A chicken is a chicken is a chicken, right?
That's a question we've been pondering lately at the Food section. Not so terribly long ago, it seemed you could count on finding the same two or three standard brands of chicken at almost every grocery store. Now, seemingly overnight, there are more than a dozen from which to choose -- producers and labels galore -- all vying for attention. It's enough to make a simple chicken dinner, well, an almost daunting challenge.
So we decided to conduct a little test. We bought 14 birds boasting a variety of qualifications. In addition to standard supermarket chickens, we bought birds that were labeled organic, free-range, natural, heritage, air-chilled and kosher. We even got two from a live poultry store (they were processed shortly before we bought them).
Each bird was seasoned with a one-half teaspoon salt per pound and was roasted at 400 degrees to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, May 13, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Chicken: An article in the May 6 Food section on how to select the best chicken said that Trader Joe's carries organic free-range, air-chilled whole chickens. These chickens are organic and free-range; they are not air-chilled.
Forks at the ready, we blind-tested each bird, judging the skin, the texture of the meat (whether white or dark, it should be firm and moist, not flaccid or dry) and the flavor.
The results? Well, there was no clear winner. In general, the chickens were fairly good, but we did find five chickens that we really liked, each for different reasons. And at least with our test, we found there is something to those labels -- that the type of chicken, and the way it is raised and processed, can influence the taste and texture.
We liked the chicken from Healthy Family Farms in Fillmore for its flavorful meat and overall appearance. According to owner Sharon Palmer, this bird is raised organically and free-range. It is available only at farmers markets, including Pasadena on Thursday; Calabasas, Santa Monica and Glendale on Saturday; and Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Hollywood and Ojai on Sunday.
We also liked Mary's chickens, from Pitman Farms, near Fresno, for its texture, flavor and crisp skin. The birds can be found exclusively at Whole Foods. The one we tested was raised organically and free-range. All are air-chilled when processed.
We were impressed with the "Rosie" chicken from Petaluma Poultry in Northern California for its overall appearance and flavor (meat and skin). We also tested its "Rocky" chicken, its naturally raised, free-range bird, but didn't like it as much. "Rosie" chickens can be found at chains including Gelson's and Whole Foods, and are raised organically and free-range.
We also liked the flavor and texture of the meat of a kosher chicken from Sinai Market, a kosher Persian grocery on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles.
And we liked Trader Joe's store-brand organic, free-range, air-chilled chicken; we liked the meat's flavor and texture, and its crisp skin.
Overall, the birds we liked best for their meat's flavor and texture were generally organic or fed special diets, and almost all were free-range.
According to USDA requirements, organic chickens must be fed additive-free diets, be raised under specific and humane conditions and not be treated with antibiotics. Generally, the organic chickens we sampled were fed diets almost entirely of corn and soy. Conventional chickens can be fed diets that include animal by-products and fat.
Free-range chickens are allowed to roam outside of the coop (though the amount of room is not specified); because they can move around, their muscles are allowed to grow more naturally.
The chickens from the live poultry market had nice skin, but the meat was tough and dry because they had been slaughtered too recently to have gone through rigor mortis, which relaxes the muscles. These are better cooked using very gentle methods, such as poaching or steaming.
Chilled or not
Another factor that seemed to affect flavor was the air-chilled processing method. Both of the chickens we tested that were air-chilled, Mary's and Trader Joe's, received high marks for their skin; the skin was crisp and firm, not flabby or flaccid, and had good flavor.
Air chilling is fairly new in the United States and is used by a limited number of producers, though it has been fairly common in Western Europe for almost 50 years.
Most American chickens are water-chilled, meaning a slaughtered chicken is cooled in a large, cold communal bath shared with (usually a large number of) other chickens.
The baths are heavily chlorinated, as required by the USDA, and each bird can absorb 2% to 12% of its weight in this water as it cools.
The liquid you find when you open the packing on a conventionally processed chicken is often drainage from the water bath; they are packed with sponge-like towels (or diapers) to absorb this liquid.
In contrast, air-chilled chickens are chilled on racks in a room using cold air. Each chicken is still sprayed inside and out with a chlorine rinse as required by the USDA, but air-chilled chickens do not absorb water as water-chilled chickens do, and when packaged can be labeled with the statement, "No water added."
Fans of air chilling argue that the meat of air-chilled chicken is more flavorful, and less diluted, than water-chilled, and that the skin is tighter and more firm. We couldn't tell a difference in the meat, but there was definitely something special about the skin.
So maybe all chickens are not created equal, but now that we know what to look for, at least that chicken dinner can once again be a simple pleasure.