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Getting the Most from Leftover Chicken

Fine Cooking Issue 83
Photo: Scott Phillips
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Whether you have chicken remaining from your dinner, or you’ve roasted an extra chicken to get a head start on the week’s meals, you’ll be happier with the leftovers if you follow these handling tips:

Let chicken cool to room temperature and wrap it well in plastic wrap. I’ve found that well-wrapped chicken will stay relatively moist and tender in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

Don’t carve until you have to. Sliced, diced, and otherwise cut-up chicken dries out and spoils faster than a whole one, so keep the chicken whole or in big pieces (see below for tips on carving cold chicken).

Discard the skin. The crisp skin of a warm roast or grilled chicken is wonderful, but once it’s cold, the skin tends to become unpleasantly rubbery. For this reason, I don’t use it in my leftover dishes.

Match the meat to the preparation. Dark-meat leftovers tend to have a richer flavor and retain more moisture, so they’re perfect for cooked dishes, like stir-fries. White-meat leftovers are more apt to dry out when reheated, so their delicate flavor and texture do better in sandwiches and salads.

Keep the cooking to a minimum. As leftover chicken is already cooked (and as chicken is lean to start with, particularly the breast), it’s best to avoid further cooking. Whenever possible, I try to fold the chicken in at the end just to warm it up.

How much meat from a 4-lb. bird?

You can expect one 4-lb. roast chicken to serve four people nicely for dinner. A whole second bird should yield about 5 cups of meat, usually enough for 2 to 3 more meals, depending on the recipes.

How to carve

Because leftover chicken is generally cold when you work with it, it’s a lot easier to carve. I like to use a paring knife and my fingers to feel for the breastbone and pry off the breast meat, making sure to pick off any meat that remains on the bones. I then slice to the bone on the drumsticks and thighs, peel off the meat, and sort through and discard any fatty patches or gnarly tendons.

As good as the wings are when they’re hot, they’re not well suited to picking for leftovers—there’s little yield for all that work. So if they haven’t been eaten on the first go-round, I usually just sprinkle them with some salt and eat them cold while I work on my leftover dish.


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