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Whole Chickens

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.

Published Sept. 1, 2012. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 13: Two Chicken Braises

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What You Need To Know

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.

Factory Fowl

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,”...

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