Chickenpalooza (featuring Roast Chicken)
“You are cordially invited to
Chickenpalooza- A Roast-Off.
I will buy 5 different brands of chicken,
roast them exactly the same way,
and set up a blind taste test.
We will finally figure out which
bird tastes the best.
Oh yeah, and also, it’s my birthday.”
It was a perfect combination – not only could I celebrate my birthday in the comfort of our home with the people I love, but I could conclusively determine the answer to the question I’d been wondering for years…
Which brand of chicken is the best?
Chicken is not baffling. Chicken is straightforward. Chicken is cheap and easy and a staple in my household as well as my business.
It’s the chicken choices that are baffling. We have too many options and they all seem to tell us the others will kill us. I had finally had enough. I needed answers not rhetoric.
My first thought on chicken hunting (shopping) day was that I’d patronize one of the live poultry markets in the city. I had been meaning to go to one for a while but I had chickened out (sorry) every time. I figured this party would force my hand and my chicken balls would suddenly show up. Unfortunately, the market I had planned on visiting was up in the Bronx and turned out to be closed. They are harder to find these days as many have been shut down due to unsanitary conditions and odor. After a long talk with Shannon, who was sure my fearlessness would turn to heartbreak as soon as I saw chicken death row, I changed my mind. I would skip the live poultry scene.
Hey, I eat chicken a lot. If I became so emotionally wounded by this adventure that I could no longer eat chicken, it’s very likely I would starve. It’s also worth noting that I know no chefs who make the voyage to the city’s live poultry markets – and they would if the chicken was markedly better. My dad chimed in and said that he had eaten fresh chicken from one of those markets and it was inedible.
I marched over to Whole Foods – where I do not shop often. They are leaders in the field of food fear, overloading our brains with food safety jargon that makes you wonder how you’ve managed to stay alive this long without it. Whole Foods has a brand new 5-Step Chicken System beyond their predictable and guaranteed “organic, farm raised, cage free…” regulations. Whole Foods says “The higher the Step number, the more interesting their environment, the more time the animals spend outside, the more natural their life.” I found that all the chickens in Steps 1-5 had lived better lives than I had. It seemed they’d also spent more time outside, gone to better schools, had regular massage and yoga, and a lot more personal attention in their childhood than any of the friends I’d invited to dinner had. I was experiencing chicken farm envy.
The biggest problem was that, with all the choices they were promising, there was only one whole chicken option available at my local Whole Foods – a Step 2 bird, who had been raised in an “enriched environment”. At $2.99 a pound, it was not the most expensive chicken I bought that day, which was surprising for Whole Foods. I forked over my shade grown, gluten free cash and tucked “Step 2” under my arm.
The next stop was my local supermarket – the Food Emporium – where I purchased a Perdue bird. Now, I haven’t bought a Perdue chicken in years and that was part of the inspiration for this taste test. The first shock I had was that Perdue only sold large roaster chickens – coming in at around 7 pounds each (all the other birds I purchased were between 3-4 pounds). I suspect the reason for this is that the Perdue birds are pumped full of hormones, antibiotics, and cheap, high caloric food such as genetically modified soy and corn feed. They’re actually fed marigolds too to turn their skin that perfectly cooked bronze color when you roast them. Perdue is claiming their chickens are now “raised cage free with no hormones or steroids!” (nice addition of exclamation mark, Perdue) but I found no evidence online that any of the old factories had been updated. The only thing they’ve changed is the labels which are full of empty promises. At $1.79/ pound, I could see how any thrifty American family could fall into the Perdue trap though.
The next chicken I grabbed was a kosher chicken. Kosher chickens are brined in salt water to draw the blood out of them (it is forbidden for kosher-keeping Jews to eat animal blood). Brined poultry is always more tender and flavorful than regular poultry because the salt water breaks down and then plumps the protein molecules in the muscles, making them much juicier. I think most people don’t have the time or forethought to brine a chicken for a regular meal, and why bother? Just buy a kosher bird and it’s done for you. You do want to be conscious of too much additional salting because the chickens are slightly more salty than regular non-brined birds. At $3.99/ pound, the kosher bird was the most expensive in my coop. Go figure.
