuffling those recipes off to the circular file.

If you do the harvesting, you end up with less than a pound of meat, usually, so you have to tweak your recipes just a bit to feed the family: stir fry with lots of veggies to supplement the smaller amount of meat, saucy chicken bakes with rice or other whole grains to fill the gap, and extra veggies or legumes in with your pasta rather than getting a chunk of chicken in every bite. (Quick sponsor shoutout – I’ve been adding to my collection of glass baking dishes from Mighty Nest, where they even have some with glass lids, and this series is working really well for us.)

It’s important to note that you likely won’t want to use your stewed chicken, the meat that has cooked for hours in your stock, in recipes calling for chicken breasts. That chicken is just to fall-aparty, better for soup and creamy sauces like this one that I’m taking for Thanksgiving:

Spicy Cheese Chicken Chip Dip via Kitchen Stewardship

I also don’t have any magic wand waving that makes grilled chicken breasts possible with whole chickens, but as long as you’re working with some other flavors, sauces, veggies, or toppings, you should be able to get a comparable taste sensation even when whole birds are your new way of life.

I demonstrate a few examples in my eBook Better Than a Box which is on sale for 50% off through the weekend and also includes a few ways to make gluten-free cornbread-only based stuffing, a recipe some of you might need in the next few days, maybe? Don’t forget about this healthy pumpkin pie recipe – I roasted my pumpkins last night and will be making mine tonight!

What do you think? Would any of those make your fav recipes happen when you’re stuck with nothing but whole chickens?

I’d love to make this post a clearinghouse of information rather than a static set of tips – why don’t you share recipe ideas in the comments and we’ll all try to help adapt them for whole chickens (or, coincidentally this week, perhaps leftover roasted turkey?).

How To Adapt Chicken Breast Recipes To Use Whole Chickens
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16 thoughts on “How to Adapt Chicken Breast Recipes to Use Whole Chickens”

  1. Katie,
    With a little practice you can cut up your chickens into pieces in just a couple minutes (find a tutorial on YouTube for all the tricks) then you will hhave drumsticks for yummy baked drumsticks and thighs for something like Chicken Country Captain a family favorite and breasts that are easily cut off the bone for bscb use. Everything else that I don’t use in a specific recipe can be put in a zipper bag in the freezer for use as stock and soups(along with the bones from the breast thighs and drums). I almost always cut the breastshalves in half for serving size.

  2. Naomi,
    I LOVE the Zaycon chicken ( . It’s all natural (although not organic) and I think the flavor is better that the organic directly from our local farm. At $1.79 a pound, it’s better than organic, too. I like that it’s semi-local – our chicken comes from less than 100 miles from us, fresh, never frozen. Yes, they are a different breed that are specifically bred for the breasts. We raised our own chicken for a while and had similar results with the huge pieces of meat, so I’m ok with it.

    I save those breasts mostly for special recipes that require chicken breasts (like grilling) and I do buy whole chickens, especially since I like to make my own stock. I’ve always adapted recipes for chicken breasts and used whatever meat I have.

  3. Okay, here’s where I’m gonna air one of my pet peeves about chicken recipes I see lately: Time was when you got one chicken breast from one chicken. The breast that came off one side of the chicken was called a chicken breast half, so you got two chicken breast halves from one chicken. Now, some recipes call for chicken breast, and some call for chicken breast halves. I’m usually in a quandary about exactly how much chicken they are talking about. I’m suspecting that nowadays, when they say two chicken breasts, they really are talking about two chicken breast halves, or one chicken breast.

    To complicate matters even more: I recently purchased forty pounds of chicken breasts (boneless skinless) from Zaycon Foods. I thought I had gotten a pretty good deal, until I realized upon seeing how astoundingly huge the breasts are that their chickens had to have been fed something other than a chicken’s natural diet to cause them to grow so large. I will use up what I have but I will not order Zaycon chicken again. But now I have these super large chicken breasts, which, by the way, come attached to each other – the two halves connected in the middle – to make into regular recipes. What I have done so far (after canning thirty of those forty pounds) with the meat that I froze, is to slice one chicken breast half into two horizontal pieces, i.e. cutlets. Breast meat is not my favorite “color” of chicken either, I much prefer the moister dark meat, but I was trying to prepare food ahead for hard times and the breast is all they carry.

    I guess I’m a little different from all you bscb folks in that I have never done much cooking with them, always choosing thighs for my family. Now I have to figure out ways to use this boneless skinless stuff. The Zaycon chicken DOES seem to be moister than most chicken breast, and I haven’t had any particular problems with it becoming overcooked and dry. And it tastes okay, as okay as bland chicken breast can taste. To me chicken does not have as much taste as chicken I remember from my childhood (which is 60+ years ago). I don’t like that seasoning needs to be added to produce a flavorful chicken dish.

    So sorry for such a long post. I can get rather soap-boxy sometimes. Love your blog!

