You head to your grocery store’s meat section with the intention of buying chicken. Seems simple enough! But when you arrive you’re met with a rush of panic. There are rows and rows of options, from various types of chickens to a multitude of cuts and a host of confusing labels.
While it’s wonderful to have so many choices, this can put a lot of pressure on you. You want to pick the most flavorful and healthy meats for your family. And you want to make sure they’re ethically and humanely raised. But what’s most important and where do you start?
1. Size Matters
What would you like to make for dinner or your next big party? A large chicken that can feed a crowd or something delicate and unique? Will you be plating the meal or serving it family style? Consider your most desired outcome. Then, decide which type of chicken you should select. Need a little help deciding between a broiler, fryer, roaster, Cornish game hen or capon? Click here to get the 101 on all the names you need to know.
2. Demystifying Labels
Chicken farmers and producers buy labels that represent their processing practices. The United States government regulates these labels. Some, like organic, typically yield the highest-quality chickens, while others, like free range, don’t say much at all. Add to that a handful of small farmers who can’t afford any labels at all. Click here to read about the most common labels and what they really mean.
3. Get a Passing Grade
Grades are not mandatory, but may be requested by the farmer/chicken producer, as they offer more information to the consumer. Grade A denotes that the chicken is mostly free from any defects or broken bones. Whole chickens with the skin on are inspected for tears that might dry out the meat.
4. To Baste or Not.
Basting offers a way to moisten the meat. At the market, you have the option to buy chicken that has already been basted, marinated, or brined. This is intended as a convenience for the consumer. The flavorings and seasonings are listed on the label. However, we recommend you avoid these options as most contain additives not ideal for your health. You’re better off doing it yourself, so you can control what goes into your chicken.
5. What Colors Mean.
For the most part, raw chicken flesh is pink, while the skin is mostly white. However, you might notice some red or purplish tones throughout. This happens when a protein called myoglobin mixes with oxygen. This process is normal and usually isn’t cause for concern.Age and cuts of meat can cause color variations from one chicken to the next. Older animals and exercised cuts (thighs and legs) are darker than younger animals and less mobile cuts, like chicken breasts. Feed and chilling methods can also cause some slight differences. Because of these varied factors, overall color doesn’t always signify spoilage. That said, the color of the chicken fat is an indicator of freshness. Look for and purchase chicken with white to deep yellow colored fat and stay away from gray or pasty colored fat.
Also be sure the chicken is wrapped well – no leakage – and the date of the package indicated freshness. Once home smell is the greatest freshness indicator. A rancid smell is usually quite apparent if the meat has gone bad. If you’re unsure about the texture, color, or smell, consider the adage: When in doubt, throw it out.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are often touted as the leanest cut of meat. While that is true, dark meat has its own list of benefits. From a culinary standpoint, it’s higher in fat, so doesn’t dry out as quickly. Plus, it packs more flavor. Health-wise, it contains more fat, but also more zinc and iron. What this really makes a case for is eating food in its whole form. Don’t be afraid to whip out your roasting pan and prepare a whole chicken to enjoy all cuts of meat. Then, use the leftover carcass to make a healing bone broth.