I attended a unique event last week, held at Cluck the Chicken Store in Paoli and sponsored by Nutrena (animal feed supplier): a chicken taste test.
Nate Pranke, one of two chefs at Cow & Quince in New Glarus, cooked three different types of birds: a supermarket bird, a Cornish Cross raised on local pasture and a Freedom Ranger raised on local pasture. Meat birds do receive supplemental feed, but they eat grass and forage for bugs when raised outdoors.
A few notes on chicken breeds: There are breeds that are best for laying, some that are best for meat and dual-purpose breeds that are good for a bit of both. And just like vegetables, there are heritage breeds that were raised before industrial agriculture became the norm.
Meat birds typically have larger breasts and legs and a fast growth rate and are efficient at converting feed into meat.
Most supermarket poultry is of the Cornish Cross variety — a hybridized species that is bred for lightning-fast growth in a confined area. This attribute results in a meaty bird that can be butchered at 5 weeks in conventional confinement (or 8 weeks outdoors) but also a number of weaknesses:
The chicken's growth is too much for its skeletal system and organs. It doesn't move very much and is susceptible to heart attacks. If this type of bird is raised outdoors, it doesn't forage well or withstand weather changes.
Many alternative poultry farmers are raising modern hybrids, and two of the most popular are Red Rangers and Freedom Rangers.
These hybrids come from heritage breeds and have a slower growth rate and more adept foraging skills, making them a better bird to be raised on pasture. These chickens are typically slaughtered between 9 and 12 weeks.
I took my 5-year-old as a date because (a) he is charming and (b) I wanted a neutral palate who wouldn't be influenced by the type of bird or how it was raised. He was oblivious to the speakers and dug into the three small piles of chicken on his plate when it was set down before him. (The chicken was served alongside bread and a divine coleslaw from Paoli Bread and Brat Haus that was scented with orange zest.)
After my son tested each, I asked him which one he liked the best and the least. He tried them each again and chewed thoughtfully.
He chose the pasture-raised Freedom Ranger as his favorite and the conventionally raised Cornish Cross as his least.
The other guests and I agreed with him almost unanimously. The conventional chicken was very soft and tasted watery (Chef Pranke noted that when he pulled the meat apart to serve, this meat was very soft and completely fell apart). The Freedom Ranger was toothsome (in a pleasant way) and had a more robust, distinctly herb-y taste.
Each bird was prepared the same — brined for 12 hours, rubbed with olive oil and stuffed with lemon and thyme. I'm not sure if the Freedom Ranger meat absorbed the aroma of the cooking herbs more readily or if it was a function of how much it foraged, but its meat was delicious. The Cornish Cross raised outside had a nice texture, but it was less flavorful than the Freedom Ranger.
I spoke with Eric Johnson from Jordandal Farm, who has raised both types of chickens outside on grass. He began raising alternative species eight years ago.
He and his wife, Carrie, are committed to raising poultry in outdoor pens on grass, and the Cornish Cross grew too fast and would just sit in front of the feeders.
This year he raised Red Rangers, and he has raised Freedom Rangers and Kosher Kings in the past.
He prefers them because of their hardiness, good activity and ability to put on weight.
All in all, it was a good experiment. While I am committed to buying local meat that is raised humanely for non-culinary reasons, it helps to know that it also truly tastes the best.
The temperatures are dropping, and roasting a whole chicken is a surefire way to get your house smelling incredible while providing several cost-efficient meals for the family well into the workweek.
My preferred method, if I'm planning ahead, is to rub the meat with salt one to three days ahead of cooking time (see recipes by Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe and Molly Stevens, roasting guru). But if you are working at the last minute, the recipe I've included is a quick, French preparation that yields a delicious bird.
Visit the JSOnline.com site to see Anna's recipe.