Published September 1, 2012. From Cook's Illustrated.
Buying a chicken to roast is simple, right? Well, given the myriad brands, confusing labels, and alarming news reports, choosing the best bird has never been more complicated.
We’ve seen some pretty staggering statistics about meat consumption in this country, but this one really takes the cake: The U.S. poultry industry, the largest in the world, processes upwards of 8 billion chickens destined for the dinner table each year. Today, Americans consume about 84 pounds of chicken per person annually. These birds, once a protein so luxurious that the 1928 campaign promise to put one in “every pot” seemed unreachable, have become a cheap supermarket staple.
But the ability to pick up a chicken at any local market doesn’t make shopping easy. On the contrary, there’s a multitude of brands and a wide range of prices—not to mention alarming news reports that raise concerns about health, conscience, and politics. Beyond that, you need a degree in agribusiness to decode most of the packaging lingo: What’s the difference between “all natural,” “free range,” and “organic”? What does “vegetarian fed” mean—and if other birds are not being fed vegetarian meal, just what are they eating? And most important, what tastes best when you strip away the sales pitches?
Those were the questions we started with as we rounded up eight national and large regional brands of whole fresh supermarket chicken, which we seasoned minimally, roasted, and carved into piles of white and dark meat for tasting. (Later, we’d decode the real meaning of all those terms on the labels and see if any of them led us to the best chicken.) What we were looking for: meat that was rich, clean-tasting, tender, and moist. What we got: an astonishing range of flavors and textures. Some birds boasted “chicken-y” meat that was pleasantly moist; others tasted utterly bland or, worse, faintly metallic, bitter, or liver-y. Chalky, dry meat was a common, predictable complaint, but surprisingly, so was too much moisture.
Puzzled by the dramatic differences among the brands, we compared product labels and processing claims; talked to experts; and sent the chickens to an independent laboratory for analysis of their protein, fat, sodium, moisture, and other characteristics to help us figure out what might have shaped our preferences.
One characteristic we could rule out immediately: breed. Almost all supermarket chickens are white-feathered Cornish Crosses, a variety that has been bred to grow to full weight in a mere five to eight weeks, on the smallest possible amount of chicken feed, as well as to feature large breasts and stumpy legs to yield more white meat. “They’re breast-meat machines,” said Doug Smith, associate professor of poultry science at North Carolina State University. Most of the big poultry companies are “vertically integrated,” meaning they control everything from breeding and feeding the birds, to medical care, to slaughter and processing, to transportation, to sales and marketing. This keeps costs down and production up—hence the 8 billion served.
Along the way, intensive farming has led to trade-offs. Typically, birds get doses of antibiotics from their earliest days not only to help prevent and treat diseases rampant in their crowded conditions but also to help them grow faster. Some producers even inject antibiotics into eggs, and most routinely add them to the chicken’s feed, a soy and corn mix often bulked up with feather meal (ground-up chicken feathers) and other animal byproducts left over from slaughter, as well as scraps like commercial bakery leftovers. (This may sound bad enough, but it gets worse. In a recent study analyzing feather meal, Johns Hopkins researchers found residue of arsenic; they also found traces of caffeine and the active ingredients in Benadryl, Tylenol, and Prozac, which had been fed to chickens to alter their moods.) Raised indoors, the birds move little and feed constantly until they’re rounded up for the processing plant. Once there, the chickens are hung by their feet and dipped headfirst into an electrically charged bath that stuns them. Next, a machine cuts their throats, and they are bled, plunged into hot water and plucked, eviscerated by machines, and then chilled together in a cold bath (where bacterial contamination can spread).
It is in this water chilling system that chickens plump up, absorbing up to 14 percent of their body weight in water, which is chlorinated to help kill bacteria. (Since chicken is priced by the pound, of course you’re paying for that water.) Labeling law says that this water gain must be shown on the product label, and in fact, six of the eight chickens in our lineup were processed this way. Of those six, one was also “enhanced” (read: injected) with a solution of chicken broth, salt, and flavorings, further plumping up its weight.
This water chilling process (and/or enhancing) helped explain why tasters found the meat in several of these birds to be unnaturally spongy, with washed-out flavor.
Up in the Air
That left just two birds that weren’t water-chilled. Instead, they were air-chilled, a method in which each bird is hung from a conveyor belt that circulates them along the ceiling of a cold room. According to Theo Weening, the global meat buyer for Whole Foods Markets, this popular European chilling method is just catching on in the United States, and it produces a superior bird. Why? “First, you don’t add water, so you don’t dilute the flavor,” Weening said. He also noted that “air chilling breaks down the muscle tissue and gives a better texture.”
Our tasters concurred, noting that these two chickens (a California-based bird sold out west and a Pennsylvania-based bird sold east of the Rockies) took top marks for flavor and texture. They were juicy without being soggy. What’s more, the lab tests showed that these two air-chilled birds also contained more fat, giving them an inherent flavor advantage. (A higher percentage of fat in these birds makes sense, since less water is taking up a percentage of their total composition.)
Flavor and texture aside, there’s another major factor to consider: your conscience. Consumer concern about poultry factory processing methods has motivated some companies to do a little better by us—and by the birds. This includes limiting or eliminating antibiotic use because of concerns about bacteria becoming drug-resistant and affecting human health; allowing chickens some (usually limited) access to the outdoors, the only legal definition of “free range”; and using “vegetarian” (free of animal byproducts) feed and swearing off “junk” food like low-quality bakery leftovers and other scraps used to fatten birds. Some brands seek organic certification. Translation: The birds are not given antibiotics; eat organic, vegetarian feed that’s free of pesticides and animal byproducts; and have some access to the outdoors (although how much is not regulated—and may, in fact, be extremely limited). (Our top two brands have organic lines, but we chose to taste their more widely available conventional birds.) A few even adopt more “humane” killing processes, including a new method of administering anesthesia developed by animal rights activist and scientist Temple Grandin.
After we tallied the results, we were glad to learn that both of our winning brands follow these more responsible production methods (including the use of anesthesia), though neither yet indicates it on the label. (Labeling claims on poultry, however, come with lots of caveats. See “Decoding Chicken Labels” under Methodology, above.) Other than air chilling, these alternative growing and processing methods may not directly affect the flavor of the chickens, but they may keep the birds, and us, healthier down the road, which makes us feel better about buying them.