I also bought a Murray’s chicken- which is guaranteed eco-conscious, local grown, farm raised, antibiotic and preservative free (but they don’t go overboard in letting you know that). They are a New York Tri-State brand and can be found at a lot of different stores from Trader Joe’s to Fairway to The Food Emporium (and hopefully across the country soon). I love Murray’s chickens and buy them for myself and my clients frequently. It’s my go-to chicken. At $3.19/ pound, it’s not the cheapest bird in town, but worth every penny in my book. Also, though the one I roasted for the blind taste test wasn’t, Murray’s does sell kosher birds. Kind of a win/ win if you ask me.
My last stop was the local farmer’s market – which, to my surprise, didn’t have any chickens. They had pork and turkey and fish and beef and eggs but no chickens. I talked to the egg woman and asked her if she ever sold chickens and she said she hadn’t in a long time. I thought maybe that was just the case for that particular farmer’s market but since then have gone to a few others and found them to be chicken free too.
I took it as a sign from God that 4 chickens was plenty, but then my brother called and said he and his girlfriend were going to be able to come to the party after all. I was headed to Zabar’s to rectify a peppermill situation and decided to see if they had any interesting poultry. I found a bird called “George’s Whole Chicken”, which promised it was preservative, hormone and steroid free; all natural; and fed natural soybean and corn. At $1.99/ pound, I was dubious, but I wanted one more chicken for the tasting so I added it to the flock.
I set my kitchen up very methodically, labeling the chickens with a letter on a skewer I thrust into the pope’s nose (tail) of each bird.
My roasting technique is very simple: Hot oven, no extra fat. As long as you truss the bird, you’re set.
- 3-4 pound Chicken
- 1 lemon
- Salt and pepper
- Take bird out of refrigerator at least an hour before you start to cook it. (This is key with all proteins. You will get a better flavor, caramelization, and consistency of cooking if the protein isn’t fridge cold when you start to cook it.)
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
- Rinse bird in cold water and dry thoroughly.
- Rub salt and pepper into the cavity of the bird.
- Cut the lemon into quarters and put them into the cavity of the chicken.
- Truss the legs together and vigorously salt and pepper the entire chicken.
- Roast chicken for one hour and then check to see if there’s any blood in the juices when you tilt the bird over in the pan or pierce the thigh with the tip of a knife. If there’s a little blood, keep cooking for another 5-10 minutes. After removing from the oven, give it 5-10 minutes to rest before carving.
That’s it. You’re done. So freakin’ simple and just about the best thing you’ll ever eat.
This is how I roasted all the chickens for our party- though obviously adjusting the times per weight of bird. I cut and plated each chicken and marked them A-E. My friends took a piece of each chicken, arranging the pieces on their plates in a circle so they knew which meat corresponded to which letter. We ate. There was silence. I was beside myself with excitement and anticipation.
All the chickens were really good.
All of them.
It was almost disappointing to be so satisfied.
I mean, I thought there would be a very clear winner, but the results were all over the place. Some people liked the Kosher chicken the best, some the Whole Foods, some the Perdue, etc. I’ll tell you that no one put a “1” next to George’s chicken – so that’s not worth the savings (sorry Zabar’s), but every other chicken got high marks from some and low marks from others, and the low marks were just in comparison, not low on their own. Everyone said that if I had just been serving any one of those chickens it would have been a fantastic meal. Even George’s.
In the end, when I added the numbers up, the Kosher chicken was the winner, with Murray’s chicken a close second. The Perdue and Whole Foods chicken tied a few points behind the Murray’s (wait till Whole Foods hears about that!). And George came in last. I will say that the Purdue rendered a lot more juice and fat than the other birds and became beautifully colored, which just freaked me out. Those chickens are clearly bred to succeed. But it didn’t taste full of crap, which I was betting on. It tasted delicious.
So, I’m always going to use a chicken that is organic and antibiotic/ hormone free. I think that’s just the way to go these days. But do you need to go out of your way to find a high rated chicken or pay twice as much to make sure it’s delicious? Not really. Just keep the oven hot, the salt handy, and don’t overcook your bird!
On a personal note, I have the most incredible friends on the planet. They are always willing and eager to follow me down any rabbit hole, birthday or not. Thanks for the trust and support.