Friday, February 01, 2013
My husband and I recently got into a disagreement over the price of chicken. Was the $2.29/lb Coleman organic chicken we buy at Costco really better than the $.99/lb conventionally raised chicken? Was there a difference in taste, or were we just buying it for the ethical peace of mind?
My husband said there would be only a minor difference in taste. I asserted that chicken are what they eat, and if they eat better, they should taste better.
Interestingly, around the same time we had this dispute, America's Test Kitchen came out with a list of their favorite roasting chickens. Their recommended was a Bell and Evans air chilled brand. I never heard of this before, but I found it at Whole Foods in Charleston for a whopping $4.49/lb. Yikes!
I bought the cheapest supermarket chicken and the Bell and Evans for my own home taste test. I roasted and prepared them the exact them way, seasoned only with salt, pepper, and butter under the skin. I gave my husband a thigh piece (the most flavorful part) from each chicken and awaited the verdict.
The Bell and Evans chicken tasted like chicken. The $0.99/lb supermarket brand tasted like...well...flavorless chicken.
Reading more in the ATK chicken comparison revealed the reason why. It's not just the feed given to the chicken - which is most certainly a major factor - it also has to do with how the chicken is stored prior to packaging for sale.
The details are straight out of a PETA horror ad. Conventionally raised chicken are thrown into a big holding tank full of water after being de-feathered. This is part of the reason why salmonella contamination is so prevalent in chicken. They are all stewing together in a 'bath'. Being submerged also causes the chicken to become saturated with water, which dilutes the flavor.
Air chilled chicken, on the other hand, are tied and hung individually inside a giant refrigerator. They don't come into contact with each other, and they aren't over-saturated with water. Hence, they retain more chicken flavor.
The Costco Coleman organic chicken we buy isn't air chilled, but it had better flavor than the supermarket chicken. We couldn't tell a big difference between it and the Bell and Evans, so we're sticking with it for our regular shopping. After the taste test, my husband decided the organic chicken was better value after all.
This past holiday season, I found the same to be true with our turkey. My husband and I made an organic turkey for Thanksgiving. It was incredibly flavorful and juicy. The Butterball we had at Christmas tasted mostly of salt and water, and the turkey 'flavor' wasn't as intense.
Experts debate on whether organic is healthier than conventional. They say their nutritional analysis shows no difference. Maybe that is true, but when food tastes better, we are more likely to choose to eat healthy.
As for the ethics, I couldn't hope to broach the topic nearly as well as Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma". Knowing about the mistreatment and poor handling of chickens is enough to think twice about whether we should eat it. However, the reason it is a dilemma is because none of our choices come free. If we eat conventional battery raised chicken, we're supporting poor living conditions of animals. If we become vegetarians and eat large quantities of quinoa, the new 'superfood', we're contributing to rising prices of a staple grain for impoverished Peruvians who can no longer afford it. Organic undoubtedly costs more, is difficult to scale, and is inaccessible for millions of low wage Americans. Pollan also points out that the term organic doesn't necessarily mean natural.
The one thing we all have in common is we must eat. We don't have an option not to. If foods are compared to tasting like chicken, which chicken are we referring to? Water saturated and flavorless? Or real chicken, which many of us seem to have forgotten.