How to Select a Good Chicken
What’s the secret ingredient for a killer beer can chicken? Hint: it aint the beer. For a beer can chicken that will really impress your family and friends, you gotta select a good chicken. In this post we are going spell out how to select a good chicken, whether you are making a beer can bird or just a nice roast chicken for Sunday dinner.
There are so many options at your typical grocery store, we thought we’d go over a few of the typical options, and find some tips our readers can use to select a really good chicken, and not just an average bird.
What is it about Chicken?
For a critter that is descended from the dinosaurs, the humble chicken is a mighty versatile and tasty number. (What do you think this varmint would taste like on the grill?)
The Romans helped spread domesticated chickens all over their empire, and as people spread out over the globe chicken breeds became more and more specialized. Today, at least in the states, chickens raised for dinner are bred for mild flavor and lots of white meat.
According to the National Chicken Council, the average american consumed about 80 pounds of chicken last year, making it the most popular main course in the country. Chicken is mild in flavor and relatively easy to cook, so it’s no surprise that we eat 80 pounds a year. (And for tips on how to cook 4 more pounds of Beer Can Chicken this year, check out the Basic Recipe. )
How to Select a Good Chicken vs. Average
Back in the day chickens were sorted into all kinds of sizes, and were named things like Poulet, Spring Chickens, and Fowl (Stewing Chickens). Nowadays you are pretty much going to chicken divided into two types. A fryer is generally speaking under 4 pounds, and a roaster is typically heavier than 3 pounds. We have found that roasters are the better bird for beer can chicken, because fryers can be so scrawny.
So much for the weight classes. Most supermarkets are also going to divide the whole chickens into categories, such as free-range, kosher, and organic. Beyond that you will usually find some whole birds that are really obviously from a factory farm — and usually cheaper. This is what we have discovered – after making beer can chicken from all sorts of birds — when it comes to chicken folks, you get what you pay for.
Here’s the challenge — how do you separate the marketing hype, the labels and terms like “free range,” from “organic free-range air-chilled super deluxe?” Well we did a little digging around, and tried to come up with a list of things you might find on chickens in the supermarket, and a little explanation about each. There are no hard and fast rules, but we tried to order this informal list from least-tasty to best-tasting. Check it out.
Chicken Marketing — Don’t Believe the Hype
There are so many labels and buzz-words in the supermarket nowadays, it’s hard to keep them straight. We may not have all the answers for you, but the list below should fill you in on what some of those labels mean.
The bottom line? Usually the differences are not going to be dramatic — with one exception. Factory chickens from gigantic producers generally have no flavor. So your best bet is to to skip the bargain chicken, pay a little bit more for your next bird.
- Generic Supermarket and Store-Brand Chicken. First stop — your local supermarket. The first thing I notice at my local super-duper market meat section is a long refrigerator bin full of chicken parts along with whole chickens labeled either with the supermarket logo or the logo of a giant chicken producer — such as Foster Farms or Tyson. These folks, are factory chickens. Why should you care? Well, it is inexpensive chicken, and it’s no secret that a lot of people are on a budget these days. So although this chicken is not very flavorful, you can doctor it up easily enough.The bigger issue for us is that the way factory chickens are raised include feeding chickens lots of antibiotics and hormones to encourage rapid growth and the maximum return on investment. These chickens aren’t raised on a farm — they are raised in a factory.Two more things you might notice about this type of bird. They will dry out more quickly, and they are easy to overcook.
- Specialty Store Brands. Next stop, the specialty store. We are talking about places like Trader Joes, Whole Paycheck — er, Whole FOODs, rather, and other high-end food joints. Most of these stores will carry a type of chicken that bears their own logo. Unlike generic supermarket brands, these birds are a cut above the generic supermarket birds. In fact, in some taste tests conducted by the LA TImes, Trader Joes birds outranked some of the most expensive free-range options available. These birds are also going to be more expensive pound for pound, and in our experience are worth every penny.
- Free Range Vs. Factory . Here are a few more labels the grocer is going to throw at us. What does Free Range mean? A might good question, because it seems to mean a lot of different things depending on who you ask. Free Range chicken seems like it would mean the birds are allowed to roam outdoors, eat better food and live a better life, right? Well, yes and no. Letting chickens roam around outdoors to forage for food in the fresh air used to be normal — the way chickens have been raised for centuries. But just how much exposure to the great outdoors and what the birds are fed is up to the producer. Free range just means these chickens don’t come from a factory farm. In our experience, they taste better too.
- Natural and Organic. According to Whole Food’s web site, chicken labeled organic means that the birds are fed only organic feed, are free range and are not given antibiotics or growth hormones for their entire lives. Sounds good to us. As for the term “natural” your guess is as good as anyone’s!
- Air-Chilled, Vs. Water Chilled. Another thing you might see on packages refers to the method used to chill the chicken after slaughter. Traditionally, the chickens are dunked in ice-water that has a mild sanitizer. Then when the bird is packaged, it’s still kind of wet. Air chilled birds, on the other hand, don’t come in contact with water and generally when you unwrap them they are drier and the skin is not all waterlogged. Air cooled chicken means better flavor and crispiness of the skin when the bird is cooked.
- Kosher. Kosher chickens are salted after they are slaughtered and are subject to strict standards about how the animal is raised and slaughtered. Plus it’s blessed by a Rabbi! Also air cooled, these are some of the more expensive chickens you can buy in the store, but chicken is generally delicious.