We’ve heard it all before. Commercially-raised chickens are subjected to brutish conditions, they live in crowded coops where they get very little sunlight and natural ventilation and, worse, they are given food — more than they need — intentionally formulated to fatten them up fast instead of providing them with basic nutrition. And you have all those animal rights activists campaigning against such practices and pushing for free range chickens.
The thing is, chickens raised in that abominable manner are cheaper. Free range chicken costs fifty to seventy per cent more. For the average consumer, cost is a huge factor in deciding between the usual stuff and the free range animal. I am a consumer so the animal cruelty debate doesn’t really tug at my heart. I work hard for the money with which I buy my chicken and price is the more decisive factor.
A while back, however, we saw an episode of River Cottage that made me look at the free range chicken debate in a whole new light. The host, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, had several chicken specimens tested. Yes, as in tested in a laboratory. The objective — to determine whether commercially-raised and free range chickens were equally nutritious. The result was a resounding no. I wish I can remember the details but I can only remember the end result.
Still, me being me, a natural doubter, the River Cottage episode was filed inside my head in a folder labeled “for further investigation.” The truth is, with the way businesses lie, a chicken raised in a coop can be packed, labeled and sold as free range and no one would probably know the difference. Unless someone like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall picks up a sample and takes it to the lab for testing. Then, the cat would be out of the bag. So, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s findings were filed away “for further investigation.”
Then, one day, Speedy came home with a free range chicken. Now, we didn’t have any way of measuring the nutrition value of the free range chicken and compare it with one raised in a coop. But we discovered a lot of things that may just convince us to ditch coop-raised chickens altogether.
First, the shrinkage. Did you know that it is an acceptable — and even legal — practice to inject meat, including chickens, with water prior to packing? The water plumps up the meat and makes it more attractive to the consumer. That’s one thing I’ve noticed when cooking chicken in the past — it expels so much water the moment it goes into the pan. By the time the chicken is done and the water has evaporated, the bird has shrunk tremendously. The free range chicken shrunk very little.
That’s the soda can roast chicken. The chicken was in the oven for an hour. Notice, in particular, the thigh and drumstick.
The minimal shrinkage may mean the animal was injected with less water. But there is another factor — the amount of fat. The free range bird has considerably less fat under the skin than cheaper caged chickens.
The logic is obvious. You have a chicken in a crowded coop where it is hardly able to move, where it is fed for the purpose of fattening it up and without allowing it natural physical activity, and you get a super fat chicken. Whereas, a chicken allowed to move freely will likely burn off excess fat.
The texture of the meat is different too. The free range chicken has a denser and more tightly packed meat. I suppose that you can draw a parallelism between a physically active person and one who is bedridden. Naturally, their muscles will vary greatly.
And, finally, and this was probably the clincher for us, the flavor. Suddenly, all the chicken we’ve eaten in the past tasted bland. And, no, it has nothing to do with seasonings and marinade. There is a richness and depth to the flavor of the meat that you won’t find in the meat of a caged bird.
So, even if you’re a staunch believer in the food chain like me, you may want to rethink the free range chicken debate — not for the animal cruelty angle but with the thought that you might actually be getting more value for your money when you buy free range chickens. Better flavor, better texture, less fat and less shrinkage during cooking. Make sure, though, that you buy free range chickens from a reputable seller. If you can get them directly from the raiser, the better. You know how it is with many sellers — ethics just don’t figure in their world at all. So, go beyond the label and scrutinize more to make sure you’re getting real free range chickens.