Pictured: Roasted Rosemary and Lemon Chicken recipe from CHOW
America’s love affair with chicken is well known: we (literally) eat bucket loads more of it than any other protein. According to the USDA, the average American will consume an estimated 86.6 pounds of chicken in 2015. The next runner up, beef, doesn’t even come close at 52.2 pounds. If the meat on your table tastes like chicken, it’s because it probably is. But as fundamental as it may seem, buying chicken at the store isn’t always straightforward. Not only do you have the different parts and pieces to contend with, there’s an overload of other choices to make. Your local supermarket probably has several subsections within its poultry case, to separate out the store brand from the big name producers, the organic birds, kosher and halal specimens, and possibly more.
So what’s there to know when shopping for chicken? Here are five things to keep in mind while you’re at the store:
1. Age Matters
Most of the chicken we eat comes from broilers—young birds specifically bred for their meat. But you can find several different age classes of chicken at the store, which each have their own best uses and characteristics. You don’t ever want to make the rookie mistake of confusing a fowl with a Cornish hen. Here are the basic types of birds:
Poussin: A very young chicken (between three to four weeks old at slaughter) that weighs between one to one and a half pounds. Extremely mild in flavor, they’re typically stuffed and roasted whole or liberally seasoned and put on the grill.
Cornish Hen: The next step up, cornish hens are four to five week old birds weighing one and a half to two pounds. Despite their name, they can be of either sex. Like poussins, they are tender, but don’t have much heft or size, meaning they’re best prepared whole. Get our Cornish Game Hens with Millet Stuffing recipe.
Broiler or fryer: Anything simply labeled “chicken” comes from one of these birds, which are between five to ten weeks old at slaughter and weigh anywhere from two and a half to four and a half pounds. Since they haven’t quite met full maturity, they have better formed but pliable bones and cartilage, making them easy to break down into parts.
Roaster: A bigger chicken weighing between five to seven pounds. It takes anywhere from eight to twelve weeks to reach this size, by which time the bird’s bones and cartilage have hardened up a bit. As their name suggests, these are showpiece chickens that you’ll want to roast whole. Get our Basic Whole Roasted Chicken recipe.
Stewing Hens or Fowl: These are older females (about ten months) that have ceased their egg-laying cycles. Small in size, they have tough meat that needs to be slow-cooked. What they lack in tenderness, however, they make up for in deep, concentrated flavor.
Capon: A capon is a neutered male chicken raised until it’s eight to twelve pounds (about three to four months old). These guys have the best of both worlds: plenty of meat and tender, delicate flavor. Get our Roasted Capon with Citrus-Sherry Jus recipe.
2. There’s Meaning Behind Every Label
The USDA defines and oversees the use of labels that appear on chicken (and all meats). For organic, non-antibiotic, free range, and naturally raised chicken, producers must apply and pay for the right to market their products as such. Here are some of the terms you’re most likely to see, and what they mean:
Cage-Free: This ensures that the birds are “freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area.” Frankly, it’s a pretty useless term when it comes to meat, since caging is mostly used to make egg collection more efficient with laying hens.
No Antibiotics: This certifies that the chicken never received medicines commonly used to treat or prevent disease and/or facilitate growth.
No Hormones: The use of growth hormones in poultry has been banned in the U.S. since 1959, but some producers will tout this anyway, to trump up practices that are already enforced by law.
Natural: The USDA does not strictly regulate the use of this term, but it does define a natural food product as one that contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” In other words, pretty much all chicken is natural.
Naturally Raised: The addition of that second word actually makes a huge difference, at least in the USDA’s view. Naturally raised chicken never receives antibiotics, hormones, or feed containing animal by products.
Free Range: This means that the chicken has “continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their lifecycle,” access being the operative word here. There’s no requirement for the amount of time that a bird spends on pasture, so it could technically be kept in close quarters with a little door to the outside that it never uses.
Organic: The organic label covers the most ground, at least when it comes to supermarket poultry. Organic chicken must be naturally raised, in free range conditions, and receive entirely organic feed (feed that is non-GMO and free of pesticides and chemical fertilizer).
