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Monday, 8 November 2010

Mugged by chicken, and a good chicken stock

I was talking about cheap food in my last post, and how cheap isn’t necessarily a good deal.  There are two meanings of the word “cheap”, aren’t there?  One is “wow, that’s a bargain” and the other is “cheap and nasty.”  Pardon the pun, but nothing goes “cheap, cheap, cheap” like a low-price chicken, and, sadly, it is often cheap and very nasty.

Not that long ago, less than a generation, chicken was not a cheap meal; for many families, it was a luxury.  It was probably at least three times the price of today’s bargain basement birds in real terms, but, by goodness, it tasted great.  In the interim, food factories (I hesitate to call them farmers) learned to produce eggs by the battery cage system, and unsurprisingly realised that they could use similar methods to turn their poultry into meat producing, as well as egg producing, machines.  Enter the intensively-reared chicken.

Others have written voluminously, and argued persuasively, about the morals of this, and of the animal welfare implications, and I am one of many who are uncomfortable eating a creature that has been treated so badly during its short and unpleasant life.  But I want to look at it from a slightly different angle, which is that whenever you buy one of these beasts, you are being ripped off, not given a bargain.

Why?  Because it’s not chicken, that’s why.  You’re paying for chicken, but you’re not getting chicken, and that is fraud, in my book.  You’re being mugged by a chicken, or at least the chicken producer.

All classic cons work by the mark (that’s you) either thinking they’re getting something free, or at least getting a tremendous bargain.  Many work on greed, but in this case it’s often something simpler and sadder; someone on a limited budget trying to feed themselves and their families.  If you’re strapped for cash, or at least not rolling in the dough, the three dollar/pound/euro bird looks like the answer to a prayer.

But you ain’t getting a chicken.  Oh, ok, it’ll pass a DNA test; its protoplasm is chicken, for sure.  But a defiled, degraded, denatured, de-flavoured bird it is.  In the words of Neil Young, “You pay for this, but they give you that”.  You, with the lowest budget, have just been conned out of your three currency units, and that money could certainly have been better used elsewhere.

Yet you need to feed yourself, and your family: what do you do?  Well, I mentioned in the last blog that if you fancy steak, but don’t have steak money, then find an alternative that fits your budget.  When you want chicken for dinner, wait until you can afford real chicken, not the nasty, tasteless pap that passes for it.  Don’t fall into the trap of giving them your hard-earned and limited wages for something that just isn’t what it promises.  Get something that’s “wow, what a bargain” cheap, and not “cheap and nasty”.

I don’t know why we seem to want food that costs us virtually nothing, without wondering how it got to be that cheap.  We all understand that we may not be able to have that dream holiday, that designer dress, that sports car, or new computer this year, and either wait, save up, or get something within our budget – or we use our credit cards, and eventually find out just what that costs us in the long run.

Yet we don’t question that some foods shouldn’t be a cheap as they are: we are used to everything on demand, right here, right now, and at a price we can afford.  Yes, consumer power is important, and has driven manufacturers and retailers to bring prices down in many cases.  But some things just can’t be too cheap without a drastic reduction in quality.

If I have convinced you to buy only a quality, at least free-range chicken, then I’d better justify myself, and tell you how to get the best out of it.

You probably have your favourite chicken recipes: go ahead and use them and tell me you can’t taste the difference,  I’m going to tell you how to get at least one more meal, and an almost free high quality ingredient out of your chicken, and that is to make a good stock from the remains.

I’m always amazed when even good, experienced cooks think that there is a mystery to making stock, or that it’s too much of a fuss.  At its most simple, all you are doing is covering a chicken carcass with water, simmering it for a few hours, then straining off the liquid.  But here’s a more detailed, but still very simple way to do it.

I’m not going to be specific about quantities: I don’t know how big your pots are, or how big the chicken(s), or whether there are particular flavourings and aromatics you love or loathe – treat the following as a rough guide, and adapt it to your own requirements.


One or more chicken carcasses, broken up a little – grab all the bones off the plates too, they are going to be very well sterilised, so no problem.  Include the skin and any other bits.
One large carrot (or two small, or three tiny etc), peeled, topped, tailed, cut into large chunks.
One medium onion (or two small, etc) peeled, topped, tailed and halved
One or two sticks of celery, cleaned and roughly chopped or broken into bits
Three or four large cloves of garlic, peeled and halved
8-12 whole black peppercorns


Tip the whole lot into your biggest pot, and cover with cold water.  Bring to the boil, then simmer, the heat being correct when it is hardly bubbling.  Skim off any nasty looking scum that rises to the surface.  Keep simmering for at least three hours.

Strain through a fine sieve, preferably lined with muslin or similar.  Don’t worry if you haven’t got any muslin, the results will be fine, just maybe not as crystal clear.

Now, you have two choices.  Use the stock as it is, perhaps to turn into a soup (any left over chicken meat?), or to boil noodles, or to make a risotto or paella…  Or reduce the stock down until it is much stronger, and will set to a jelly when cold.  Reducing is simple, if you don’t know.  Return your stock to the (cleaned) pan, and boil rapidly until the stock is perhaps a quarter of its starting volume.

Either the basic or reduced stock can be used fresh, or can be frozen for later use.  I often freeze it down in pint quantities, but also in ice cube trays – just one or two of these home made, intensively flavoured stock ice-cubes added to a dish beats the shop bought dry “crumbly” ones hands down. 

Add the salt you avoided earlier when using the stock in your final recipe.


  1. I couldn't agree more about the chicken issue. I can remember a time when I could buy four frozen chicken breasts, that turned out to be just chicken when they were defrosted. These days, we've had to give up buying frozen chicken because a) it tastes bad and b) it degenerates into mush once defrosted. I am quite sure that this is why Iceland (for one) have brought out the "cook from frozen" chicken (bleagh)recently. In the hope that you "won't notice" the mush aspect. Go to your local butcher! They need your custom more than the supermarket - and they can even work out cheaper. (Of course, this assumes you've got the money in the first place, which I know can be an issue for some folk, as it was for us for many years). We went to our butcher for three chicken breasts and came out with 5 for £5. £1 each! You won't find yourself paying that for "fresh" chicken breasts at the Supermarket -and they taste a world apart. Can't beat it.

  2. Absolutely, Jenny. Buying cheap and nasty frozen anything is usually a false economy - especially if someone is on a low budget. It's actually stealing your money - to quote Neil Young "You pay for this and they give you that..."

    Play the game with the supermarkets: load up with their offers and bogofs, then do all your other shopping locally. Often better quality, and better value.