Roast chicken taste test

Thirty years of intensive farming practices means expensive organic and free-range chickens don’t taste any better than a standard factory chook.
 
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  • Updated:3 Mar 2008
 

01 .Introduction

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In brief

  • Paying extra for an organic or free-range chicken may have other benefits, but it won’t necessarily buy you a tastier chook to roast for dinner.
  • Free-range and organic chickens are reared with more space and access to the open air, but these differences aren’t enough to give them more flavour.

For a special family occasion there’s nothing like a roast chicken dinner with baked pumpkin and crunchy roast potatoes.

So what’s the tastiest chicken? Do the more expensive organic and free-range chooks really taste better than standard factory-farmed ones?

To find out, CHOICE bought the different brands and types of chicken widely available in the big supermarkets. A chef roasted the chickens and we asked four food experts to tell us how they rated for flavour. 

Please note: this information was current as of March 2008 but is still a useful guide today.


Video: Free-range taste test

Can you actually taste the difference between a free-range chicken and a battery-raised bird?

 
 

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Chef carving chickenCHOICE tested eight chickens: two organic, two free-range, one corn-fed and three regular factory-farmed birds.

A chef cooked the chickens, without seasoning or stuffing them. They were identified only by a number on a metal tag attached securely to a leg, so the expert tasters didn’t know the brand or type of chicken they were eating.

Each taster was served a portion of breast and leg meat with a plain green salad and slices of baguette for cleansing the palate between samples.

We asked the tasters to separately rate the breast and leg meat for aroma, texture, flavour and overall impression on a five-point scale.

Chickens tested

  Features
Brand (in alphabetical order) Type Price per kg ($)
Ingham Broiler 3.99
Inglewood Farms Organic Organic 12.5
Lilydale Free-Range Free-range 7.26
Steggles Broiler 4.27
Steggles Corn Fed Corn fed 5.99
Woolworths Free Range Free-range 6.49
Woolworths Organic Organic 9.99
You'll Love Coles Broiler 5.09
 

The result was unexpected

There was no significant difference between the scores for free-range or organic chickens and factory-farmed birds. No brand or type stood out as specially tasty. In fact there was general agreement among the experts at the end of the test that "none of them tasted much like the roast chicken that mother used to cook for us when we were kids.”

Two of the chooks divided the experts a bit, but not enough to single any brand out in the taste ratings. Two experts found the most expensive chicken in our test, Inglewood Farms Organic, "dry and unappealing", whereas the others quite liked it.

The Steggles Corn Fed chicken polarised the tasters the most. They either found it "flavoursome and very tender" or thought it had "no real chicken flavour" and questioned whether it had been "pumped up with something".

Our chef didn’t season the chickens at all, whereas most people use salt, pepper, butter, paprika or other herbs and spices on the bird itself, and add still more flavour with stuffing. (See Cooking the best chicken.)

Left to its own devices, chicken meat — no matter where it comes from — doesn’t seem to stack up to much. All in all, it doesn’t seem to matter what chicken you buy from a supermarket. Follow your conscience and go for free-range or organic, or save money on a standard chook — they all taste much the same. And there’s a reason for this (see Fast and faster food).

Meet the experts

  • Images of the tasting judgesSydney Pemberton
    Syd runs Pemberton’s Food Workshop in Sydney, where she gives demonstration cooking classes for adults and children. She’s the author of How to Clean Practically Anything, published by CHOICE Books.
  • Kim Coverdale
    Kim is food editor of Super Food Ideas. Prior to that, she was deputy food editor of Woman’s Day and New Idea.
  • Debbie Solomon
    Debbie is an Asian food specialist who organises and runs food tours of Sydney’s markets and more colourful food locations.
  • Dave Kasmoroski
    Dave has been both a butcher and a chef. He runs Eumundi Smokehouse in Sydney, where he makes traditional charcuterie products using recipes inherited from his Russian grandfather.

03.Fast and faster food

 

When you look at what’s happened to chicken farming over the last 30 years it’s easy to see why a roast chicken isn’t quite like it used to be.

Chickens have been genetically selected for faster and more efficient conversion of feed into meat. So successful has this been that the time taken to produce a chook weighing 2kg has been essentially halved, from more than 70 days to around 40.

But this emphasis on rapid growth has caused significant differences between meat chickens (the industry calls them 'broilers') and other breeds and strains (such as those used for egg production).

Broilers (no matter whether they’re free-range, organic or otherwise) have a lot more breast muscle, which puts mechanical stresses on legs and hip joints, and accelerated skeletal growth causes more frequent bone disorders.

Not surprisingly in view of this, broilers are much less active than laying hens, spending less time walking, scratching and flapping their wings. All this affects the quality of the meat — slower-growing birds that have a longer life span and also those given the time to reach a bigger ultimate size have more flavour. 

Other studies

Our test results are in line with much bigger trials overseas. Research in the US found no significant differences between the quality of the meat (breast and leg) from broilers and free-range birds.

