The other day I wrote about my first experience cooking a free-range chicken, whom I dubbed Frances. In the post I go into quite a lot of detail about the process, but left my final verdict – would I buy free-range chickens again? Was it worth the higher price tag? – for this post.
After a few days of mulling, here are my thoughts on the flavor, ease of preparation, and value of free-range chicken:
Note: I know there is a lot of disagreement over what the term “free range chicken” means. Frances was what many would consider to be a “true” free-range chicken: she was allowed unrestricted, open access to the outdoors. The FDA definition of “free-range” is much more narrow and might mean that a bird only has access to the outdoors for a few minutes a day.
Flavor: As I shared in my other post, I found the drumsticks and thighs to be distractingly dark and “heavy” tasting, and there was so little breast meat that there wasn’t much for the white-meat eaters. That said, I think I’d have to give free-range birds a few more chances before I can judge the flavor with certainty. This time, I cooked the chicken over low heat with lots of liquid and Moroccan spices. The “low and slow” cooking might have brought out the best in the bird, but maybe the strong spices overpowered the flavor. It’s hard to say without trying it a few different ways. Frances was a heritage breed, so maybe I’d like another breed better. Also, I think I’m so used to “regular” chickens that I might just need to give my tastebuds time to adjust to a different kind.
Preparation: Yes, this part was a bit more time-consuming, but now that I have the hang of it I think the time it took to get the pinfeathers and “hair” off would be negligible. Cutting Frances up into parts took by far the most time, and that would have been a learning process for me with any kind of chicken. I’d say prep time is a wash.
Value: Here’s where it gets tricky. Yes, the labels “organic” and “free range” sound ideal, but the fact is that when I’m faced with a product that costs up to twice as much as another, I have to ask myself whether the extra cost is truly supporting my priorities. Here’s what I like about free-range, local chicken:
- I like supporting farmers in my community
- I like that the chickens are raised humanely
- I like that the chickens eat organic, antibiotic-free feed.
Of the three, by far the most important factor to me is that the chickens are raised humanely.
While the idea of organic feed is nice, I eat a lot of non-organic food and it’s not a make-it-or-break-it deal for me. And while I like supporting farmers in my community, there are many ways to do that: I can (and do) buy produce, eggs, and prepared foods like jams and salsas from local farmers.
After the issue of humane treatment, my three biggest priorities when it comes to chicken are flavor, nutrition, and value. If I had been crazy about the flavor of the free-range bird, that would have solved the issue right there. But I wasn’t, which leaves nutrition and value.
So it comes down to this: am I convinced that free-range chicken delivers the best value and nutrition?
Or is there another option I can feel good about?
There is a poultry label I’ve been buying for a few years called Miller’s Amish. While the chickens are not technically “free-range”, their care is described thusly on the company’s website:
Miller chickens are raised in a stress-free environment where they have access to fresh water and feed with natural light and ventilation and are free to roam within the chicken house on open floors.
Of course it warrants further research, but this description is far from the kind of horror I have read about huge industrial chicken factories, where hens are kept in tiny, filthy cages for their whole lives.
Miller’s farms are located in southern Michigan and northern Indiana, right in my neck of the woods. That checks off the “local” box as well, though maybe not quite as local as the guy right in my county.
Miller has recently begun offering an organic chicken, as well. And although the label “organic” isn’t generally the end-all-be-all for me, in this case it might be the one that means the most, because it’s got government muscle behind it. According to an article on Salon.com:
“What it means for a chicken is that 100 percent of its feed (except maybe mineral supplements) must be certified organic, which means in itself that it has been grown in a field that has not seen chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides or genetically modified organisms for at least three years.
In addition to the feed, certain husbandry techniques are prohibited in organic production. Since antibiotics are not allowed at all, chickens can’t be contained in the literal wing-to-wing density that conventional producers use; with that cramming, it would be impossible to keep disease at bay without drugs.
So is the $10-11 organic chicken from the semi-local farm the right choice for me? It feels like a reasonable compromise, all things considered. (I have an organic Miller Amish chicken in my refrigerator right now, so I’ll definitely share my experience after I cook it!)
When it comes right down to it, though, I’m also OK with the non-organic chicken from that same semi-local label. I like the flavor, feel that it delivers good value, and appreciate the company’s attention to humane treatment issues.
I’m guessing you have a brand in your region that’s not exactly a small family farm, but also isn’t a “chicken factory.” If you’re feeling convicted to choose your meat more consciously but free-range local chickens aren’t in the budget, you might consider researching the different brands available at your grocery store to see if you can find middle ground.
I’ll probably give a local free-range chicken farm another try.
I like to experiment, and don’t think it’s fair to judge all free-range birds by my first experience cooking one. I’d like to see if other cooking methods result in different flavor or texture, and whether there is much variety from one free-range bird to the next.
But after this first experiment – and all my follow-up research – I’ve discovered that I no longer feel conflicted about buying chicken at the supermarket.
Food choices can be complicated, and they lie on a continuum: good-enough, better, best; it’s hard to always know where your buying decisions lie. When it comes right down to it, the best way to make any food choice is to take a close look at all the options, examine and rank your priorities, and make sure you aren’t letting meaningless buzzwords, other people’s biases, or incorrect assumptions make the choices for you.
After my free-range chicken experiment I feel like I have a much better idea of my available options and which ones best support my priorities. The experience also reminded me not to make so many assumptions (I was very surprised that I didn’t love the free-range chicken more!) and to do my research before I judge.
I guess I could apply those lessons to anything in life, hm?