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Learn How to Buy Chicken At Your Grocery Store Because Tough Meat Is for the Birds
So. Many. Choices.
If I hit up a different grocery store than normal and need to buy chicken, then it’s a total crap shoot. Maybe I’ll find a perfect bird at my price point.
Or maybe I’ll just stare at all my selections, frozen with indecisiveness.
Don’t get me wrong, I truly appreciate the practice of designating the quality of meat. High quality meat is better for you, me, the animal, and the earth. And designations help us determine which packages of chickens fit the bill (or beak) at the grocery store.
But it sure can be confusing and overwhelming with the amount labels on a chicken. Free-range, organic free-range, pasture raised, vegetarian fed, cage free, the list goes on.
I want the bird to have lived a good life. I obviously, want it to be juicy and tender. But, I also can’t afford to always buy the best of the flock from my local organic farm.
With a bit of knowledge, you can understand how to buy chicken. There may seem like a ton of options (and there are). But, once you figure out which options fit your price point, taste buds, and ethics, you can stick to them. Because they will be standard across any store you visit.
So, stop staring at the chicken selection already. And gain some buyer’s confidence by learning what all these chicken designations mean and which ones you want your chickens to fall under.
How to Read a Chicken Label
When buying chicken, use the label as your guide. There are several parts to understanding.
Specifically, a label tells you how a chicken was raised, what it was fed, and how it was handled. Keep in mind that any single label probably won’t tell you the whole story, so you need to look at each of the below steps when buying chicken.
Let’s take a look at the designations for each of them:
Step 1: Determine How A Chicken Was Raised
The below labels tell you how the chicken lived. Did they live like a chicken was supposed to live (free to roam, eat dirt, and live in the sunlight) or were they confined to a tiny indoor cage?
Regular or Standard or No Label
This is the lowest standard. Chickens with this label are raised in large commercial farms. Generally, chickens live indoors in stacked cages with little room to move and no access to sunlight. The cheapest option, but quality of life for the chicken is low. Also, the meat will be tougher and less juicy due to increased stress and lack of muscle development.
A step up, but typically, not that much. Cage-free chickens live similar to regular except the chickens have a bit more room to move than being confined to cages. Although that room to move is most likely minimal. Chickens are still raised indoors with no sunlight or a great quality of life.
Chickens have at least some access to the outdoors. Depending on the producer this amount of time may vary quite a bit. For instance, chickens free-range from a local organic farm probably spend many hours a day roaming around farm living in their most natural way. But, free-range chickens from a commercial farm may only spend a few minutes each day in the sunlight in closed quarters. Typically, this is a high quality bird.
Typically, this is a high quality chicken that was free to roam on a pasture during the day. This label is also related to what the chicken eats because they’ll eat a mix of grass, bugs, worms, and whatever else they can find in the dirt. But, this can be a bit tricky because there is no standard around what type of pasture they are raised on (e.g., weeds vs. actual pasture).
I’ve seen amazing high quality chicken at my local farmer’s market labelled this. I’ve also seen low quality commercially farmed chicken with this label. So, it doesn’t really mean much. It’s not an official designation so tread lightly.
Step 2: Determine What A Chicken Was Fed
In conjunction with how the chicken was raised (step 1 above), it is important to also see what the chicken was fed. Chickens are just living creatures after all. Think about it: a human that exercises a lot, but only eats potato chips probably won’t be that healthy. Likewise, a person who eats great, but doesn’t leave their room probably isn’t going to be crushing it either. Chickens are no different.
Naturally, chickens are diverse omnivorous eaters and eat whatever they can find. This includes grass, seeds, bugs, fruits, worms, and even some small animals.
Regular or Standard or No Label
In commercial farming, chickens eat a poultry feed that is made mostly of grain. It is also fortified with protein through the addition of oilseed meal (like soybean oil) or animal by products.
At minimum, certified organic chickens were fed organic feed that does not have pesticides, chemicals, or antibiotics. This is good. If you’re looking for the best chicken, this should be a label you seek out. But it’ll cost you.
Just as it is stated, no antibiotics have ever been given to the chickens. This means you won’t be taking any chicken meds. Probably a good thing.
No added hormones
Considering that the USDA prohibits the use of hormones in poultry, this label doesn’t really mean much. So, if you see it, it’s such marketing. The good news is that no matter what type of chicken you buy, you can be assured there won’t be any hormones in it.
This label is most likely a positive one, but there is some gray area. If you are a vegetarian, then this would obviously be good for you. But, chickens aren’t intended to be naturally vegetarian. They eat things like bugs and worms. This most likely indicates that there are no animal byproducts in the feed (which chickens aren’t supposed to eat).
Step 3: Determine How a Chicken Was Handled
I see air-chilled all the time and didn’t really understand what it meant until recently. Go figure, it’s pretty important for buying the most flavorful chicken.
Air-chilling means that after the chicken was slaughtered and feathered, it was chilled by, you guessed it: air. It was hung and cooled in open cold air. Alternatively, chickens may be chilled by submerging in cold water. When doing this, chickens take on extra water. This results in diluted flavor.
One of my least favorite words. Per the USDA “natural” simply means the meat is minimally processed and doesn’t have any artificial flavorings, colors, or preservatives added after slaughter. So, that is basically every type of chicken.
Kosher and Halal
This means that the chicken was raised, slaughtered, and butchered according to Jewish or Halal food laws. However, this doesn’t really tell you much about the quality of the bird. You’ll have to read the full label for an indication of that.
