There you are again: standing slack-jawed and confused in the chicken section of the grocery store, squinting under fluorescent lights and shivering from the cold. How is it possible that there could be so many different kinds of chicken, each characterized by different incomprehensible words. Organic. Cage-free. Air-chilled. What does it all mean??
At this point, we know that the best chickens are the ones that have the freedom to run around fields, eating worms and bugs and all that good stuff. They taste better, have more developed muscles, and a generally higher quality of life. If you can buy a top-notch whole chicken from your farmers market, specialty butcher, or trusted grocer, that’s amazing. But they can get expensive, and sometimes you just want a damn chicken for dinner without all the work of hunting down the perfect bird.
And that’s why knowing what the words on the chicken packaging mean—and which ones don’t mean anything—is important. It’s the difference between a tasty whole roast chicken and a ho-hum one. Here’s what everything on that grocery store poultry package means:
That familiar USDA Organic logo means that the chicken you’re looking at was fed organic feed and at least had access to the outdoors. That’s cool! As a general rule, we like to keep chemicals out of our food as much as possible, so we seek out organic chicken whenever possible. That’s the way nature wanted you to enjoy chicken. Probably.
Antibiotic-Free and Hormone-Free
Hormone-free chicken doesn’t really mean anything—the USDA actually prohibits the use of added hormones in poultry, so it’s all supposed to be hormone-free. Antibiotics, on the other hand, are allowed, so that antibiotic-free designation means that you’re not going to end up eating any weird chicken medication when you eat that chicken. If you see the USDA Organic label on an antibiotic free bird, you know it’s an honest claim. Which is a good thing, we think. You’re not a chicken! No chicken medication for you!
What do you think about when you hear the words cage-free? Chickens with great health insurance and paid maternity leave, running through sunny, sprawling fields? Probably. But guess what: Cage-free doesn’t actually mean anything. Most meat chickens (unlike egg chickens) don’t really live in cages, even in big factory farming operations where they’re all cooped up in some scary windowless warehouse. That’s still “cage-free”! This is a throw-away term.
Freedom ain’t free. Or guaranteed, if you’re a chicken. Free-range doesn’t necessarily mean that your chicken was raised in a pasture (only that it had access to one). So this term could mean very good things for chicken…or kind of not that much at all. Again, it comes down to your trust in the person selling you the chicken.
You should always buy air-chilled chicken. The process of air-chilling a chicken means that, after it was slaughtered and de-feathered and all that, it was cooled by hanging in open air, not by being submerged in cold water. The water-chilling process causes the chicken to take on added water weight, which ultimately dilutes the flavor of the meat—less than ideal. Air-chilled birds are going to have a lot more flavor, so that’s kind of a non-negotiable.
Kosher or Halal
Regardless of your religious beliefs, you’ve probably eaten kosher or halal meat, and when it comes to chicken, kosher and halal birds are pretty easy to come by. Kosher and halal chickens are raised, slaughtered, butchered, packaged, and prepared in accordance to Jewish and Islamic (respectively) culinary laws. If you aren’t at a specifically kosher or halal butcher shop, the distinction will be clearly labeled on the package. What’s important to remember here is that the words kosher and halal are not necessarily an indication of quality on their own. Some might be better than your average bird, some might be just whatever, so it’s still a good idea to read the other words on the package.
Natural can mean whatever you want it to mean. There aren’t any regulations on using the word, so it doesn’t really tell you anything. The chicken was raised in nature? Natural. The chicken was raised on a diet of organic, handmade pasta? Natural. The chicken was born with a gift for basketball? A natural. This means everything and nothing at the same time.
The Bottom Line
In the best case scenario, you’re going to walk away from the grocery store with an organic, antibiotic-free, air-chilled, free-range chicken. But if your grocery store isn’t packing that kind of heat, at the very least, you should buy air-chilled chicken. That’s an absolute must for us in the wide world of chicken. Oh, and your whole chicken should clock in at between three and four pounds. That size gives you the best chance of success for a tender, flavorful, manageable bird. And that’s what life’s all about, right?