There's almost no part of a chicken that isn't tasty, from the scaly yellow feet to the bony neck. One of the least-valued pieces, at least to cooks in most of the country, is the chicken's back. It's the piece that's left after cutting away the wings, breasts and legs for sale, starting at the stump of the neck and running all the way to the bird's tail. Although the back contains relatively little meat, it's a surprisingly versatile -- and usually inexpensive -- way to eat chicken.
Back to Basics
At first blush the idea of cooking and serving the chicken's back seems odd and counterintuitive, but they can make a very pleasant morsel. The neck end of the back contains portions of the shoulder muscles that anchor the wings, while the tail end contains small but tasty muscles that correspond to the loins on a meat animal. The tail end also usually includes a morsel called the "oyster," a delicate and flavorful mouthful located at the hip joint, as well as the tail itself with its rich combination of muscle and fat.
In the South, where fried chicken is a cultural touchstone, spectator sport and almost a religion, many enthusiasts fry their chicken backs. The crisp coating on each piece of chicken provides much of its culinary pleasure, and whatever they lack in meat chicken backs make up in surface area. Prepare them as you would any other piece of chicken, either breaded, battered or -- most authentically -- moistened with buttermilk and shaken in seasoned flour. Fry them in shallow oil until crisp and golden, then enjoy a pleasant half-hour picking the meat and crisp coating from the bones.
The same basic principle applies to barbecued chicken backs. It takes a great many of them to make a substantial meal, but they are an ideal vehicle for your favorite sauces. In fact, if ever you want to taste-test several sauces for chicken, a few pounds of backs might be the best cut to work with. Their thin swathes of muscle cook fully by the time the sauce is caramelized, so they're quick and easy to prepare. Simply heat your grill to medium, and brush sauce onto the backs. Cook until they're well-browned, turning frequently, then serve them hot with your favorite side dishes.
Simmered for Broth
Above all else, chicken backs -- along with the necks and wingtips, if you've been cutting whole chickens -- make absolutely superlative chicken broth. The bones, flesh and pieces of gristle holding them together all contribute flavor and body to your broth. Weigh the backs before you start, and allow a quart of water for every pound of backs. Simmer them gently for three to four hours, with a handful of onions, celery and carrots for added flavor. Strain the broth and remove the fat, and use it to make soups, stews or sauces. If you wish, you can lift out the backs after the first hour and strip the poached meat from the bones. Reserve the meat to make soup, when the broth is done.
- The Jamaica Gleaner: Chicken Back Tuesdays
- On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals; Sarah Labensky, et al.
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