Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Which Chicken Cuts are the Better Deal?

So part of my goal for this month's grocery challenge is to do a better job figuring out what really is and isn't a good deal.

One of the things I've been puzzling over is how to compare different cuts of meat. Since the only meat I'm regularly eating at the moment is chicken, that's what I focused on.

The best price I can regularly get on chicken is $.79/lb for chicken leg quarters. But obviously, a good portion of what you're getting when you buy leg quarters is bone & skin. So how do you compare that price to, say boneless/skinless chicken breasts?

Well... fortunately, I came upon this document published by the Texas Agricultural Extension which addresses just this issue.

According to the document,on average these are the percentages of actual meat in various cuts of chicken:

  • Boneless/Skinless Breasts or Thighs: 100%
  • Whole Chicken: 58% 
  • Split Breasts: 68% 
  • Thighs: 66% 
  • Drumsticks: 58% 
  • Leg Quarters: 62%  (they didn't list leg quarters separately, so I averaged the thigh and drumstick percentages to get this number)

So if leg quarters are $.79/lb that's equivalent of $1.27/lb for the actual meat (excluding bone and skin.)
To calculate this number for your own situation, take the price per pound of the cheapest cut you can regularly buy and divide it by the percentage of actual meat in that cut. For example: .79/.62 = 1.27.

From there we can extrapolate the equivalent prices of other cuts of chicken. So to equal the $.79/lb price for leg quarters I'd need to hit the following prices:

$1.27/lb or better for boneless/skinless (1.27 x 1)
$.73/lb for whole chicken or drumsticks (1.27 x .58)
$.86/lb for split breasts (1.27 x .68)
$.84/lb for thighs (1.27 x .66)

This, of course, doesn't take into account the intangibles like being able to make stock with the bones & skin.

I haven't been able to find anything even close to the prices I'd need to make the other cuts worthwhile... plus, I really do prefer dark meat to white. So for the moment I'll stick with my $.79/pound leg quarters... at least until they go on sale for $.49/pound, at which point I hope there's lots of room in my freezer! That'll give me incentive to step up my efforts to get it defrosted!

So how about you, do you have a system for comparing prices of "almost the same" items?


  1. Wow, very cool - I'm impressed that someone figured all that out! I'll use that info when I'm buying chicken for my husband. Thanks!

    I usually look at ingredients or the packaging if two things are really close in price by ounce.

    1. Pricing by the ounce is the way to go, I think. But I'm finding that I'm gonna have to either beef up my math skills or get better at using the calculator on my old flip phone because not all the stores list the per-unit price, and those that do sometimes list one product by the ounce and the next one by the pound or some other unit. Sigh.

  2. Great info, thanks for sharing!
    Now, can you convince my chickens to put on some more dark meat? I also prefer dark meat to light. Oh well.

    1. Ha! But you bring up an interesting question. Have you ever done a cost analysis of all the feed and other supplies that it takes to raise one chicken to see how the price compares over buying them? I suppose it's sort of an apples & oranges comparison since what you're getting when you raise it yourself is infinitely better than what you buy in the store. But there is the slaughtering them part... don't think I could make myself do it.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this :) I have been wondering about this since I started buying meat, but haven't been able to wrap my head around the figures.

    I currently buy organic chicken drumsticks for around $8 a kilo ($4 a pound). I'd love to buy whole chickens but they are more expensive at $10.50 a kilo. Judging from your table I should stick to the drumsticks, but it's good to know if I see them on sale.

    1. I made myself a little chart, though I doubt I'll find anything even close to the price of those leg quarters.

      I go back and forth in terms of organic vs. regular. Organic is 4-5 times as expensive. Part of me thinks it would be worth considering since I'm sure it's healthier... and there is the ethical issue as well. Though the fact that the leg quarters are so cheap indicates to me that they're not in very high demand so I can sorta convince myself that they might go to waste if I didn't buy them. (I'll just keep telling myself that...)

  4. Thanks, Cat! This is much more precise than what I have gone on with bone-in chicken. I've always assumed that roughly half of the bone-in is bones/skin. But I like the precise info.

