Chicken 101: A Detailed Guide to Thawing, Cooking, and Eating the Popular Protein Source
What did you have for dinner last night? There’s a good chance it was chicken. The poultry pick has earned the top spot as the most eaten meat in America. (1) And chicken’s popularity has continued to climb every decade since the 1960s. (2) In 2018, the consumption of chicken is estimated to reach 93 pounds per capita. That is a lot of bird!
What Chicken Is and How It Became a Staple in American Kitchens
The chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) that lands on your table today has roots that go back to 2,000 BCE, when the Southeast Asian red jungle fowl was domesticated in India. (3) Today, in the United States, the chickens sold are from Cornish and White Rock breeds.
Chicken raised to be sold as meat (rather than to produce eggs) are called broilers. Until the early 1900s in America, chicken production happened in the backyard. In 1923, one woman had a major win: She raised a flock of 500 chicks to be sold as meat in what was deemed the first commercial chicken success. (4)
In the decades that followed, the chicken industry grew, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture stepped in to grade the meat. Vertical integration (in which one company takes control of all stages of production) allowed the industry to expand to produce more birds. As of 1993, people in the United States were eating more chicken than beef or pork.
Nutrition Facts of Chicken: Calories, Protein, Fat, and More
The nutritional components of chicken will vary depending on the cut you’re eating. For instance, dark meat (thigh, drumstick) contains more calories per ounce than white meat (breast). Keeping the skin on will also add more total fat, including saturated fat. That said, for health reasons, you may be sticking to skinless breasts. Here are the stats for a 3.5-ounce (oz) boneless skinless chicken breast: (5)
Calories: 165 (8 percent daily value, or DV, based on a 2,000-calorie diet)
Protein: 31 grams (g) (62 percent DV) (6)
Fat: 3.6 g (6 percent DV) (7)
Saturated fat: 1 g (5 percent DV) (8)
Carbohydrate: 0 g (0 percent DV)
Fiber: 0 g (0 percent DV)
Sugar: 0 g (0 percent DV)
What Are the Proposed Health Benefits of Chicken?
As you can see from the nutrition stats, skinless chicken shines as a lean protein source. A chicken breast is a great source of quality protein for a modest number of calories and a small amount of fat. More important, it has especially little saturated fat, the type that’s linked with higher cholesterol levels and heart disease. (9) Chicken is more than just protein. It contains B vitamins like thiamine (vitamin B1), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), and pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), along with the minerals iron, zinc, and copper. (10)
The American Heart Association recommends that, along with vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, people give preference to lean proteins like chicken and fish over red meat like beef, pork, and lamb. (11) But that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. They recommend limiting consumption of lean proteins to 5½ oz or less per day total. Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate guidelines, proteins like chicken should make up about a quarter of your meal, but keep your portion to roughly the size of a deck of cards (about 3 ounces).
Is Chicken Good or Bad for Weight Loss, and Why?
Chicken isn’t a particularly magical food for weight loss, though it has been linked to a lower likelihood of becoming overweight or obese (as part of a vegetable-rich diet). (10)
Research does suggest that eating a high-protein diet can help you lose weight, and chicken can certainly play a central role in helping you eat more protein. Researchers suspect that high-protein diets can help you feel fuller, something that will help you eat fewer calories and carbs at the next meal. Ideally, eating 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal can decrease appetite, help you maintain a healthy weight, and improve cardiometabolic risk factors (like triglycerides, blood pressure, and waist circumference), according to a review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (12)
That said, how you cook the chicken matters. Methods like baking, roasting, or grilling are far more weight-friendly compared with deep frying or eating highly processed chicken products (like chicken nuggets).
How to Select and Store Chicken for the Best Quality Bird
When you're heading to the grocery store, have a plan. Buy items like whole-grain cereal, dry whole-grain pasta, canned low-sodium beans, and bulk food items first. Then, head to the fruits and vegetables. Finally, make a stop at dairy and meat/fish. Buying meats like chicken last ensures that it will be left out at room temperature for a minimum amount of time. (13) When buying packaged poultry, look at the sell-by, use-by, or expiration dates, and don’t buy chicken past that time.
Chickens are inspected by the USDA or the state you're in, and should have a seal on the package indicating as much. (3) Sometimes the package will also include a grading. The best, Grade A, means the chicken is plump, meaty, has clean skin, and is free of damage or discoloration. You’ll also want to read the ingredients. Some chicken has added salt or has been injected with a marinade to improve juiciness. If you have high blood pressure, you’ll want to steer clear of this type of chicken and opt to marinate your chicken by hand so you can control the amount of sodium. Seasoning your own chicken may also help you save money, because grocery stores sell meat by weight.
Regardless, any chicken you buy should be well-wrapped and intact (not torn or leaking). As soon as you get home, place it in your refrigerator or freezer. To make defrosting easier, rewrap pieces into smaller packages (in freezer-safe foil or plastic bags). Use whole chicken within one year of freezing (chicken pieces should be used within nine months) for best quality; to ensure you remember when to use it by, label each package with the date it was frozen. (14)
How to Cook Chicken: Methods, and Dos and Don’ts for Thawing Raw Chicken
Good cooking starts with safe food practices. After purchasing chicken, make sure you refrigerate it within two hours. (Your fridge should be set to 40 degrees or lower.) (15) Then, follow these tips for taking your bird from freezer or fridge to oven to your plate.
Eat soon. Plan your meals so that you cook the chicken breast within two days. (13) Otherwise, wrap the package with freezer-safe plastic wrap and freeze.
Thaw it right. It’s smart to store extra chicken in the freezer — it allows you to buy a package of chicken on sale to eat at a future date, and it reduces the likelihood of it going to waste. While thawing, it’s important to keep chicken at a temperature that’s 40 degrees or colder. Any warmer and bacteria can begin to grow. Here are dos and don’ts for thawing, according to the USDA: (16)
Don’t thaw food on the counter or in hot water.
Don’t leave frozen foods out at room temperature for more than two hours
Do take out of your freezer and thaw in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Cook within a day or two. (You can refreeze in this time frame if your plans change, but it may cause the chicken to lose quality.)
Do thaw in cold water when you need to thaw your chicken in a pinch. Submerge it in cold tap water, and change out the water every 30 minutes. How long it takes depends on the package, but 1 pound (lb) may take an hour, while a 3-lb package can take a couple of hours. The microwave is safe, too, but you must cook the chicken immediately.
Do go ahead and cook chicken frozen. Throw it in the oven, but cook it 50 percent longer.
Bake it. If boneless chicken breasts are what’s for dinner tonight, you should put a 4-oz breast in the oven (it will cook down to about 3 oz) for 20 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees F. Bone-in breasts are slightly larger (they’ll weigh 6 to 8 oz with the bone), so they need 30 to 40 minutes of in-oven time at 350 degrees F. Stuffing the breast? Add 15 to 30 minutes to ensure it's cooked all the way through. (3)
Get to the proper temp. Remember that the size of breasts can vary, so rather than pay attention to the exact cook time, the internal temperature is the most important indicator. Chicken should reach a temperature of 165 degrees F. Insert a food thermometer into the biggest part of the breast and do not let it touch any bones. (3)
Everyday Health Recipe Inspiration for Chicken
As the most popular protein, there’s no shortage of recipes. These ideas from Everyday Health are healthy and turn out delicious every time:
- Chef Calvin’s Fried Chicken
- Cabbage and Chicken Soup
- Chef Richard’s Chicken Pot Pie With Phyllo Crust
- Chopped Salad With Chicken, Salami, and Mozzarella
- Chicken and White Bean Soup
Chicken Alternatives: Which Veggie Proteins Taste Most Like Chicken?
If you love chicken but want to eat less of it, you have a few options. One is jackfruit, a tropical fruit that has the texture of pulled chicken. When cooked with similar flavors (like fajita spices or in chili), it’s an excellent meat replacement.
You can get similar satisfaction from soy-based proteins like tofu or tempeh when you toss them into a stir-fry in lieu of chicken. When rough chopped in a blender and combined with herbs and spices, chickpeas can also stand in for ground meat. (Yes, really.)
Seitan, a wheat-based protein (aka wheat gluten), is often used in store-bought meat substitutes, like imitation chicken strips and nuggets, and you can buy a package of it to cook with at home.
Plant-based protein products made by the company Beyond Meat are nearly identical to regular meat in taste, texture, and appearance and are made from soy and pea protein. The company sells a product called Beyond Chicken Strips, found in the frozen-food aisle. (17)
Does Eating Chicken Pose Any Health Risks to Be Concerned About?
