Many of us habitually turn to skinless, boneless chicken breasts for a fast supper, and automatically substitute ground turkey for ground beef. Yet we forget about chicken thighs, turkey cutlets, duck breast, and quail―all of which offer wonderful, rich flavors. Here we explore them all.
Whole chickens are marketed by weight. Broiler-fryers are about 7 weeks old, and they weigh 3 to 4 pounds. They're good for making stock (they're not as meaty as roasters) and will work in any recipe that calls for a cut-up fryer. Roasters, at 3 to 5 months old, weigh 4 to 7 pounds. If you want to bake a whole chicken, look for a roaster―they have the highest meat-to-bone ratio. Stewing hens, at 10 months to 1 1/2 years old, are literally tough old birds, best used for chicken and dumplings or soup; when roasted, they're almost jaw-exhausting.
Cornish game hen is a misnomer. These small birds are actually a cross between Cornish game roosters and White Rock hens; despite the gender-specific name, both male and female birds are sold. At a month old, they weigh about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. Roasting works best for these petite birds.
Chicken parts come packaged in many ways in today's markets. The Cooking Light Test Kitchens use boneless, skinless chicken breasts a great deal. Try chicken tenders, which save prep and cooking time. For long simmering in dishes that feature hearty flavors, use thighs―either bone-in or skinless, boneless thighs. Their slightly higher fat content and firmer flesh help them stand up to longer cooking. You'll be hard-pressed to find recipes in Cooking Light that use wings because their high skin-to-bone ratio makes them high in fat. Wings are usually inexpensive, however, and can be used to make stock, since you'll skim the fat anyway.
Whole turkeys are often sold by the sex of the bird. Hens weigh up to 16 pounds, while toms weigh more. There is no flavor difference; buy the size that suits your needs, figuring about 1 pound (including skin and bones) per person to allow for seconds and leftovers.
Not long ago, Americans saw turkey only at holiday meals―and always whole. Turkey cuts have come a long way. Newer ones include skinless, boneless turkey breast halves (sometimes labeled "turkey London broil"); turkey cutlets (often labeled "turkey breast filets"), a fine substitute for veal in a scaloppine; and turkey tenderloins. Turkey breast is very lean, so keep a close eye on these cuts to avoid overcooking.
Ground turkey comes in several types, so read the label to be sure you get what you want. The leanest (about 3% fat) is white meat only, with no skin. It's labeled "ground turkey breast." Regular "ground turkey" is made from white and dark meat with some skin, and is about 10% fat (similar to ground round). Frozen ground turkey is usually all dark meat with skin, and is 15% fat, similar to ground sirloin. Italian turkey sausage is a fine way to get Mediterranean flavor with low fat (about 10% fat for the turkey version, compared to an average 30% for pork). You'll find it in both mild and spicy versions.
For a sophisticated meal, it's hard to surpass duck's rich flavor. Like turkey, the bird is now frequently sold in parts. Your gourmet market, for example, may carry boned duck breast and leg quarters. The quarters are great for ragouts (remove the skin before cooking, and skim the fat from the broth). Duck skin is thick and fatty, but duck meat has little marbling and is only about 2% fat. Whole duck at supermarkets is usually of the Pekin variety. You can usually find whole duck or duck parts in the freezer case.
Boneless duck breast (often sold by its French name, magret) usually comes from the Moulard duck, a cross of the Pekin and Muscovy varieties. In preparing duck breast, think of it as the steak of the poultry world: Cook it past medium-rare, and you'll lose flavor and compromise its texture. Duck is the only poultry that Cooking Light recommends serving medium-rare.
These dainty birds (weighing only about 8 ounces each) have mild flesh that's well suited to bold flavors. Whole birds used to be the norm, but semiboned birds are now available. Look for quail in your supermarket's freezer section or at specialty butcher shops.