There’s a lot to learn about managing your own life as an adult, especially if you’re first starting out. Two of the major learning areas are managing money and feeding yourself.
Many people don’t grow up knowing how to cook. Plus, it’s really easy to open a box or pick up some take-out when it’s time to eat. But the cost of convenience is high, and it can hit your wallet pretty hard if you aren’t careful.
On the flip side, learning how to cook for yourself can seem pretty difficult, especially if you haven’t done much cooking before. It’s fairly common knowledge that making your meals at home is a major cost savings compared to buying convenience foods and eating at restaurants frequently… but what if you have no idea how to get started?
There’s a ton of information published online and in books about saving money by cooking. One of my personal favorite things is what I call the “rubber chicken” -- taking a whole chicken and “stretching” it to 3 meals, or even more.
Roasting a chicken is about as easy as it gets in the kitchen, and it gives you a ton of options for leftovers. If you’re trying to make a good impression on someone, the roasted chicken is also a no-brainer because it seems much more complicated than it actually is. Plus, chicken doesn’t cost a lot of money, pound for pound and meal for meal, making it a great choice for both the beginner cook and the beginner budgeter.
Let’s dig in!
Buy a whole chicken at the grocery store. The name-brand conventional (not organic) chickens at my grocery store run about $10-12.
Pro tip: Whenever you’re at the store, swing by the chicken section to see if there are any chickens on sale. If you find one, but you don’t want to cook it immediately, you can freeze it. You’re “banking” a discounted chicken for later, which helps you stretch your food money even further.
When it’s time to cook the chicken, put it in your (empty) kitchen sink and take it out of the wrapper. Check the “cavity” -- the hole in the chicken -- and remove any bagged-up innards. Some chickens don’t come with these, but most do.
Rinse the chicken if you want (some say rinsing it spreads the germs even more) and pat it dry with paper towels or a clean dish towel. Rub it all over with butter and then sprinkle on some salt and pepper. If you don’t like touching the chicken, you can just melt some butter and brush it on.
Pro tip: If you want to get fancy, play around with any flavors you like. Cut a lemon or an onion in half and put it in the cavity, slice garlic cloves and rub them all over the skin, sprinkle on some poultry seasoning or a favorite herb, or lay some strips of uncooked bacon across the top. If it sounds yummy, it’ll probably be yummy.
Put the chicken in a pan, a skillet, a pot, or a dutch oven, with the spine down and the breast up. The spine is the flat side of the chicken, and the breast is the side that’s big and mounded. Put the chicken in a 350-degree oven. You don’t have to cover it, but if you do, lift the cover off in the last 15-30 minutes so the skin will crisp up. It’ll take somewhere in the ballpark of 90 minutes to cook, but the exact cooking time will be determined by the chicken’s size. You’ll know it’s ready when you stick a meat thermometer in it and it’s 165 degrees.
Pro tip: Use the pan drippings to make gravy. There are tons of tutorials online (like this one) about doing this, but the general idea is to get your pan drippings on the stove over medium heat, whisk in an equal amount of flour (or cornstarch) until it’s a paste, and then add in a liquid (like milk or chicken broth) until it’s bubbly and the consistency you like.
Or you can skip all of this and buy a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store. They’re really yummy and you can usually find one for about $5. The drawback to these is that they’re smaller, which means you’ll have less meat to work with (which could be fine if you’re single) and the cost savings isn’t quite as large. It’ll still save you money, but not as much as if you roast a big chicken yourself.
When you’re done eating, go ahead and pull all the meat off the bones. Pick over all the bones -- and don’t miss the “oysters” on the back. Those are some of the best bits! Save the bones -- you’ll use them for Day 3.
At this point, you’ve got a ton of options. Put the chicken bits on your green salads. Make a chicken salad for sandwiches. Add it to some pasta or rice.
One thing I love is Tex-Mex flavors, so I’ll fancy up the cooked chicken and make tacos or quesadillas. It’s easy: take a pan or skillet and melt some butter on low or medium-low. Add in some chopped onions and garlic, and when the onions are cooked, dump in the chicken bits. Sprinkle in some chili powder, cumin, salt, and pepper, or open up a packet of taco seasoning. Pour in some water -- about a cup or two -- and stir everything up so the spices are all blended into the water. Then crank the heat up and let it cook down, stirring occasionally, until you have a nice sauce coating all the chicken. Then it’s time to eat!
Now it’s time to put those bones to work to make stock. Once you start cooking for yourself, you’ll find all kinds of uses for chicken stock, not the least of which is making chicken gravy or your own chicken noodle soup (which you can do with any more leftover chicken).
Take the bones and put them in a pot or crockpot. I like to break them up a bit to get a richer stock.
Pro tip: You can freeze your chicken bones until you have 2 or 3 sets of chicken bones, to make a ton of really rich stock.
Quarter up some vegetables -- typical choices are 1-2 each of carrots, onions, and celery stalks -- and add them to the stock. Add enough water to the pot to cover everything, and then put in a splash of vinegar or lemon juice -- about a tablespoon or so. Let it all sit for an hour. (This preps the bones to release all the good stuff.) If you’re using the stove, turn on the heat and bring it to a boil. Once it’s boiling, turn it down to simmer. If you’re using a crock pot, set it on high for 4 hours and then turn it down to low.
The key to a great stock is to simmer the bones as long as possible -- anywhere from 6 to 24 hours. If you worry about the stove being on for that long, a crock pot is the best option.
Once enough time has passed, strain the broth into a big bowl through a sieve or a cheesecloth. In a pinch, I’ve even scooped out the broth with a ladle and poured it through one of those thin woven dish towels.
And there you have it! Your own bone broth. Now you can use it to make soups, rice, casseroles, or anything else that calls for chicken broth or water when you’re cooking.
Pro tip: Stock also freezes really well in glass jars. Just leave a couple of inches of space in the jar -- don’t fill it up. It’ll expand when frozen and could break the glass.
Roasting a chicken is a simple way to save money in the kitchen, and it’s so easy that even the first-time cook can make it happen. You can get at least 3 dinners out of a $10 chicken, which is a great first step toward saving money on food. The great thing about chicken is that it’s incredibly easy to get good flavor from chicken, and the only thing that can really go “wrong” in this process is undercooking the chicken, and that’s an easy fix. Soon you’ll be able to impress your friends and family with your “fancy roast chicken” and no one needs to know just how easy (and cheap) it was!