    The only other thing that I consider with bone-in vs boneless, is how much actual meat will be "wasted" by either being "stuck" on the bone (the bits that I just can't tear off after making stock), or if we're eating the meat off the bone, will one of my family not eat close to the bone? One of my kids will not get near the bone, so a lot gets wasted, and boneless is a better choice for this person.

    Do your stores ever have the 10 lb bags of leg quarters? One of our stores has those for 49-59 cents a pound from time to time. They are the best deal I find on chicken here.

    I wonder if the whole chicken percentage is about equal to whole turkey percentage? In November I buy a few whole turkeys for 30 cents a pound. That would be somewhere around 52 cents per pound. I have one last turkey in the freezer to roast.

    Thanks for the info.

    1. Good point about the wasted meat... although I find that to be much more likely with a whole bird than with just the leg quarters - the neck and back and all those pieces are hard to get all the meat off of.

      I don't know about turkeys but I'd imagine the figures would be similar. I'm sure someone's done a study though!

      And yes, several of the stores carry those giant 10 pound bags of leg quarters. At the moment they're the same price as the ones from King Soopers ($.79/lb) but they do go on sale a few times a year - usually around the time of BBQing holidays like Memorial Day, July 4 etc. So until they're on sale, I'll stick with the convenience of getting them from King Soopers.

      The main problem I have with those big bags is that they're all frozen together, and I haven't figured out a good method for defrosting them. I tried leaving one in the refrigerator, but 3 days later it was still solid as a rock. And it won't fit in the microwave... any suggestions?

    2. Hi Cat,
      I've never had all the leg quarters glommed onto each other. Sometimes a couple of them are "attached" in a small spot, and I can break them off from one another. Yeah, 10 solid pounds of meat won't defrost in 3 days. At Thanksgiving, I always set my turkey (which is not a solid hunk of meat, but somewhat hollow), in the fridge on the Saturday before, and it still isn't completely defrosted on Thursday. You may have to let the lump of leg quarters thaw an additional 2 days in the fridge. Or else, a chain saw?

    3. Thanks Lili,

      I'm thinkin' chainsaw! :-)

    4. Thanks for the math. I will use it when shopping. I too prefer the bone-in quarters.

      Meanwhile, to separate frozen legs, I fill a bucket with lukewarm water about halfway before lowering in the bag of legs. Put the bucket into the fridge and change the water every few hours.

      Late the next day, you can separate the frozen legs with a little elbow grease. Very little skin is ripped off with a bit of practice. Re-Freeze the separated legs in packs of 2 or four with something like wax paper or whatever you have to prevent them from sticking together again.

    5. Hey Ned - Thanks for the tip. I'm not entirely sure a bucket will fit into my fridge, but I'll certainly give it a try!

  5. Price is important but is it the only consideration? If you prefer dark meat is it worthwhile to buy white meat on sale only because it is cheaper. Also, how you want to cook it enters into consideration - I really like chicken cacciatore and that requires chicken with skin and on the bone.

    That said, I usually buy boneless / skinless chicken thighs. Portioning - a nice meaty thigh is more generous than a drumstick.

    If you want to make stock look for packages of stripped back and neck portions. Usually inexpensive, and you can always pick off the meat after making the stock. Chicken noodle soup, chicken and rice soup, add sausage for chicken & sausage gumbo soup.

    Read up on Chinese and Japanese recipes. They create delicious meals with minimal meat, moderate to generous vegetables, and ample rice or noodles.

    1. Those are all excellent points. For the purpose of this little grocery challenge, I'm trying to keep things as cheap as possible, though I agree there are other considerations in the grand scheme of things.

      I've never seen packages of back and neck portions - hmmm... I'll have to keep an eye out. The last time I was at the Asian market they had big bags of chicken feet... but I'm not quite sure I could "go there" if you know what I mean! :-)

      The other thing that I'm having issues with is that I'm sort of a novice in terms of meat preparation. I was a vegetarian for most of my adult life and only recently gave it up for health reasons. I still don't quite have the hang of dealing with raw meat. I haven't figured out how to cut it... it just seems really difficult to me. Maybe I don't have the right tools? Plus, I'm totally paranoid about salmonella, so I try not to handle the raw meat very much. And then there's the "OMG - I'm cutting up a dead animal" factor, which I think I'm just gonna have to learn to come to terms with.

