If you go to the market or grocery, chicken, pork and beef are often sold by cut. There are cases though when labels are confusing. What are chicken tenders, for example. Which part of the chicken do they come from? What about pork hock and beef shank?
To make everything a little clearer, I prepared a series of illustrations for chicken, pork, beef and some seafood.
All about chicken
Let’s start with chicken. When you go to the market, do you buy your chicken whole or by part?
Parts of a chicken
If you buy your chicken whole, these are the portions you can get from it.
To cut up a whole chicken, always locate the joints and cut there.
When you have the chicken parts separated (or if you buy your chicken pre-cut by part), know that usage is not always interchangeable.
Chicken breast is white meat; all other parts have dark meat.
The neck and back of the chicken, for instance, are great for making bone broth because of the amount of bones they contain. The breast, meanwhile, which is more meat than bones, won’t make a flavorful broth.
Thighs, legs and wings are great for cooking fried chicken.
When a recipe calls for chicken drumette, what exactly is that? Chicken drumette is part of the wing. It looks like a small leg (drumstick). If you scrape the meat from the thin end and push it down or wrap it around the meat on the thick end, it’s sometimes called chicken lollipop.
The thigh and leg can cause confusion too. In the Philippines, the leg (drumstick) is sometimes referred to as paa (feet) which it isn’t.
Chicken fillet can come from the thigh or breast and it is sold either skin-on or skinless.
The chicken breast yields two fillets: the left and right sides. When a recipe says “1 chicken breast fillet”, it usually means the fillet from half of the breast. In other words, “1 chicken breast fillet” is NOT the same as fillet from one whole chicken breast.
Chicken tender (collectively, tenders) is the strip of meat between the fillet and the bone. Just like breast fillets, you get two tenders from one chicken breast.
To rinse or not to rinse raw chicken
When prepping chicken for cooking, do you rinse it first or not?
There are two schools of thought on the subject of rinsing.
The first says DO NOT rinse because you can contaminate your sink and everything around it with Campylobacter, Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Salmonella.
The second school of thought says go ahead and rinse BUT make sure to clean the sink and all areas where the chicken washing had splashed.
I belong to the second school of thought. I cannot — CANNOT — cook chicken without rinsing it first. Before the chicken reached the market, it had been handled in various ways by more than two people. No one is sure either what surface the cleaned chicken touched before it went into its packaging. So, I rinse.
Still connected with Salmonella, the current practice is to thaw frozen chicken overnight in the fridge. Why?
Once the temperature of chicken goes above 4°C (40°F) as it is likely to if left on the kitchen counter, bacteria start to grow. So, it is safer to thaw frozen chicken in the fridge and make sure that the temperature of the fridge is below 4°C (40°F).
Turkey, duck, quail and other fowl
I use “fowl” rather than poultry to refer to all edible birds, wild and domesticated.
Other fowl have similar body parts as chicken. However, meat characteristics differ. The breast meat of duck, for instance, is darker than the breast meat of chicken and turkey. Quail meat is tougher than chicken meat.
In other words, just because it’s a bird doesn’t mean it can be prepped and cooked like chicken. The offal is a whole different story altogether.
Pork and beef cuts
While it is simple enough to memorize the various parts of a chicken and other fowl, pork and beef (and other mammals) can be more challenging.
Names of meat cuts can be confusing
It took me a long time to learn the various cuts. In groceries and supermarkets, the names are in English but the English names aren’t always uniform.
For example, in some places, pork belly is called “bacon”, shoulder is labeled as “butt”, cheek is referred to as “jowl” and leg is sometimes used in lieu of “hock”. It’s a matter of usage and usage differs especially from one country to the next.
The same is true with beef. Every part is known by various names.
In the wet market, the meat parts go by local names. Considering how many languages and dialects there are in this country, heck, it pays to know what each part looks like and never mind what’s called.
When you go marketing, take note of the names of the various parts of the animal and ask the butcher (or vendor) where each part is located in the animal’s body.
Then, memorize what each part looks like. That way, if you go to another market where the names of the various parts of the animal are different, you can just tell the butcher that you want a kilo of meat from the back, neck, shoulder, bottom etcetera.
Every meat cut has its own characteristics
Just like chicken, there are parts of the hog and cattle that are great for steaks, stews, stir fries and so on. The less exercise an animal’s body part gets, the more tender the meat. The more exercise the body part gets, the tougher the meat.
In other words, you cannot make steak from beef shank nor can you cook tenderloin into a stew. That would be disastrous. When reading a recipe, always pay attention to the recommended cut of meat. If you have to substitute, choose a cut with similar characteristics.
Additional preparation for meat
Cutting the meat into the correct size and shape, whether or not it needs to be marinated or browned are all determined by the dish you intend to cook.
How to tenderize meat (how to make cheap tougher cuts deliver wonderful results!)
There are more seafood varieties than I am acquainted with. Some are not even sold in my part of the world. I will limit this section to the most common seafood cooked in an average home.
Big fish. Small fish. In terms of preparation for cooking, what do they have in common? The gills, scales and intestines have to be removed and discarded. Except in rare cases, I let the fishmonger do this for me because disposing of the unwanted parts at home can be a smelly affair.
Apart from that, prepping whole (small or medium-sized) fish and pre-cut fish differs.
Unless you run a restaurant, you don’t buy big fish whole. And when I say “big”, I mean fish that weighs over five kilos. Home cooks buy big fish by weight, often as steaks or fillets.
But smaller fish, either one for a single serving or to feed a family, you can buy whole. Whole fish requires scoring prior to cooking. Click here for the whys and how.
Shrimps and prawns
Most people think that “large” means prawn and “small” means shrimp. Not so.
Squids come in various sizes. Usually, the size determines how they are cooked. But, big or small, squids need to be cleaned and the inedible parts discarded before cooking.
Shellfish (bi-valve molluscs)
Oysters, clams, mussels and scallops are just among the various edible bi-valve molluscs. Preparations vary but scrubbing the shells clean is almost always the first step.
To find out if clams and mussels are fresh, dump into a large bowl and fill with water. Discard all that float to the surface. You can’t do this with oysters because the shells are so heavy that the oysters will always sink.
Next, you need to get rid of any dirt and impurities trapped inside the shell. I do this by soaking clams and mussels in water.
With mussels, when the shells open after soaking, you need to pull off the “beard” — the mass of threads that peek where the shells meet. It’s not trapped seaweed, trust me. It’s called byssus which the mussel uses to hold on to hard surfaces and it isn’t edible.
So, we’ve reached the end of Lesson #3. Next weekend, it’ll be prepping vegetables. Until then!