  • A European study, which looked at responses from 100 ordinary consumers, also found no difference between the characteristics of organic and broiler chicken breast meat. Yet you'll often see claims that free-range and organic meat tastes better. What's the story? There are several factors.
  • The feed the chooks get can affect the flavour. But the free-range and organic birds from the big producers often don't get much from their outdoor scratching (the grass gets exhausted pretty fast). Most of their food is the same mixture of grains as is used for raising broilers.
  • The age of the bird matters. Commercial free-range chickens aren't necessarily slaughtered later than broilers (35-55 days). And the lifespan of organic chooks is only a little longer - the standards specify that organic meat chickens must be grown to maturity over a period of 63-80 days. Unfortunately the longer the birds live the more likely they'll suffer from bone and joint abnormalities.

The breed of chicken can influence the quality and flavour of the meat. In the past many different breeds were raised for meat. Now all commercial meat birds — broilers, free-range and organic alike — are from much the same fast-maturing genetic stock.
The free-range, organic and broiler birds from big producers are now so alike any differentiation and competition is dead, to the detriment of consumers and, ultimately, the industry. As one of our experts said of the industry, "They need to take a close look at themselves!"

If flavour is of paramount importance to you, try to find a small producer who uses traditional breeds and lets them live longer. Failing that, the best you can do is buy the biggest chicken you can find the bigger it is, the longer it's lived and likely the better the flavour.

Hormones and antibiotics

The claim that chickens are fed growth hormones is a furphy — the practice has been banned since the 1960s. But factory chickens are routinely fed antibiotics for disease prevention — and it so happens that antibiotics can also make the birds grow faster. The industry claims (correctly) that there’s no antibiotic residue in the meat, but the real issue is that of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Chickens carry bacteria such as E coli, salmonella and enterococci. Natural selection ensures that these bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics when they’re used over time, and CHOICE testing in 2002 found antibiotic-resistant bacteria in more than 10% of chickens.

These bacteria inevitably spread to humans, contributing to the ongoing problem of reduced effectiveness of life-saving antibiotics.

04.The ethics of buying chicken

 

Given little difference in flavour, you might want to base your decision about what chook to buy on ethics instead. If so, you'll want to know how the different types of chicken are raised.

Factory farming

The industry boasts the birds aren’t caged like laying hens, but they still don’t get much room to move. They’re confined in sheds with less space per bird than the area of one page of CHOICE magazine.

Chicken meat produced by this system is certainly cheap, and the birds are protected from predators and heat and cold. But animal welfare organisations say the system is cruel, for a number of reasons.

  • The birds are stressed by the unnatural environment where they can’t scratch, dust-bathe and stretch their wings.
  • They can suffer chronic pain and lameness because of their rapid growth.
  • They’re housed on litter, but the sheds aren’t cleaned until the fully grown chooks are taken for 'processing'. The high ammonia levels from this accumulation of chook poo can cause eye, skin and respiratory problems in the animals.

Corn-fed

These differ from regular factory chickens only in that they’re fed a high-corn diet instead of the usual mix of grains and legumes. Some people prefer the flavour of corn-fed chooks. The flesh and fat are slightly yellow, which some find disconcerting at first. 

Free-range

This system involves efficiency compromises over factory farming, to provide a better environment for the birds.

  • Free-range chooks may get more space in the shed.
  • They're allowed to forage outside in a more natural environment (though they don’t necessarily take advantage of it, or get much food from the sometimes overused ground).

Organic

Organic chickens are also free-range, but there are additional requirements:

  • The birds have even more space than free-range chooks when they’re confined in sheds.
  • Most of the diet must be from feed produced by organic methods (so this should exclude genetically modified (GM) corn and GM soya bean meal).

The French have a word for it

In France you’re almost guaranteed a tasty roast chicken if you buy a Label Rouge bird at your local supermarché (though at twice the price of an ordinary broiler).

The Label Rouge system imposes strict standards. The birds must be free-range and there are special dietary requirements.

But the key factor in producing the flavour is the use of traditional breeds of chook that grow much more slowly than birds that have been bred for factory farming. Label Rouge chickens must grow for at least 81 days before slaughter, whereas in Australia even organic chickens might only live for 63 days.

05.Cooking the best chicken

 

Here’s the way to cook the perfect roast chicken, from CHOICE’s home economist:

  • Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C if it’s fan-forced). Roasted chickens in baking tray
  • Carefully lift the breast skin away from the flesh of the chicken and place knobs of butter under the skin. Cut a lemon in half and put both halves in the cavity. Rub the skin with butter and season with salt and pepper.
  • Truss the chicken (tie its legs together and make sure the wings are tucked under).
  • Place the chicken breast-side up on a rack, in a shallow roasting pan with water. Cook for about 30 minutes per 500g of chicken. Shield any areas that are cooking faster than others (such as wings and drumsticks, even sometimes the breast) with foil.
  • To test if the chicken is ready, insert a skewer into the thickest part of the thigh. If the juices run clear with no sign of pink, the chicken is cooked.
  • Cover the chicken loosely with foil and set it aside to rest for 5–10 minutes before carving it or cutting it into pieces to serve. (This is your opportunity to turn the oven temperature up high for some really crunchy roast potatoes.)