Thursday, July 31, 2008

Out of the Water and Enjoying the Breeze: The Delights of the Air-Chilled Chicken

Americans love their chicken. According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, in 2006, the average person consumed 88.2 pounds of chicken. To keep our appetites sated, there are some 200 chicken processing plants in the U.S. slaughtering and prepping chicken for consumption.

But, are we enjoying it? There’s a reason why so often you hear a comparison between the flavor of most every out-of-the-ordinary animal and chicken. Rattlesnake? Tastes like chicken. Rabbit? Tastes like chicken. Frog legs? The same. How can that be? Well, unfortunately, most mass-produced chicken has no flavor. It’s often just a bland delivery vehicle for the gorgeous, rich marinade or the barbecue sauce it carries. When something tastes like nothing, it apparently tastes like everything.

I’ve been trying to remedy that in my own household by buying organic chicken. Trying because I still haven’t felt the love. I’ll do a simple roasted chicken with salt, pepper, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil and… nothing. It tastes fine, but it’s nothing special. However, on Monday afternoon I was on my way back to my parents’ house with my mom and niece and my mom wanted us to make a quick stop at Bristol Farms to pick up some lemon sorbet. I decided as long as I was there to buy chicken for myself for dinner and got a couple of air-chilled whole legs.

I finally felt the love. All I did was thin a couple of tablespoons of Majestic Garlic’s sun-dried tomato/jalapeño blend with a little olive oil and spread it over the legs and thighs. Then I roasted them at 375 degrees for about an hour. What came out of the oven was a gorgeous red-toned chicken with crispy skin and tender, juicy, FLAVORFUL meat. It tasted like something. It tasted like chicken.

So, I thought I’d find out a little more about air-chilled processing compared to conventional processing.

Since the mid-1990’s after some major E.coli and salmonella scares, the USDA required that the carcass temperature of chickens be lowered within four hours after slaughtering to at least 40 degrees to retard bacteria growth. Processors have preferred to do this through immersion chilling, soaking the chickens en masse in a communal vat of chlorinated ice water for about an hour.

Now, the problem with this is that, depending on which study you read, the chickens may absorb anywhere from two to 12 percent of their body weight in added water which weeps out of the meat. That’s the liquid you find in fresh chicken packaging at the grocery store. And, you’re paying for that extra weight.

Air-chilling is done by only a handful of plants in the U.S., although it’s a technique that’s been around for about 20 years in Europe. Air chilling involves spraying the chickens inside and out after slaughtering with chlorinated water, and then moving them one by one along a track through chambers where they’re misted with cold air. It takes about two-and-a-half to three hours before they’re fully chilled.

MBA Smart Chicken of Nebraska was the first in the U.S. to air chill chickens, and that was 10 years ago. Two years ago, Pitman Farms of Fresno became the first on the West Coast. Another processor, Bell & Evans, claims it has an air chill system with a single chilling line that prevents cross contamination from birds on higher racks dripping on those underneath.

So, what are the benefits to air chilling chickens? Supporters claim that the slow chill process, which gets their birds to under 35 degrees, tenderizes the meat and that the chickens’ natural juices are not diluted in or replaced by the water in a conventional water chiller.

Food scientist Harold McGee has said that it makes the chicken taste more “chickeny” because the bird absorbs less liquid, leaving the real flavor of the chicken undiluted. Based on my Monday night experience, I agree.

It also produces a higher cooked-meat yield than immersed chickens because the immersed meat absorbs more water, which then cooks out. And, air chilling contributes to crispier cooked skin.

Air chilling also saves tens of thousands of gallons of water a day. USDA researchers say it takes an average of seven gallons of water to process a chicken through immersion processing and estimate that air chilling would save a minimum of half a gallon of water for each bird processed—not bad in drought areas. They estimate that processors could save about 4.5 billion gallons of water a year if all nine million birds processed annually in the U.S. were air chilled. (However, air chilling takes longer than immersion chilling so more energy is expended on air chilling.) Another sustainable benefit is being promoted by Bell & Evans. They says that since chickens aren’t weeping liquid, the company can use recyclable and reusable shipping containers.

As for the chlorine, the fact of the matter is that chemical disinfectants are have long been popular way to disinfect food products, and chlorine is used about 80 percent of the time. But the amount is limited to 50 ounces per 7,800 gallons of water. So, it shouldn’t be detectable to consumers, particularly after cooking. Chlorine is also used in treatment of other food products like seafood and produce.

Locally, air-chilled chickens are sold at Jonathans, Harvest Ranch, Whole Foods and Bristol Farms. Chickens sold by the latter are also anti-biotic and hormone free and free-ranging. Robert Whitley tells me he buys air-chilled chickens at Costco.

And, a note to Lou, The Gourmet Club’s wonderful engineer and rabid foodie, who asked me about Blue Foot chickens. Lou, these are an American variety of the French chicken breed, Poulet de Bresse, which is the only chicken to receive its own AOC, or Appellation d’origine contrôlée, which translates as “controlled term of origin.” It’s the French certification granted to certain French geographical indications (GI) for wines, cheeses, butters and other agricultural products, all under the auspices of the government's Institut National des Appellations d'Origine.

This is an elite chicken, selling at about 10 times the usual price of most other chicken. And it’s almost always sold—and served—with the head and feet still attached. That’s because it has a gorgeous red comb and white feathers, and it has unique steel-blue feet. It’s slaughtered later than usual chicken and it, too, is air-chilled, both of which apparently give it a stronger flavor and texture.

You can buy Blue Foot chicken through D’ and at Exotic Meats. And, yes, you’re right if you think you saw these chickens featured as the secret ingredient on Iron Chef America. There was a Battle Blue Foot Chicken on Iron Chef America in 2007 with Bobby Flay going against Jeffrey Ford.

And, here’s a link to a delicious sounding recipe at Food & for Roasted Blue Foot Chickens with Glazed Parsnips and Carrots. And, if you are just mad about chickens, check out

Have some thoughts about air-chilled chickens, Blue Foot chickens or markets in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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  1. I'm dismayed to learn that packaged chicken contains so much chlorinated water. I know it's a good thing that we have more choices nowadays -- we can buy organic produce at Vons now -- but I get the sense that whatever I eat, unless I pay painfully high prices, is somehow bad for me. Certainly, anything that comes in a package is. Doubtless we set ourselves up for health problems if we eat the typical American diet. People who are young now and who eat close to the earth may avoid all that. But they'll pay more in time (going to specialty and farmer's markets) and money.

  2. Hi Debra, thanks for writing.

    You should know that slight amounts of chlorine are also used initially to clean the chickens that are air dried. This is standard procedure for slaughterhouses, apparently, whether they are air chilled or water chilled. I don't know if there alternatives to that, but imagine how much pricier it would be.

    We are paying a lot for the privilege of eating healthier food. However, I'm convinced that as demand grows and more suppliers see the market for organics, air-chilled chicken, grass-fed beef and the like increase, they'll get with it and prices will lower. Already Wal-Mart of all places is offering organic produce at their superstores and where Wal-Mart goes, others follow.