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Where have all the bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts gone?

Aaron Hutcherson

THE WASHINGTON POST – I like to treat trips to the grocery store the same way some people visit museums. I enjoy a leisurely stroll through the aisles, taking note of what’s on display and finding out more information about items that I haven’t seen before. So when an exhibit is missing as if it’s the Barack Obama portraits on tour at the National Portrait Gallery, I take note, and as I was examining the meat case recently I thought to myself: Where did all the bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts go?

Perhaps it’s best to start with where they came from in the first place. Until about 60 years ago, all of the chickens that Americans purchased were whole. After the passing of the Poultry Products Inspection Act in 1957, “producers discarded substandard meat and would then sell the remainder as individual cuts”, according to the National Museum of American History, shepherding in a new era for home cooks.

For much of my life, I remember there being packs of breasts, wings, thighs and legs readily available at every grocery store I visited. But in recent years, chicken breasts with bones and skin started appearing less frequently, replaced by the boneless, skinless variety. When I buy chicken, it’s almost always dark meat, wings or whole, so I don’t exactly know when this scarcity began, but it seems we are to blame.

“Perdue has a long history of listening to consumers, as well as responding to fluctuations in market demands to focus on the most in-demand products and cuts,” said the company’s senior director of corporate communications and brand PR Diane Souder. “The most popular product in the fresh chicken category is boneless skinless chicken breast, which is why you see so much more of this form than bone-in offerings.”

It’s getting hard to find bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts take the top spot because they are easy to cook all the way through (bones can throw a wrench in how evenly a piece of meat cooks) and contain less fat. “I have a number of customers that, basically, all they want is boneless, skinless breasts,” said Georgetown Butcher owner Paul Branner.

“They’re diet-conscious. They don’t want any skin. They don’t even want skin on thighs.

And if they had it their way, they’d want you to take the skin off the wings.” This isn’t the first time the consumer has eliminated certain product offerings. “I worry that the whole, cut-up chicken will disappear entirely,” Judith Weinraub wrote in The Washington Post in 1997, and her fear came true. Even then, boneless, skinless breasts were “the most popular part by far”, Weinraub wrote.

“The loser is my poor old cut-up bird: So few customers wanted the whole bird cut up that Giant stopped carrying brand-name cut-up birds two years ago and now carries only its own Super G brand, and mighty few of them,” Weinraub wrote. Now history seems to have repeated itself with bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts.

While I acknowledge that food products getting discontinued because of lack of demand is just good business, I never really thought about it happening with a cut of meat.

These days they’re considered a “specialty item that we’re going to bring online for the summer,” Branner said. “People are going to want skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts because they do a lot of grilling.” While boneless, skinless meat offers a certain level of ease and convenience, it’s the bones and skin that make chicken breasts more difficult to dry out. I find this particularly helpful in grilling outdoors, but even in the comfort of my kitchen I’d rather put in minimal extra time and effort than risk eating a dry piece of chicken.

If you’re ever in need of chicken breasts with bones and skin (and can’t find them at your local grocery store), your best bet is to head to your local butcher shop to see what they can do for you. “Custom shops like mine, we can do anything for anybody at any time,” Branner said.

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