The other day I decided to roast a chicken.
Seems like an easiest enough thing to decide, but once I got to the store my mission turned out to be more difficult than you might imagine.
The meat case held many types of chickens. I found a whole chicken labeled "natural" and another labeled "free range." Visualizing healthy chickens running around a sunny barnyard, I picked up the free-range chicken package.
Although that free range chicken could have spent hours every day flitting around the barnyard, the odds are it hadn't. That's because free-range poultry's definition doesn't necessarily have to match my vision. Here's why.
According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), to be labeled as "free range" or "free roaming," a chicken must have "... been allowed access to the outside." Essentially, a door to the outside must be available and open for that chicken. The USDA doesn't mandate that the chickens actually go out through that door, or for that matter whether that door must remain open all day. Operative word: access.
The label on that "natural" chicken stated that it was raised without added hormones. That's a good thing. But the poultry folks didn't do that voluntarily. No. Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry (the USDA approves hormones for only beef cattle and lamb).
So then what does "natural" mean? In the case of that chicken, it means there's no artificial ingredients or added color and that it's minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw chicken). All good.
But, chicken broth can be added to that processed chicken which adds water weight and since chicken broth is made with chicken, "natural" may still appear on the label.
At this point it seemed to me that the more expensive "free range" chicken and the less expensive "natural" chicken delivered about the same thing. The only difference: the free-range chicken may have had the opportunity to shake its tail-feathers in the sunlight; no guarantee, though, that it ever needed to don sunglasses.
If I wanted a chicken raised in a manner I considered healthier with the possibility of tasting better, I'd have to opt for a certified organic chicken.
I headed to a natural foods store in search of that organic chicken and when I found it, I also found a hefty price tag.
Seems we pay the price for that organic chicken to live on 100-percent organic feed, have access to the outdoors and be free of hormones and antibiotics (all USDA rules). Additionally, during processing, organic chickens may not be mingled with nonorganic chickens.
I ponied up the nearly $14 and took it home for a taste test.
I quartered and roasted my organic chicken simply: no brine, no butter rubs; just a rubdown with olive oil and a few grinds of pepper. I prefer a high heat method because it takes less time and produces a great looking chicken.
To my palate, I got what I paid for: this home-roasted organic chicken tasted better than other chickens I've roasted. Try it and let me know what you think.
• Don Mauer welcomes comments, questions and recipe makeover requests. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.