From Season 13: Big, Bold Chicken Braises
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.
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.Watch the Video
Columela Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its big olive aroma, big olive taste with a buttery flavor that is sweet and full, with a peppery finish. One taster said: Its very green and freshlike a squeezed olive. Another simply wrote: Fantastic.
|$19 for 17 oz|
Lucini Italia Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Tasters noted this oils flavor was much deeper than the other samples, describing it as fruity, with a slight peppery finish, buttery undertones, and a clean, green taste that was aromatic, with a good balance. It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have, said one admiring taster.
|$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed round and buttery, with a light body and flavor that was briny and fruity, very fine and smooth, and almost herbal, with great balance. Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it, approved one taster. In a word, pleasant.
|$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted overall mild flavor and very little aroma, with only a hint of green olive and a hint of spiciness at the end. In pasta, it was initially not complex, but gradually bloomed in your mouth. Overall, it was worthy of a second bite.
|$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil
While some tasters found this oil sweet and buttery with medium body and slight spice at the end, others complained that it had zero olive flavor and was so floral its almost like eating perfume; still others noted a bitter aftertaste. In pasta, it was extremely mild to the point of being boring.
|$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Goya Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were mild and neutral. Some liked it on pasta (though one called it Snoozeville), but complaints were myriad: metallic, soapy, briny, hints of dirt. Carped one taster, I cant imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.
|$13.99 for 1 liter|
Pompeian Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Comments: While some tasters called this oil mild and smooth, others found it thin, greasy and not very interesting. I bet the cooking water had more olive flavor, speculated one taster; could be canolait is so bland, mused another. A few noted an objectionable aftertaste that was soapy, chemical or mentholthink
|$9.99 for 473 ml ($21.12 per liter)|
Botticelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
While a few tasters liked this potent oil, others said they detected mushroom, rotten walnuts, a Band-Aid wrapped in a cherry blossom, and a quality that was downright medicinalTriaminic, anyone? Several deemed it overpowering and musky, with a rank, off-flavor. Tastes not like olives but like the armpits of olive laborers, shuddered one.
|$10.99 for 1 liter|
Carapelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Italy, Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, Cyprus, Morocco, and Syria Comments: Nothing remarkable herejust greasy, no flavor, summarized one taster. Where did the olive go? said another. This oil was judged to have a kind of rancid aftertaste that was reminiscent of not only soil, tree resin, and ammonia and grass, but even kitty litter smells and a set of sweaty hockey pads.
|$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
DaVinci Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Although this oil won top place in a previous tasting, because olive oil is an agricultural product, it can differ from year to year. This time, tasters found it washed out and muted, if nice, in a totally bland and unremarkable way. Tasted plain, objections ranged from insipid, with no real complexity to tastes like EVOO mixed with vegetable oil.
|$17.99 for 1 liter|
Star Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Origin: Spain, Italy, Greece, and Tunisia Comments: Boring and not very complex, this oil came across as plastic-y and industrial; some hint of olives, but it fades quickly. Tasters identified off-flavors that were unpleasant, dirty, like rubber and metal, with a sour aftertaste, or at least a bit funky, with a strange taste that was spicy, but in a motor oil kind of way. One simply wrote, Blech.
|$11.99 for 750 ml ($15.99 per liter)|