Chicken is a popular meat — and if you’re a meat eater, you should enjoy it to the fullest — but it does come with a risk of foodborne illness. When raw, it can carry bacteria like Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Clostridium perfringens. Cooking or storing it improperly or cross-contamination from raw chicken juices can give you food poisoning. (1) Alarmingly, when it comes to complications from food poisoning, poultry is responsible for more deaths compared with other foods. (18)
To decrease your risk of being saddled with sickness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wrapping raw chicken packages in a disposable bag, washing your hands before and after handling chicken, not washing raw chicken (doing so can splatter chicken juices around), and using a separate cutting board for raw chicken. (1) Don’t forget to defrost and cook the chicken properly, and then store leftovers in the refrigerator within two hours.
If you do get sick, call your doctor if you run a fever of more than 101.5 degrees F, have diarrhea for more than three days or bloody stools, are vomiting so much you can’t keep liquids down, or are dehydrated. (1)
Concerned about a recall? Check out a list of the current recalls and alerts on the United States Department of Agriculture’s website. This is where the Food Safety and Inspection Service releases their latest public health alerts.
FAQs About Chicken: Calories in a Breast, How Long It Takes to Bake, How to Defrost, and More
Q: How many calories are in a chicken breast?
A: In one 3.5-oz roasted boneless skinless breast there are 165 calories (5). If you eat a same-size roasted breast with the skin, you’ll consume 197 calories. (19)
Q: How much protein is in a chicken breast?
A: Aside from having less fat (provided you don’t eat the skin), where chicken really stands out is its protein content. Each 3.5-oz cooked breast packs an impressive 31 g of protein, which is more than half the recommended daily intake of protein. (5,6)
Q: How long should I bake a chicken breast?
A: Bake a 4-oz boneless breast for 20 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees F. A 6- to 8-oz bone-in breast should be baked for 30 to 40 minutes at 350 degrees F. In either case, check the internal temperature with a food thermometer (insert into the biggest part of the breast being sure not to hit the bone). Chicken should be cooked to 165 degrees F. (3)
Q: What is the best way to defrost a chicken?
A: You can thaw a chicken in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight or for 24 hours. To thaw in a bowl of cold water (which should be changed every 30 minutes), plan for the thaw to take 30 minutes for a pound of chicken. (14) If you choose to thaw in the microwave, cook the chicken immediately.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Chicken and Food Poisoning. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 20, 2017.
- Consumption of Poultry and Livestock, 1965 to Estimated 2018, in Pounds. National Chicken Council. June 4, 2018.
- Chicken From Farm to Table. United States Department of Agriculture. March 24, 2015.
- U.S. Chicken Industry History. National Chicken Council.
- Chicken, Broilers or Fryers, Breast, Meat Only, Cooked, Roasted. United States Department of Agriculture. April 2018.
- The Skinny on Fats. American Heart Association. April 30, 2017.
- Marangoni F, Corsello G, Cricelli C, et al. Role of Poultry Meat in a Balanced Diet Aimed at Maintaining Health and Well-Being: An Italian Consensus Document. Food & Nutrition Research. June 2015.
- Eat More Chicken, Fish, and Beans. American Heart Association. March 26, 2017.
- Leidy HJ, Clifton PM, Astrup A, et al. The Role of Protein in Weight Loss and Maintenance. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. June 2015.
- Keep Food Safe! Food Safety Basics. U.S. Department of Agriculture. December 20, 2016.
- Storage Times for the Refrigerator and Freezer. FoodSafety.gov.
- Refrigerator Thermometers: Cold Facts About Food Safety. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. November 15, 2017.
- The Big Thaw — Safe Defrosting Methods for Consumers. U.S. Department of Agriculture. June 15, 2013.
- Products. Beyond Meat.
- Painter JA, Hoekstra RM, Ayers T, et al. Attribution of Foodborne Illnesses, Hospitalizations, and Deaths to Food Commodities by Using Outbreak Data, United States, 1998–2008. Emerging Infectious Diseases. March 2013.
- Chicken, Broilers or Fryers, Breast, Meat and Skin, Cooked, Roasted. U.S. Department of Agriculture. April 2018.