Animal Welfare Humane Certified
You may see this label stamped on not only your chicken, but other meat you buy. This is a third party organization that has created a set of standards specifically for improving the lives of farm animals. If you see this label, then your chickens have been raised humanely. You can read more about the exact guidelines here.
The Bottom Line On Buying Chicken
So, that’s a lot of options, but I have good news: Ultimately, you can rely on your taste buds because happier, healthier chickens product tastier meat.
If you’re looking for a more affordable option, I suggest trying out different varieties from different grocery stores until you find one that tastes great at your price point. You can then research the producer online to learn more about their farming techniques if you’re interested.
For instance, I have found a great chicken supplier from a local grocery store that is Animal Welfare Humane Certified and tastes great. Plus, it’s reasonably priced. So, it is my go-to chicken.
But, What Is the Best Chicken I Can Buy?
So, you’re holding a dinner party for your friends and you want to impress them with the juiciest, most flavorful bird? Here’s the deal: The best chicken you can get is from a local organic farm or farmer’s market. It will taste better, be better for the chicken, and be better for the environment. As always, it will cost you. But, you’re supporting a local farm that is devoted to humane animal care.
At the grocery store, the best chicken you can buy will be organic, free-range or pasture raised, antibiotic free, and air-chilled. This combo is the winner, winner chicken dinner.
Where to Buy Chicken
As stated above, if you can afford it, your local farmer’s market has the highest quality chicken.
Whole Foods has several high quality options. Plus, they offer free grocery delivery if you’re an Amazon Prime member.
Another option is getting your chicken delivered directly to your doorstep. Crowd Cow connects consumers to small farms through their online marketplace. They offer high quality pasture raised, free-range, and organic chicken from small farms and co-ops that you can get delivered directly to your home. Order your meat from Crowd Cow here.
Types of Chicken
On chicken packaging, you’ll sometimes see a specific type of chicken. Honestly, I don’t really pay attention to the type much. I just more look at the size and cost when picking the chicken I am going to buy.
Here is a rundown of each type.
- Broiler or fryer – A young chicken less than 10 weeks old that weighs between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 pounds. Use any method to cook. This is the most common type that you can find at most grocery stores.
- Cornish Hen – A small broiler/fryer that weighs between 1 and 2 pounds. Typically, roasted whole.
- Roaster – A young chicken between 8 and 12 weeks old and weighs 5 pounds or more. Typically, roasted whole and yields more meat per pound than broiler/fryer.
- Capon – Male chickens that are less than 4 months old and weigh between 4 and 7 pounds. Typically, roasted. They have large amounts of tender, light meat.
- Baking or Stewing Hen – A mature female chicken (hen) 10 months to 1 1/2 years old. They have less tender meat than younger chickens, so they are typically stewed or cooked with liquid.
- Rooster or cock – A mature male chicken with coarse skin and tough, dark meat. Requires long, moist cooking.
Tips for Buying Chicken
Start With the “Best Buy” Date
The “best buy” or “sell by” date is always the first thing I look at when buying chicken. If it’s coming up quick, I may pass. If not, I’ll move on to some other characteristics to check for.
You also need to keep in mind when you plan to cook the chicken. If you’re not going to cook it within the next day or so, make sure to pick a sell-by date far away.
One caveat here. I’m a sucker for a good deal. Although I don’t like to mess around with old-ish meat, if you can find high quality chicken (like from a local farm quality) on sale because it’s sell by date is approaching AND it passes the checks below, I say go for it. Grocery stores and markets typically do this. And you can get a great haul.
The key? Put whatever chicken you aren’t using that day immediately into the freezer. But, it’s vital that you perform the below checks for quality before you buy like this.
Check For Coldness
Select fresh chicken that feels cold to the touch when buying. The colder, the less chance for bacteria growth.
Check For Color
Look for chicken with a pinkish hue. Fresh chicken will always be this color. Avoid gray or transparency. These indicate that the chicken has been sitting out at the market for some time.
Fat Is Where It’s At
Chicken fat should be white or yellow. Never gray or pale.
Buy The Right Amount
There are multiple cuts to a chicken. Some have bones, some are boneless, some are skinless, etc. I talk all about them in this Chicken 101 guide.
When you’re serving chicken in whole cuts, base the amount you buy on the number of cuts in the package. For instance, if you’re serving drumsticks for 4 people, you may way to buy 8 drumsticks.
If you’re cutting up chicken, buy the amount based on the weight of the package. Example: you want to make tacos for 4 people with boneless chicken breasts. Assuming a serving size of about 1/4 pound (4 oz.) per person, you’ll need about 1 pound of chicken.
Make the Meat Aisle Your Last Stop
Get your chicken last at the grocery store to minimize the amount of time it is not under refrigeration. In addition, hit up the grocery store last before heading home. You don’t want your chicken sitting in a warm car.
Now You Don’t Have to Play Chicken When Buying Chicken
You should now have the background to make a quick(er) decision in the chicken aisle. You’ll need to determine what your price point is. Then weigh it against how much you care about the quality of life and taste of the chicken.
Just remember that it buying chicken down to your taste buds and preferences. If I could, I would buy my chicken from a local organic farm where the chickens are free to roam and eat dirt. Unfortunately, I can’t do that every week due to cost. So, I found a great brand from my local grocery store that I stick to for my week day chicken.
But, don’t sleep on online meat delivery services like Crowd Cow. They partner with small farms and co-ops to bring you free-range, pasture raised and organic chicken (and other meat) options to your doorstep. They’re like your local online farm. Visit Crowd Cow here.