A chicken is not just a chicken. In fact, shopping for chicken can present more options than you anticipated. With various types of chicken and the many labels they’re given, it can be confusing to know exactly what you really want and need. Alternatively, you might be excited to diverge from your usual weeknight chicken breast meal in favor of something a little more elegant or unconventional.
To start, you’ll need to know the type of chicken you’re looking for. Whether it’s Cornish game hens for a dinner party or a roaster for a weeknight meal, understanding the types of chickens available to you is key. Based on your bird choice, you may then have several labels to choose from. So let’s get you in the know.
Broilers and fryers: These terms are often used interchangeably, and they aren’t very different except for their size. Broilers weigh in at about 2½ pounds, and fryers are a little bigger, at 2½ to 3½ pounds. Both are young chickens, around 6 to 8 weeks old. These chickens are most easily roasted whole and served family-style, but a butcher can also break them down into individual pieces.
Roasters: This type of chicken is around 8 to 12 weeks old. Due to their age, roasters generally weigh over 5 pounds. They’re often roasted, hence the name, and served whole. Roasters are a great choice to feed a crowd family-style.
Cornish game hens: A Cornish game hen can be either gender and is younger than 5 weeks old. This variety weighs about 2 pounds (sometimes less), meaning a half or whole hen can serve as a single portion, and as such, makes for an elegant presentation at dinner parties.
Capons: A surgically neutered male, this chicken is younger than 4 months old. Capons can weigh anywhere from 8 to 12 pounds; however, they still yield tender meat, with a lot to go around. You can roast this bird whole, and even stuff it like a turkey.
Labels are important because not all chickens are raised equally. The exposure to sunlight, quality of feed, and use of chemicals and antibiotics during growth can greatly affect the health and flavor of a chicken. Below are some of the most common labels you’ll encounter.
Organic chicken: These chickens are not given any hormones or antibiotics. Their feed is all natural, meaning it doesn’t contain by-products or fillers. Organic chickens have access to the outdoors, fresh air, and clean drinking water. Further, the feed of organic chickens is primarily made from corn and soybean meal, and is typically free of GMOs, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. This is unique, as a large percentage of corn and soybeans grown in the US is raised from genetically modified seed; that is, seed developed by scientists. GMO-free feed solely contains “natural” or non-genetically modified corn and soybeans. GMO foods have not been thoroughly tested to ensure their safety for consumption. To learn more about GMOs, check out the Environmental Working Group website.
Free-range chicken: If a chicken is free-range, it’s allowed outdoor access for at least 51 percent of its life. However, this label is often ambiguous, as the quality and size of the outdoor space is not specified. For example, being able to simply pop their heads outside through a hole can qualify as access to the outdoors, which isn’t ethical or humane, but still falls under the kinder-sounding category of free-range. This label is likely interpreted differently by each farmer, so if you can, research the source to ensure best practices. A free-range chicken label does not take feed quality into consideration. Seek out a non-GMO label if concerned about feed quality.
Air-chilled chicken: After a chicken is slaughtered and defeathered, it must be cooled to prevent any bacteria from forming. Many chickens are placed in an ice bath, which is not an ideal approach. For one, the water may be treated with antimicrobial agents, which can seep into the chicken. Secondly, the water can dilute the flavor. On the contrary, an air-chilled chicken is passed through cooling chambers, where it is hit with cold air. The resulting meat is more flavorful and natural. An air-chilled chicken label alone does not involve considerations of outdoor access or feed quality. Seek out an organic, free-range and/or a non-GMO label if organic quality, outdoor access, and non-GMO feed is of importance.
Local chickens: Many small, local farmers can’t afford an organic label, but still uphold organic practices. In fact, it’s often your local farmer who most ethically raises healthy chickens and honors their lives with access to the outdoors and high-quality feed. Learn more by visiting a few farms in your area. Many farmers will allow you to see the animals and the facilities where they are raised.