Kosher and Halal: These labels signify that the bird has been slaughtered in accordance with the religious practices mandated by each. Both require that meat animals are killed by slitting them across the throat (as opposed to the stunning process that is used for most other poultry). Although it can be argued that this is a more humane slaughtering process, neither covers any aspects of how the bird was raised over its lifetime. Additionally, kosher chickens are salted in order to clean them of blood.
3. It Doesn’t End at the End
The list of factors that affects the ultimate taste and texture of your chicken doesn’t stop at slaughter. There are also processes that happen afterwards that can make a huge difference. Here are the major ones to be aware of:
Grades: Producers may voluntarily put their chicken or chicken parts up for grading inspection. Grading not only determines if the bird has any physical defects, it looks for clues regarding how it was handled post-slaughter. Grade A chicken is certified as being free of broken bones or major skeletal deformities. It shouldn’t have any noticeable protruding feathers or significant bruises, discolorations, or tears in the skin. Lesser quality B and C grade chicken is mostly reserved for ground meat and processed products.
Basted or Self Basted Meat: Many poultry products nowadays are injected with a salt water solution or broth, which may constitute up to eight percent of the final weight. While producers engaging in this practice are required to mark their products accordingly, this will often be in fine, hard to read print, so look closely. Although proponents will tell you that basting results in plumper, juicier, more flavorful meat, since the salt helps the chicken retain moisture, it, of course, is of big concern for anyone who is watching their sodium intake.
Chilling: Post-slaughter, meat needs to be brought down to a cool, food-safe temperature. Most chickens in the U.S. are chilled by immersing them in an ice water bath. It’s believed, however, that this causes them to absorb excess moisture, potentially diluting their flavor and resulting in skin that crisps less during cooking. Many chefs and high-end purveyors advocate air chilled chicken, which blasts the carcasses with cold air, instead. These birds tend to be tighter, firmer, and more flavorful, plus you get more meat per pound. Air chilling systems are expensive, however, and this is usually reflected in the final retail price.
4. Color Doesn’t Necessarily Indicate Quality
First off, there are a few naturally-occurring phenomena that will affect the color of your meat: The so-called “dark meat” pieces (thighs, legs) are higher in myoglobin, a protein that increases in muscles with age and exercise. When exposed to oxygen, the myoglobin produces a darker and deeper color in meat. Additionally, different breeds of chicken will be different shades—an extreme example is the black chickens found in Asian markets, which get their distinctive hue from a genetic mutation.
As for supermarket chicken, you may notice some variation in color, especially in the skin and fat. This is largely related to the bird’s genetics and diet. Some chickens have alleles that make them naturally disposed to depositing yellowish carotenoids in their outer layers. Plus, if they eat a diet high in yellow foods (corn, marigolds, etc.), they are simply more likely take on the color of their feed. Ultimately, the color doesn’t have much of an effect on the final product and taste.
Sometimes, you might also see a bluish tinge in the skin. This is perfectly normal. Younger chickens tend to give off this translucent hue because they are less fatty—that’s just the flesh revealing itself from underneath.
5. Go For the Whole Bird
There are some occasions when buying chicken by the part is practical, such as if you’re looking to make a massive pile of wings. But you don’t have to be doing a full-on roast in order to merit buying the bird whole, and in many situations, it just makes more sense. Whole chickens are simply cheaper, pound for pound. With a little practice, you can easily break them up into parts, and freeze anything you don’t plan on using right away (including the back and giblets, which can be saved up for stock). You’re also going to get more evenly sized pieces (at least by the pair), whereas a pack of thighs or legs maybe loaded with bigger and smaller ones that will cook unevenly. Lastly, a lot of supermarket parts aren’t exactly cut with care—it isn’t hard to find a raggedy chicken breast or a boneless thigh that is practically falling apart. With a little know how, you can ensure that your chicken is prepped the right way every time.
Ready to rule the roost? For some chicken-cooking inspiration, check out our guide to How to Make the Best Seared Chicken Breast, our list of favorite chicken thigh recipes, and our tips for How to Get Extra-Crispy Skin on That Roast Chicken. Have leftovers? Break out a pot and try our Basic Chicken Stock recipe!
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.