It's no secret that I'm fanatical about a good whole Roasted Chicken. It's one of the most economical hunks of meat you can buy to feed a crowd and if you're willing to do the work, you can get 2 to 3 meals out of it and use every last morsel of flavor the poor bird has to offer. At 99 cents a pound, it's win-win. And therin lies the problem...
You see, the sad truth (and well-kept secret) is that nobody should be able to sell you a chicken for 99 cents a pound. A chicken raised and processed in an environment that's healthy for both you and the chicken really should be more on the order of $3 or more per pound (definitely way more if you go organic or pasture raised). The 99 cent chicken is made possible by factory farming practices that, once you know a little about them, are quite repulsive for a variety of reasons (not just the cuddly animal reason).
I've known about all of this for quite some time and have wanted to do something about it. I've gone so far as to identify Bell and Evans chickens from Whole Foods as a tasty and better-for-the-chicken-and-me brand that suits my needs. However, it's still more than triple the price of the regular supermarket birds and when I'm trying to pinch pennies, I end-up back with the old stand-by. I just can't get my brain and my wallet to understand that three times the price is what's should be normal and this 99 cent garbage is a mirage like a lake in the middle of a desert. That was until a couple of weeks ago....
On a whim one morning, I tossed one of the Bell and Evans chickens (that I'd gotten on sale) into a slow cooker with no added liquid and the usual seasonings and aromatics that I use for French Chicken in a Pot. When I got home that night, we had a wonderful roast chicken with about an inch of juices to use for gravy and I noticed that the top of the bird had actually browned a little. It was absolutely delicious--finger lickin' good! I'd never gotten such results before in a slow cooker and I assumed that the secret was the lack of added liquid. I was wrong.
The following week, I did the same thing again, but this time, I used a regular supermarket chicken. When we got home that evening, I was presented with a pasty white bird with soft mushy skin, almost completely submerged in watery liquid. The meat was rubbery and tasteless and dried out within seconds of removing it from the cooking liquid.
As it turns out, you get what you pay for when you buy a 99 cent per pound chicken. The processing that's used involves submerging the chicken in vats of water to chill where, aside from possibly picking up salmonella from other chickens (yum!), the bird also absorbs water. Many birds (especially turkeys) are even injected with a saline solution so that they can be sold as "self-basting" or "pre-brined." What you're getting is artificial tenderness in the form of salt water that, when cooked slowly for hours in a slow cooker, leaches right back out of the meat and ends-up boiling the bird instead of roasting it. And you're paying for the water, too.
This little event, oddly enough, drew a line in the sand for me where it comes to poultry. I've decided to no longer purchase and feed feed my family supermarket 99 cent per pound chickens. It should have been enough to know how the birds were treated and processed but for some reason, it wasn't. It took a complete lack of quality to draw the line and convince me that the extra money was well spent. And you know what? That's okay.
You see, I think it's important that if you're going to take a stance on food choices that you know why you personally are making each choice. It shouldn't be because someone told you it's the right thing to do. It should be because you personally believe it's the right thing to do--for whatever your reasons are. From here on in, I'll know that I'm choosing to spend more on chicken because:
- Usually, the living conditions for the chickens is better and more sanitary, which is better for the bird and for me and my family as the consumers.
- Air-chilled birds are bacteria and virus-free due to the processing mechanism rather than due to added antibiotics or chemical cleaning agents.
- Air-chilled, non-pre-brined birds brown better, are tastier in the long run, and produce fantastic natural juices for gravy.
- I don't like the idea of traces of antibiotics being fed to the animals we eat ending up in our bodies, regardless of what the evidence does or doesn't prove.
And that, my friends, is how I became a Chicken Snob™.