      So far, my best success has been just tossing it in the oven and roasting it, and then adding cooked meat to various meals. Not the most elegant solution, I know, but it's working for me. Maybe there's some sort of "remedial meat class" out there for recovering vegetarians! :-)

    2. Chicken feet (sold as "chicken paws" at my local Shoprite supermarket) are very high in gelatin, help make a rich, strong stock. They are also edible - would you believe the USA exports chicken feet to China because ours are much more sizeable!

      Cutting meat is really simple if you give it just a little attention. The different muscle groups have a thin, transparent membrane separating them. So a sharp knife and your fingers take the larger chunk into smaller pieces.

      Sharp is what you want for your knife. Get a small sharpener - one side coarse, other side fine - and touch up the blade before you use it, every time.

      It's good to be careful but no need to be paranoid. Have one cutting board for meat and another for vegetables, fruit, etc. Scrub the meat cutting board after use. If you want to feel really secure boil some water in a tea kettle and rinse the board with boiling water after cleaning.

      I find that the less expensive cuts of meat - beef chuck, for example, also chicken (poule au pot, anyone?) - have the most flavor and will cook up very tender if cooked low and slow - small flame under heavy pot with tight fitting lid and only a minimum of liquid, or in a 225 / 250 degree Fahrenheit oven again in heavy pot / little liquid. The technique is called braising, and it's a favorite of mine. Try it, and I think you'll really like it too.

    3. Hmmmm... I think the membrane thing is where my trouble was. Do you cut through it, or separate the piece at the membrane?

      Maybe I'll get brave and try the chicken feet... I dunno... but it does sound like they make for good broth.

      And with the braising thing for chicken... do you use skinless pieces? I tried this method with some leg quarters and the skin was sort of disgusting and mushy. Or do you just remove the skin before serving?

    4. If you follow the membrane then the muscle fiber bundles in the meat are all in the same direction. If you cut across the membrane the muscle fibers are cut and likely to shrink awkwardly when browned.

      Here's more-or-less how I do chicken cacciatore:
      Dust the chicken pieces (with skin and bones) with flour. I use thighs, can also use breast. Heat oil in a heavy pot and brown the chicken pieces. Set aside.

      In same pot over moderate heat saute carrots in thick slices, chopped celery, and coarsely cut onion. When onions are somewhat softened and carrot pieces perhaps beginning to brown return chicken thighs to pot making sure they are on top of the vegetables.

      For 6 to 8 chicken thighs add one small can of petite diced tomatoes (if I remember in time I thaw my own oven roasted tomatoes lurking in the freezer.) Add 1/2 cup of wine - I prefer a coarse red, Beaujolais Nouveau for example, some people prefer white wine. You want the chicken above, not in, the liquid.

      Cover the pot. If lid is loose, lay a piece of tin foil over the pot, then cover with the lid. Simmer gently for about 20 minutes. If including chicken breasts dd them at this point, and simmer for about 25 to 30 minutes longer.

      Remove the chicken pieces and set aside, covered with tin foil or the pot lid or something. If the vegetables and pan juices are thick enough, go ahead and serve. If the pan juices are thin, scoop out vegetables and reduce liquids over medium heat.
      Serve chicken, vegetables, and pan juices over wide noodles. Leftovers are delicious - reheat as is, use for chicken pot pie, chicken hash.

      If you don't like the skin, remove before serving. It does add to the flavor while cooking.

    5. Wow! Thank you SOOOO MUCH! I think I have a better idea why I had such a hard time cutting up the raw chicken, I was "going against the grain" so to speak.

      And that recipe sounds yummy! I'll have to make some substitutions as I'm deathly allergic to celery, and carrots are on the "be careful" list. I'm thinking maybe I'll try green peppers and mushrooms. Perhaps the key is browning the chicken first and putting it on top of the veggies so it doesn't get soggy. I think I see some chicken cacciatore in my future!

    6. Timing is everything! What did I find on-line today but Melissa Clark of the New York Times with a 3 1/2 minute video on how to cut up a whole chicken!

    7. I'm having visions of the Muppet's Swedish Chef... OK, I'll go watch it now. Thanks for the link!:-)

    8. Wow... that was actually more helpful than I imagined. She made it look so easy... no cursing or yelling like (ahem) my last attempt. Well, if I find a good deal on whole chickens I'll know what to do!

  6. No matter how low sale prices get on (shade-grown) chocolate bars, it's always cheaper (so far) for me to get (shade-grown) chocolate chips in bulk.

    And it's a lot cheaper to get 9% vinegar and use less than to get 5% vinegar (I think those are the typical percentages).

    When I found out my sister uses white whole wheat flour for everything, I compared prices to whole wheat pastry flour (which I use for everything), and found that whole wheat pastry flour was cheaper (and more easily available where I live). So I won't be switching.

    Frozen fruit is usually cheaper and often yummier than "fresh," even without accounting for wasted peels, seeds, etc. I use that (except for bananas) for fruit salad, now.

    I've wanted to compare cocoa and chocolate chips for items where either could be used (like frosting), but you also have to account for adding extra butter and sweetener to the cocoa and you have to calculate price per cup rather than price per pound, so I haven't done it yet. Although if I ever get a good cocoa frosting recipe, I'll do it. Or maybe just compare the cost of the two recipes. (Chocolate chips + milk = delicious frosting, by the way. My original recipe called for cream, but even skim milk works. Water may also work, but I haven't tried it.)

    1. Those are great suggestions! I'm thinking that the frozen fruit thing is at the top of my list to try - they have good prices at (believe it or not) the Dollar store, I think they had peaches for $1/pound! And that's peeled and pitted!

      BTW - I checked in the deli section and found Parmesan cheese by the hunk... at about half the cost of the grated stuff. Woo Hoo!!! I guess it pays to check out all those sections of the store that I don't generally frequent!

    2. The thing about fruit is they have to wait until it's ripe to freeze it, but they have to pick fresh fruit while it's still green to ship it. (And then I have to guess which fresh fruit will taste good--which I stink at.) Another good thing about frozen fruit is smoothies. I hope you like it.

      Ha! You found their hiding place for Parmesan cheese! You win the Daring Detective Award! (Actually, that was the reward for reading 12 books in this one summer book club I was part of as a kid, but I'm sure you've read 12 books in one summer before, too.) Now you get to stand at the grater, using the tiny-hole side. Time-consuming. Might be a good way to take out aggression, unless you accidentally grate a knuckle. I think some people use their food processor, too, but I'm afraid of cleaning those with no dishwasher (plus they use electricity).

      Last time I tried detecting, I found out that all my local stores give away their day-old bread to food banks. As they should, of course. So there was no hiding place for me to find.

    3. My dad actually has this very cool hand held rotary cheese grater for Parmesan. You just stick a hunk inside it, hold it over your food and turn the crank. I think I'll have to keep a lookout for one at the thrift store as I'm too cheap to buy one new... that would sorta cancel out any savings I might get buying it in hunks!

  7. OK. So I am going to refrain from commenting on the living conditions and dying conditions that our .79 cents a pound chicken endured. You have to factor that into the price.

    At my local Whole Paycheck, I mean Whole Foods market, whole chickens that are raised compliant with "Level 5" rating requriemetns -- that means pasture raised, free roaming -- are $3.99 a pound. They are scrawny compared to the frankenchickens, but what's a slightly less disturbed conscience worth?

    1. Well, I'm in total agreement about the farming system and the welfare of the chickens, not to mention the antibiotics and hormones. So I may go back to organic chicken - but here it costs more like $7.99/lb, so grass fed beef might actually be cheaper.

      But I also think that so many of these terms "free roaming" "pasture raised" etc have become practically meaningless as they've grown in popularity. I saw a documentary where chicken farmers were interviewed, and they showed two identical barns - one for the regular chickens, and one for the "free roaming pasture raised" ones. The only difference was that the the "pasture raised" ones had a tiny 10 x 10 "courtyard" where they could go outside - and where they often were attacked by predators. And said predators were often trapped & killed in a rather inhumane way in the service of protecting the chickens. It made me question whether that was a benefit worth 10 times the price.

      I think if I was more convinced that there was a meaningful difference in the way the chickens were treated, I would probably be more committed to paying the higher price. Of course, there's also the fact that the amount of chicken I consume is trivial compared to the amount consumed by my feline companions, and I don't think the chicken in their food - even the really expensive stuff - is organic or free range or anything.

