We’re eating more chicken than beef these days and most home
cooks admit to serving the tasty bird at least twice a week. Even as chicken is leaving beef in the
dust, so to speak, knowing which chicken to buy baffles
Free range? Antibiotic free? Pasture raised? Humanely
Too confusing! And mighty esoteric to boot!
Many home cooks with growing families buy chicken in bargain
packages that offer an assortment of thighs, wings, and breasts. Others buy only white meat, or only
dark (which is usually a little less costly). A few brave souls buy whole
chickens. And when it comes to the most popular cut? Boneless, skinless chicken
breasts or cutlets, hands down.
What is the Best Choice?
Choosing the chicken that best meets the needs of your
family is often a question of price and convenience. Many consumers have no
choice but to shop at the local supermarket, where chicken packaged by large
companies is generally the only choice.
Some of these same markets sell slightly more expensive
chicken in their “specialty butcher” shops, where it may be labeled “natural”
or “antibiotic free.” Both of these choices are probably going to taste a
little better and have less fat than the mass-produced poultry.
Some butchers and farmer’s markets sell chickens that they
call “free range” and “pasture or grass raised.” These are great choices — but will be far more expensive
than the chicken in the supermarket.
If you know and trust your
butcher, you can be sure he has made an effort to find the best birds he can.
If you shop at a farmer’s market regularly, you can get to know the farmer who
sells his own chickens.
Free-range chicken is raised in open pens where the birds
can hunt and peck for food in the dirt, breathe fresh air, and exercise their
Pasture-raised chicken is grown in pens situated in open fields and portable enough so
that the farmer can move the flock from one location to another. This means the
chickens eat natural vegetation, dig up grubs and other delicacies, and
exercise pretty much to their heart’s content.
In both instances, the birds are usually fed supplemental
grain to help them grow.
Birds raised in such conditions, which (let’s face it) mimic
the way our great-grandparents raised their barnyard chickens, simply taste
better than other chickens. They are less fatty, have firmer meat, and bolder
flavor. Once you develop a taste for these birds, it’s hard to go back.
Again. What is the Best Choice?
The choice has to be yours. If money is no issue, buy
high-end chickens and other poultry. You will most likely be supporting local
farmers and the birds, raised as they are, are treated better while alive. This may be important to you.
If you are looking for a happy medium, seek out the
antibiotic free, minimally processed birds marketed by your local super store.
Look for the words “no animal byproducts in feed” on the labels, too.
Regardless of the price point, buy chickens that are evenly colored, look plump and moist, and are neither bright yellow nor flat white. They should be pale yellow, with rounded thighs and breasts.
If you can, buy chickens whole and cut them up yourself.
Whole chickens usually cost less per pound than chicken parts and are handled
by fewer people. Invest in some good poultry shears to make the task easier.
Whatever your choice, before cooking them rinse the chickens well under cool, running water. Clean any surfaces they come in contact with in
soapy water, and don’t let their raw juices cross-contaminate other food. Cook
chicken until it’s juices run clear and it registers 170ºF. for white meat
on an instant-read thermometer (180ºF. for dark meat).