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Remember the "Pepsi Challenge" commercials in which soft drink consumers tasted Coke and Pepsi side by side? I recently took the chicken challenge. I roasted a mass-produced chicken and a free-range one and served them side by side to a group of friends. The comparison was illuminating - the free-range bird was markedly superior in taste and texture.
Ben Bohen is a local chef and food writer.
Chickens labeled "free range" must come from producers that have demonstrated to the U.S. Department of Agriculture "that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside." (If you are interested in what various food labels mean, I recommend checking out the USDA Web site at www.usda.gov.)
This definition encompasses a wide variety of practices. The chicken that I prepared came from Shelton Farms. Shelton's Web site defines a "free-range environment" as one in which birds are "allowed to walk around in the open air and sunshine, free to scratch at the ground and peck away at whatever takes their fancy." Free-range producers are also less likely to use antibiotics on their flocks and to employ processing techniques that are cleaner and easier on the meat.
This contrasts starkly with the life of factory farm chickens, which are often packed so tightly in cages that they can barely move for the entirety of their lives. These birds usually are raised on some combination of grain and animal-based feeds. Frequent doses of antibiotics keep mass-produced chickens from succumbing to the diseases that would otherwise run rampant in such conditions. Antibiotics also cause water retention, which adds weight to the bird at little cost to the producer.
Chickens raised in a free-range environment lead healthier lives and end up being more nutritious food. According to Marjorie Bender of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, poultry that is free range and grass fed is a better source of vitamin E, beta carotine, anti-oxidants, and Omega 4 and Omega 6 fatty acids, all of which can aid in combating heart disease and cancer. These same benefits can be found in the eggs that come from such chickens and in grass-raised meats such as beef, pork and lamb. (For more on the health benefits of free-range livestock, Bender recommends the Conservancy's Web site at www.albc-usa.org, or the book "Why Grass Fed is Best" by Jo Robinson.)
Setting health concerns aside, I took the chicken challenge to determine which bird makes better eating. To ensure that the flavor of each was clear and undisguised, I prepared both chickens in the same simple fashion - stuffed with whole lemons and rubbed with only sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and then roasted at 350 degrees for approximately 20 minutes per pound.
The birds looked noticeably different before going into the oven. The standard hen had pale yellow skin and white flesh. The free range had a pink tint to its skin and flesh. Its legs were proportionally larger and its breasts smaller than those of its cage raised competitor.
Although both chickens emerged from the heat of the oven with nicely browned skin and juicy flesh, all of my tasters definitely preferred the flavor and texture of the free-range meat. The roasted free-range chicken had a fuller, richer flavor profile. Even its white meat was more potent than the leg and thigh meat from the standard bird, which was sadly bland in comparison. To put it simply, free-range chicken tastes more like chicken.
In terms of texture, both hens were quite tender, but the free-range meat had a satisfying chewiness, while the flesh of its competitor seemed watery and almost mushy at times.
One obvious drawback of free-range chickens is price - they are definitely more expensive than mass-produced poultry. The frozen Shelton Farms chicken that I bought at Rainbow Foods cost three times as much as the standard supermarket bird. Free-range chickens available at A & P (fresh and frozen), Super Bear (fresh) and Safeway (fresh) do not necessarily cost as much as the Shelton's, but they are more expensive than the other chickens these stores carry.
Free-range chickens may not be cost effective for making chicken salads or soups and stews. But for roasting or grilling I think the difference in quality is noticeable enough to merit a splurge. Personally, I prefer to eat a better bird less often than to settle for bland disappointment time after time.
But please, don't just follow my advice. Take the chicken challenge - and taste the difference for yourself.
Ben Bohen is a Juneau caterer and food writer.