  4. I confess, my eyes actually got a little misty when I read this:

    “To adapt that one, I’d cook rice, take chicken pieces and all the many spices from the recipe, mix them together in a casserole dish with the same vinegar and oil in the recipe, add chopped bacon, and top with cheese and make a casserole. All the same flavors, a little less ‘fancy’ since they’re not flattened and wrapped, but honestly? Less work, very similar flavor – it’s a win-win in my book. So Don’t Throw Those ‘Chicken Breast’ Recipes Away!”

    Oh, Katie. Thank you. I haven’t made some of my recipes in years. And I’ve missed their flavors. I’m going to give it a shot (maybe reducing the original recipe so it’s not overpowering). Seriously. A whole index box full.


  5. I LOVE boneless skinless chicken breasts!! It’s all I ever use. Cutting up a whole chicken adds too much time to dinner prep and clean up. Plus a lot goes to waste becasue no one in the family eats the dark meat or the skin. Too slimy and chewy. I also have an aversion to bones, so all my meat is boneless, not just chicken. Just sitting here thinking about bones and chicken skin and slimy dark meat is making me gag.

    I buy boneless skinless chicken breats for $2.99/lb, which is about half the cost of a regular whole chicken (pastured organic ones are $12-15 each!). A 1 pound package will feed the family for a whole meal, but a whole chicken would not be enough white meat to feed everyone, even mixed into a recipe. So in our situation, boneless skinless are far less expensive than whole chickens! And I hardly ever use chicken broth, usually 1 can per month (70 cents per can, no MSG or artificial junk plus BPA free cans), making my own would cost me much more than 70 cents a month.

    Just my two cents:) However, I do appreciate learning ways to substitute ingredients… I lack kitchen creativity because I get so focused on cost savings and trying to find ways to spend less time in the kitchen, all while trying to cook and eat healthier.

  6. I don’t buy bscb much anymore either. Hardly ever, in fact. I don’t like the flavor as much as dark meat, and It seems really hard to cook them without them becoming dry and awful. I’ve never thought much about adapting recipes… I just do. I use what I have. I do buy a lot of thighs, but in a recipe for Mary Lou’s Chicken & Rice (a childhood fav of mine) I use raw pieces of whatever I have instead of raw pieces of breast. Sometimes stuff with bones and sometimes not. I guess I’m not very particular about sticking to a recipe!

  7. I hate to think of all the waste that goes into meeting the demand for boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

    I grill a whole chicken by cutting through the bottom, or back bone, and pressing it all out as much as possible. I butter and season it under the skin and rub the outside with oil and more seasoning. We have a small gas grill and leave it covered. I’m not sure how long it takes because I am bad about setting timers. I just keep checking by pressing the meat and looking for the pieces to move easily–maybe 7-8 min per side.

  8. Here’s a way to grill whole chickens that is really popular here in north Alabama. It was featured on Steven Raichlen’s Barbecue U. I found the recipe online at under smoked chicken. Basically you cut a whole chicken in half, season it and grill it with soaked hickory chips for over an hour. It is traditionally served with a white sauce made with mayo, cider vinegar and seasonings. Another idea for the grilling quandary is cutting chunks off the whole chicken & making kabobs.

  9. Great post Katie. I struggled with this at first when I started to buy whole chickens but I too do a little butchering if need be and get that breast right off the bone. My butcher shop sells Millers brand chicken which is not organic but it is pretty local and I often buy the chicken chopped into pieces already (breast, thigh, leg, wing) with bone still in and, gasp, skin in place too. This is the best way to make fried chicken (I use palm shortening from Tropical Traditions and love it!) and I get all my favorite dark meat parts while my husband gets his chicken breast.

  10. I think it’s less work to use the whole chicken than boneless skinless chicken breasts. I hated having to cut part the slimy raw meat, and I usually had to cook it first to start most recipes.

    Now I only have to throw the raw chicken in the crockpot to roast and pull the cooked meat from the bones. Then I have a whole bowl of cooked chicken pieces ready for whatever recipe.

    I guess I can’t use the recipes that call for whole breasts (not diced), but those were a headache anyway. They were so easy to dry out or not get thoroughly cooked. I don’t miss skinless boneless chicken breasts in the least!

  11. I can’t even remember the last time I bought boneless skinless chicken breasts.
    We occasionally buy chicken thighs, but usually we buy a whole chicken.
    A whole chicken is a much better value, and gives you a lot more to work with.

  12. Great post!!

    When I buy chicken from the farmers market, they only offer it in whole or quartered, so I ALWAYS have bones to deal with.

    I think just harvesting the breasts is an interesting strategy…. I also happen to love dark meat, So I actually sub thighs for breasts (especially if I buy from the grocery store since thighs tend to be cheaper).

    So if I need 2 whole chickens to yield 4 chicken breasts, I’ll also end up with 4 thighs!

    Maybe I need to ask Santa for a boning knife… 🙂

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