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a pan with a whole roasted chicken and green beans being pulled from an oven

Just over a 100 years ago, chickens were both a delicacy of the privileged and the workaday staple of the average American’s diet. High society adored the fine white meat of domesticated chickens, while the working classes – who utilized chickens mostly for their eggs – threw tougher, older birds into the kettle for Sunday suppers and special occasions. No other food was held in such high esteem in all walks of American life.

Today, a trip to your local supermarket confirms the chicken’s reign as America’s favorite meat. But those frigid rows of perfectly packaged poultry and all their boneless, skinless options conceal two very important facts: 1) Today’s birds have virtually no flavor; and 2) they are raised in such morally and hygienically compromised settings that they aren’t even good for you.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you should throw out your coq au vin and chicken pot recipes. There are delicious and healthy alternatives out there. All you need is a little understanding of what makes for a good chicken, and then some tips on where to find it.

Hen and Now

Let’s start with a quick history lesson: All chickens are descended from Gallus Domesticus, whose ancestors were wild jungle fowl. The first known domestication of chickens took place in India and China, roughly four thousand years ago. By a.d. 200 the Romans and Celts were breeding chickens specifically for large breast size. Not much has changed since.

The Asian breeds arrived in Europe in the 18th century. These species were better (i.e., more frequent) egg layers and responded more favorably to Western breeders’ efforts to increase both breast size and meat tenderness. By the 1830s, life had become more urbanized, and the mania for chicken breeding intersected with a need for a cheap, reliable food-supply system. The results were nothing short of revolutionary.

Breeders introduced Americans to Indian game fowl, which they renamed Cornish game hen for political and marketing purposes; to the Leghorn, a prolific egg-laying Mediterranean bird; and to an Asian crossbreed called The Rhode Island Red, which became a real favorite for its plump breast meat, pristine white flesh, pale yellow skin and proclivity for early growth spurts. And thus began America’s ceaseless and ill-advised pursuit of maximum poultry-production efficiency, an effort that eventually succeeded in turning a flavorful and healthy food into an inexpensive but largely worthless commodity – one as potentially dangerous to your health as it is flavorless to the palate.

Fowl Procedures

Today’s commercially bred chickens are technically not much different than their ancestors, but the methods used to raise them are shocking. According to the USDA, more than 7 billion birds were raised for consumption in 1998 alone. Ninety-seven percent of all egg layers are confined to cramped cages that are designed for maximum egg-production efficiency. According to the Animal Protection Institute, five or six hens share each cage, which is roughly 16 inches wide. They are forced to produce 10 times the eggs per year than they would in the wild. This increased output taxes the hens’ bodies so severely that many of them suffer from diseases such as “fatty-liver syndrome” and “cage-layer fatigue.” To shock hens’ bodies into another egg-laying cycle, commercial poultry farms often force their birds to molt by starving them and denying them water for up to 18 days.

And that’s just the start of it. Disease and cannibalism are rampant in this polluted environment, so antibiotics are relied on to keep the birds “safe” for human consumption. The resulting immune-system suppression is not only harmful for the chickens but also bad for anyone who eats them. Then there are the hormones and genetic engineering to rush growth and swell breasts, the de-beaking and toe clipping to prevent the overcrowded birds from killing each other, and the male chick slaughter (males are of little use to the producers). Add to these atrocities the moisture and chemical additives used to maintain water weight and extend shelf life and you have a food product that has been so thoroughly compromised that it is practically inedible, not to mention ethically reprehensible. It’s no wonder that our poultry offended the Russians so much that they blocked exports to their country for more than seven months in 2001 alone.

Chicken producers routinely state that they rely on these methods to keep costs at a level the American consumer will respond to. This means that it’s up to us buyers to persuade supermarkets to stock chickens that are raised in healthier conditions. What does that look like? A good chicken is raised on organic feed. It is allowed to move freely (free-range) in uncrowded spaces, which will decrease the risk of cannibalism and diseases such as avian flu. It is not given any antibiotics or growth hormones.

Yes, quality birds raised with care may cost more, but in my mind there is no question they are worth it. The more organic and free-range chickens that you purchase, the louder the message to the commercial chicken suppliers will be…and the better your birds will taste.

Chick Tips

Feel like your chicken choices range from bad to worse? Follow these guidelines for a healthier and tastier bird.

  • Use your local farmers’ markets, food co-ops, natural foods markets and mail order services to provide you with natural chickens. Thanks to consumer demand, many supermarkets also stock organic, free-range chickens these days. If yours doesn’t, ask for them!
  • Do not buy frozen birds because it is too difficult to tell if the meat you are purchasing is fresh.
  • When shopping, look for fresh blood, clean skin, no accumulation of moisture or liquids, and a fresh aroma.
  • Read the labels! They are your best source of information. If a label mentions additives and chemicals used to increase moisture content, do not buy that product.
  • White meat is perfectly cooked at 152 degrees, but dark meat needs to reach 160 degrees to adequately melt the tendons and connective tissues and make the meat tender. When roasting larger chickens, let the bottom of your bird sit in a pan filled with simmering stock for 10 minutes. This pre-cooking of the dark meat will create a picture-perfect roasted chicken.
  • Brine your birds in a half gallon of water seasoned with 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup salt for six hours. Let it dry uncovered in the fridge overnight before roasting. The result will be a more flavorful and moist bird.
  • Bring chicken to room temperature before roasting to promote even cooking.
  • Use chicken within 24 hours of purchase or freeze. Do not freeze chicken for longer than three months. Do not freeze in the market wrapping, but rinse it and wrap it in your own plastic food wrap.
  • D’artagnan is a specialty foods company that specializes in poultry. It’s a great source for several varieties of the best European style chickens. Call 1-800-DARTAGN.
  • Handle all raw poultry in your kitchen sink. When you are finished, wash your hands, utensils and all surfaces with hot water, dish soap and a little bleach (or hydrogen peroxide and vinegar) to avoid cross contamination with other foods.
  • To kill salmonella, remember to keep poultry below 40 degrees for storage and to cook it past 140 degrees.
  • If you have more questions, a great resource is the USDA Poultry Hot Line: 1-800-535-4555.

Perfect Roasted Chicken

There is nothing more satisfying to prepare than a perfectly roasted chicken. These guidelines will ensure success.

  • Brine and dry a 3-pound chicken.
  • Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  • Season the bird’s cavity with salt and white pepper and a few sprigs of fresh herbs like thyme, rosemary, parsley or tarragon.
  • Add a slice of lemon and a crushed garlic clove in the cavity.
  • Rub the entire bird with soft butter, sprinkle lightly with sea salt.
  • Place the chicken in a v-shaped rack and place rack in a roasting pan containing one minced onion.
  • Push the minced onion under the bird. Roast for 20 minutes at 450 degrees.
  • Lower heat to 350 and cook for another 70 minutes.
  • The bird is done when a leg bone rotates freely in its socket, the thigh juices run clear when pricked with a sharp paring knife, or the internal temperature of the thigh meat reaches 160 degrees.
  • Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes before carving. In the meantime, deglaze the pan by using 3/4 cup chicken stock. Whisk in 2 tablespoons of roux to thicken. The crisped onions in the roasting pan provide flavor.
Andrew Zimmern

Andrew Zimmern is an Emmy and four-time James Beard Award winning TV personality, chef, writer, teacher and social justice advocate.

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