      It's all such a balancing act, and I'm always left feeling like I'm caught between numerous bad choices. At the moment, since my income has taken a pretty big hit this year, and with Sputty's illness my kitty expenses (even with insurance) have more than tripled, I'm sticking with the most frugal choices.

    2. Good points. Here where I am in Maryland, a friend of mine actually drove around to a bunch of different farms and found one -- run by religious people who have the whole stewardship ethos -- where she actually observed the chickens roaming freely. So I got the scoop from her and I buy those products when I feel I can. Now, I don't know about predation, but I'd rather get picked off by a hawk than live ... You know, the way they have to live. But, I grant you it's much more expensive even at 3.99 a lb, which seems to be a pretty reliable price point here for this product. But still, I too often feel that I have not very good choices. Try to give my cats home made chicken for some meals, and with 7 cats here, I usually can't afford 3.99 a pound.

    3. Wow... I've never fed my cats homemade food, although I've been tempted. And when you look at the price per ounce of their ridiculously expensive cat food, it comes out to about $4/pound anyhow! Of course, you have to add supplements etc in order to make homemade food nutritionally adequate for them, and I'm sure that adds to the cost. Maybe someday I'll tackle that one.

      I have a friend who feeds her cats a raw food diet - something called Rad Cat. One of her cats just turned 13 and had her very first vet appointment! She's in PERFECT health, with perfect teeth and everything. Sorta makes you think...

      Anyhow, they've recently passed a new ordinance allowing people to raise their own chickens here in Denver, and part of me thinks this would be the ideal solution... I just don't think I could eat something I'd raised and loved. I'm such a hypocrite, I know. Sigh.

  8. Good topic here. One way of looking at the price of meat is to remember that if it is about $1.60/lb, that translates into 10 cents/ounce. $3.20 would translate to 20 cents/ounce. Those of us who are at the 'modest' level of income in this society can eat all we want of food that costs 10 cents/ounce. At 20 cents, it's time to be careful. At, say, 30 cents, then we're in danger of running out of money before our bellies are full. One benefit is that it keeps us away from most frozen meals. Some of them are outrageously more expensive.

    I'm sorry to be a wet blanket, but my advice is to give up on any notion of eating 'organic'. Not just because we can't afford it, either. The real reason is that our society can no longer divorce ourselves from Big Agriculture. Should we try to do so, then about 2 out of 3 people who are on this Earth will simply have to look elsewhere for their food supply. And that's just a euphemistic way of saying that they'll have to die because there simply is no other place for them to look.

    I really am sorry to say it; I wish it were otherwise. But big ag really is feeding a good chunk of the world's seven billion (and rising) population and truly organic, i.e.; non-fossil fueled, agriculture can not do it.

    Rather than embrace a style that can not do the job, we should seek to reform the style that, conceivably, can. The more reform, the more expense plus the possibility of reducing the world's food supply below the critical level. So it needs to be done carefully.

    1. Ha! OK... so I'm calculating the price per ounce for my kitties' ridiculously expensive cat food, and let me assure you, they're living the life of Riley!

      And that's a very interesting take on the whole organic vs. conventional argument... and one that I had not considered previously. My personal (and somewhat cynical) take on it is that there are just WAY too many people on this planet. But that's a rant for another day.

  9. Thanks for the analysis. I will use your tips!

    1. You are most welcome! It always makes me so happy when something I toss out into the universe is actually helpful to someone!

  10. Perfect. I use the same chicken quarters and I've been debating the value of bone-in vs boneless. This article is 5 years old and the quarters are still the same price(actually, on sale for $4.90 for the 10lb bag right now)so, I guess there's something to be said for that. Thanks. This was very helpful.

    1. You are quite welcome. I'm comforted to know I'm not the only grocery shopping nerd on the planet! :-)

  11. Ik this is an old article buy when y'all were talking about how to break chicken apart? I slam it on the ground like a bag of ice. Best way I figured to do. 😊

    1. Hahahaha! That's actually a great idea, but the visual on that one is priceless. I'm picturing a "rage room" sort of setup! :-)


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