Chef Mike crosses the road to find real chicken flavor
I once walked on the dark side, and it changed me. I was once a Kentucky Fried Chicken store manager. To this day, I am haunted by the unnatural sensation of burnt sienna, polyester work pants dragging and scraping against my skin. I still have night terrors plucked from the far recesses of poorly maintained walk-in coolers filled with boxes of partially frozen fowl, dripping with faint pink slime.
I had no idea how big of an impact that experience would have on me, but relentless, daily exposure to fleshy mounds of raw chicken made me less than enthusiastic about anything that once bore wings and a beak. Since I couldn’t take the mystery out of my pre-prepared poultry purchases, I decided to take matters into my own hands and essentially stop eating chicken that I had not cleaned and cooked myself.
Because I am a natural-born Southerner, a deep and abiding love for the taste of chicken is coded into my DNA, so I needed to learn as much as I could about these clucky little beasts so that I could buy, clean and cook all the chicken I wanted in the safety of my own kitchen.
You may think that a chicken is just a chicken, but most well-stocked grocery stores and markets will have a brood of choices. Most of the chicken we eat comes from young birds specifically bred for their tender, delicious meat. These are typically labeled simply as “chicken” or “broilers” and are usually five-to-ten weeks old and weigh anywhere from two-and-a-half to four-and a half pounds.
If you are looking to further rob the chicken cradle, go with the four-to-five week old, single serving-sized Cornish hen. Despite their name, they can be either a male or a female bird and are best served whole, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Moving away from the barely legal birds you get into “roaster” chickens. These larger, older birds have matured enough for their bones and cartilage to harden up a bit, but nothing says flavor like a neutered male chicken, otherwise known as a capon. You can just taste the emasculation in every bite.
All of the labels such as “cage-free,” “naturally raised,” and “organic” primarily indicate the conditions, care and feed a chicken received while being raised. I know there are those who will disagree, but when it comes to chicken, these indicators only make a subtle difference in taste. They will, however, help you sleep better knowing a Frankenfowl with ’roid rage won’t arise from the fridge to slice your Achilles tendon while you hobble to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
In my experience, some of the processes that happen just after a chicken is harvested have a much bigger impact on taste than the food they eat or the conditions they were raised under. For example, most large poultry producers inject their chickens with a saltwater solution (called “plumping”), which can constitute 15-to-30 percent of its final weight. Apologists for this practice like to promote this as a way to make the meat juicier and more flavorful. In fact, this practice means you are paying for enough salt to help your hypertension specialist make his boat payment and it’s also why granny’s chicken from the farm tastes more “chicken-y.” The flavor, quite literally, hasn’t been watered down like the “plumped” chicken meat.
Most of the chickens we eat are also plunged into an ice water bath right after being slaughtered to bring them down to a safe temperature. It’s thought that this causes the meat to draw in even more excess moisture, which can further dilute their flavor and make it difficult to get that wonderful crispy skin when cooked.
The solution to getting chicken that still tastes like chicken and hasn’t been pumped full of more pharmaceuticals than Charlie Sheen’s kidneys isn’t cheap. Either raise your own or buy local birds raised naturally on a small farm. Expect to pay anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent more, but remember that you’re not paying for 30 percent saltwater, and an extra couple of bucks is a small price to pay for tender, juicy, drug-free chicken that doesn’t taste like a generic bouillon cube.
While you may not have suffered the horrors of a fast-food cooler full of poorly handled chicken or even the nightmare of polyester work clothes, knowing how to buy and prepare your own chicken is knowledge that will serve you well in the kitchen and help you stave off the pink slime nightmares.
Sleep well and bon appetit!
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants, and singlehandedly increased Chattanooga’s meat consumption statistics for three consecutive years. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits