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Chicken: Can a $15/Pound Chicken Really Be *That* Much Better Than The Inexpensive Stuff?


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I have my doubts that I would feel the same about a $56 whole roasted chicken, unless it got up and entertained us upon being served...  After all, it is just chicken.

I generally agree with the sentiment, but for what it's worth the roast chicken with bread salad at Zuni Cafe is $54 and TOTALLY worth it.

The menu here looks undoubtedly impressive, though my inclination would be to try Metier first as well.

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I have my doubts that I would feel the same about a $56 whole roasted chicken, unless it got up and entertained us upon being served... After all, it is just chicken.

Any chicken worth a damn that isn't "just" zombie Cornish Cross birds raised on concrete that haven't seen the light of day cost more. A couple raises organic pastured Poulet Rouge in NY state that sells for $8/lb retail and they sell 125 a week. Some birds in France cost up to $15/lb and beyond. $56 for a 3-4lb chicken split between 4 people seems reasonable, even a bargain if prepared and served with care.

It is unfortunate that good quality food has been made to seem unapproachable and dinner table benchmarks devalued by very mediocre commodity supermarket sustenance that bears little resemblence to foodstuffs eaten just 50 years ago.

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Any chicken worth a damn that isn't "just" zombie Cornish Cross birds raised on concrete that haven't seen the light of day cost more. A couple raises organic pastured Poulet Rouge in NY state that sells for $8/lb retail and they sell 125 a week. Some birds in France cost up to $15/lb and beyond. $56 for a 3-4lb chicken split between 4 people seems reasonable, even a bargain if prepared and served with care.

It is unfortunate that good quality food has been made to seem unapproachable and dinner table benchmarks devalued by very mediocre commodity supermarket sustenance that bears little resemblence to foodstuffs eaten just 50 years ago.

Could you tell the difference between a $4 chicken, an $8/lb chicken and a $15/lb chicken?

Could I tell the difference?

Could the average Joe, who's never even heard of Poulet Rouge, Don Rockwell, Eric Ziebold, Chowhound or biodynamic, organic, free range, etc tell the difference?

I'm not trying to be jerky, I really don't know.

I *think* it's been proven that there's no difference in taste between the eggs of backyard, free range chickens and an Eastern Shore, bionic but caged-for-life bird's eggs.  Does the same go for the meat?

I totally get the difference from a philosophical point of view, but I wonder if I can taste the difference. And I can see why people (normal, everyday people just struggling to get by) are perfectly happy with what they find in the supermarket vs.the home grown chicken/pork/beef etc,at 2X, 3X, 4X the price.

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Fair point, JoshNE, but when a place calls itself "approachable" with those prices, some people may want to debate that. You're right, though, without tasting it, not a fair fight. I have a hard time believing a $56 roast chicken will be "worth it", but it may be! I just might never give it a chance, since I'm sort of cheap and would need loads of people saying it was amazeballs before I'd try it...

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Dang!  If that's what their casual neighborhoody menu looks like, I'm scared to see what the fine dining menu has!!

This is the more "accessible" of the two?!  How many Washingtonians does he expect will have "access"?

Fair point, JoshNE, but when a place calls itself "approachable" with those prices, some people may want to debate that. You're right, though, without tasting it, not a fair fight. I have a hard time believing a $56 roast chicken will be "worth it", but it may be! I just might never give it a chance, since I'm sort of cheap and would need loads of people saying it was amazeballs before I'd try it...

Here's the thing though. As far as I can tell, the chef never claimed Kinship would be "neighborhoody," or "accessible," or "approachable."  The restaurant was consistently described as the more casual of a pair of places he would open, one of which would be a "jewel box" of a restaurant with a set 7-course menu.  Ziebold himself explained in the Post that "Kinship isn't a bistro. We're trying to make it more accessible from a standpoint of being a la carte."  That is, it is more casual in comparison to the other place downstairs...not in comparison to TGI Fridays.

That is a far cry from him claiming it would be some quiet, rustic, neighborhood joint.

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Could you tell the difference between a $4 chicken, an $8/lb chicken and a $15/lb chicken?

Could I tell the difference?

Could the average Joe, who's never even heard of Poulet Rouge, Don Rockwell, Eric Ziebold, Chowhound or biodynamic, organic, free range, etc tell the difference?

I'm not trying to be jerky, I really don't know.

I *think* it's been proven that there's no difference in taste between the eggs of backyard, free range chickens and an Eastern Shore, bionic but caged-for-life bird's eggs.  Does the same go for the meat?

I totally get the difference from a philosophical point of view, but I wonder if I can taste the difference. And I can see why people (normal, everyday people just struggling to get by) are perfectly happy with what they find in the supermarket vs.the home grown chicken/pork/beef etc,at 2X, 3X, 4X the price.

Back in the early 1990s, Bernard Loiseau's "Chicken in a Pot" cost $267.

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Last time in Paris I had Poulet de Bresse cooked in a pigs bladder at the Bristol Hotel. $300. Yes, you can taste the difference.

But did you compare it to a Perdue chicken cooked in a pigs bladder?

That's what I'd really like to know.  If you took a high end chicken vs a supermarket chicken and gave them both to a chef and had them prepared the same way, would you be able to detect a difference?  And would the high end chicken taste better?

(And for the record, I'm not really concerned about the prices at this place or trying to attack the chef.  I'm just curious there's an actual difference in these "artisanal" foods or if it's just the power of suggestion)

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Why on God's green Earth would he compare it to a Perdue chicken? I apologize in advance in that I am crankier than usual tonight, but this sort of thing is better suited to a Mythbusters fan-site rather than one devoted to discussing food.

People legitimately enjoy the pleasures of fine dining.  It's true.  No debunking needed.

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Why on God's green Earth would he compare it to a Perdue chicken? I apologize in advance in that I am crankier than usual tonight, but this sort of thing is better suited to a Mythbusters fan-site rather than one devoted to discussing food.

People legitimately enjoy the pleasures of fine dining.  It's true.  No debunking needed.

I thought that this post was making that point.

The idea that a $15 a POUND chicken is so far superior to the Safeway version that it's blasphemous to even question the price of things

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I thought that this post was making that point.

The idea that a $15 a POUND chicken is so far superior to the Safeway version that it's blasphemous to even question the price of things

It is superior. It tastes better. This phenomenon is not limited to chicken.  I was skeptical of the prices at District Fishwife until I cooked fish from there and realized I had not really worked with good ingredients until then.  The simplest preparations were on a completely different level...noticed by those who eat my food day in and day out (i.e. my family), and were not privy to the change in fishmonger.  Ingredients matter.  (And before I get challenged with a double-blind experiment, they matter for reasons beyond one's ability to reliably blindly differentiate them from their factory-produced counterparts in a sterile taste test.)

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[My two cents: Every single person who has posted here has been reasonable, and has asked legitimate questions and made legitimate points. Some are starting from a different base than others. Some are trying to learn. Some are trying to teach. It's all okay - you all are doing a fabulous job with this discussion, and I don't think it's tiresome at all. Like anything else in this world, quality costs money. To quote one of my oldest friends, "The *most* you can get is what you pay for." What he's saying is that, sure, you can get ripped off, but there is no tooth fairy, and if you pay $15/pound for chicken, the *most* you can get is chicken that's worth $15/pound. - does that make sense? I decided to move this thread out of Kinship because it was becoming too unrelated and generalized at the same time - I did it in a hurry, so if I've made mistakes (which I probably have, in selecting which posts should and shouldn't have been split off, plesae write me and let me know, and I'll fix things. Carry on!

Also, I'd ask people to realize that some of our members are multi-millionaires, some are regular old people, and some are struggling young college students - we have a wide sampling of the general population here, and in this forum, we're all equals in my eyes - all of you mean the world to me.]

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It is superior. It tastes better. This phenomenon is not limited to chicken.  I was skeptical of the prices at District Fishwife until I cooked fish from there and realized I had not really worked with good ingredients until then.  The simplest preparations were on a completely different level...noticed by those who eat my food day in and day out (i.e. my family), and were not privy to the change in fishmonger.  Ingredients matter.  (And before I get challenged with a double-blind experiment, they matter for reasons beyond one's ability to reliably blindly differentiate them from their factory-produced counterparts in a sterile taste test.)

As to chicken I'm with Bart.  I have no experience with that price difference and quality difference.  I do have a good bit of experience with veal from a cooking end and from a dining perspective, (in that I've had what I know were "cr@ppy @ss cuts"  and while I can't quote price differentials off the top of my head right now, I'd always go with a better quality cut....and go to butchers with which I'm familiar.  The quality differences can be substantial.

I'm curious to the type of chickens and price points  that were prepared at Palena.  Best chicken I've  had and that was a loooooooooooooong time ago.

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As to chicken I'm with Bart.  I have no experience with that price difference and quality difference.  I do have a good bit of experience with veal from a cooking end and from a dining perspective, (in that I've had what I know were "cr@ppy @ss cuts"  and while I can't quote price differentials off the top of my head right now, I'd always go with a better quality cut....and go to butchers with which I'm familiar.  The quality differences can be substantial.

I'm curious to the type of chickens and price points  that were prepared at Palena.  Best chicken I've  had and that was a loooooooooooooong time ago.

I guess the other point to consider is how the bird is prepared.  In a heavily spiced or sauced dish, I doubt anyone could tell a huge difference (although the size of the bird and texture of the meat may tip you off), but in a "simple" dish that showcases the chicken itself, I think it would be a bigger deal.

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Yes, you can absolutely taste the difference. I can also taste the difference between the chickens from different local farms (I believe taste varies most based on what they have eaten, but I'm sure there are other factors). I don't mind the meat from Polyface chickens, but really dislike the flavor of the skin and fat. The chickens from P.A. Bowen I adore. Ferguson Family falls somewhere in between.

Eggs also vary quite a bit, especially in yolk quality.

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I've participated in many of these discussions over the years, and read through many others.

IMO, in nearly every case, they start with the wrong premise, viz., that taste is based on how things "taste."  This is wrong.  Here's how I understand what actually happens.

Taste happens not on our tongues (or more accurately our noses, where the vast majority of our "taste" receptors are actually located) but in our brains.  The brain takes inputs from a host of places and puts them all together into what we experience as taste. It then sends the result to the nerves that are hooked up with our mouthes and we experience that taste in our mouthes.

In putting together the taste we experience, the brain uses inputs from the taste and smell receptors of course, but also many other things, including the look of the food, the surroundings, our previous experience with the food, positive and negative associations we have, genetic predispositions we may have, and most importantly our expectations and beliefs about the food we are about to ingest, among others.

Nearly everyone assumes what he/she is tasting is what is coming from the taste receptors; the importance of the rest is at best dimly understood, even though the effect of everything else is actually profound in many if not most cases, particularly when discussing the relative quality of like items (think $2 vs. $15 chickens).

What is all means is that there can be real taste differences experienced by someone tasting a $2 chicken next to a $15 chicken, but these differences may well not be based on any inherent "quality" difference in the two chickens themselves, i.e. that flavor input coming to the brain from the taste receptors.  This difference may come, in whole or part, from another aspect of the inputs that person's brain is using to construct that taste.  Our brains play tricks on us, all the time.

It needs to be emphasized that the better taste that is being experienced is genuine -- the pricy bird really does taste better and that may well legitimately matter to the individual and be worth the extra price.  The point is only that that better taste may be flowing from factors other than inherent differences in the chicken. In effect, those willing to pay $15 for the higher quality chicken may be paying the extra not for its inherent quality but, partly anyway, to fool their brains into thinking it's a better experience, and it is!  Of course they don't see it that way.

It's complicated.

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What is all means is that there can be real taste differences experienced by someone tasting a $2 chicken next to a $15 chicken, but these differences may well not be based on any inherent "quality" difference in the two chickens themselves, i.e. that flavor input coming to the brain from the taste receptors.  This difference may come, in whole or part, from another aspect of the inputs that person's brain is using to construct that taste.  Our brains play tricks on us, all the time.

And this is the same phenomenon that has wine experts not being able to tell which is "better", a $20 bottle of wine or a $2000 bottle of wine until after they see the label.

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I've participated in many of these discussions over the years, and read through many others.

IMO, in nearly every case, they start with the wrong premise, viz., that taste is based on how things "taste."  This is wrong.  Here's how I understand what actually happens.

Taste happens not on our tongues (or more accurately our noses, where the vast majority of our "taste" receptors are actually located) but in our brains.  The brain takes inputs from a host of places and puts them all together into what we experience as taste. It then sends the result to the nerves that are hooked up with our mouthes and we experience that taste in our mouthes.

In putting together the taste we experience, the brain uses inputs from the taste and smell receptors of course, but also many other things, including the look of the food, the surroundings, our previous experience with the food, positive and negative associations we have, genetic predispositions we may have, and most importantly our expectations and beliefs about the food we are about to ingest, among others.

Nearly everyone assumes what he/she is tasting is what is coming from the taste receptors; the importance of the rest is at best dimly understood, even though the effect of everything else is actually profound in many if not most cases, particularly when discussing the relative quality of like items (think $2 vs. $15 chickens).

What is all means is that there can be real taste differences experienced by someone tasting a $2 chicken next to a $15 chicken, but these differences may well not be based on any inherent "quality" difference in the two chickens themselves, i.e. that flavor input coming to the brain from the taste receptors.  This difference may come, in whole or part, from another aspect of the inputs that person's brain is using to construct that taste.  Our brains play tricks on us, all the time.

It needs to be emphasized that the better taste that is being experienced is genuine -- the pricy bird really does taste better and that may well legitimately matter to the individual and be worth the extra price.  The point is only that that better taste may be flowing from factors other than inherent differences in the chicken. In effect, those willing to pay $15 for the higher quality chicken may be paying the extra not for its inherent quality but, partly anyway, to fool their brains into thinking it's a better experience, and it is!  Of course they don't see it that way.

It's complicated.

This is what I was getting at with my "double blind taste test" remark.  Expectations, setting, presentation, Hell, even political beliefs go into how one perceives the taste of a dish.  There are plenty of reasons humanely raised chickens from small local farms taste better to me than Perdue, only one of which is the "quality" of the protein itself.

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This is what I was getting at with my "double bind taste test" remark.  Expectations, setting, presentation, Hell, even political beliefs go into how one perceives the taste of a dish.  There are plenty of reasons humanely raised chickens from small local farms taste better to me than Perdue, only one of which is the "quality" of the protein itself.

I get all of that, but none of that was mentioned in Poivrot Farci's original post which was more about evil supermarkets devaluing livestock raised on a small organic farm being free range their entire life. My question was more about, all things being equal (preparation, setting, service, etc), will the supermarket version taste better/worse/different than the mom and pop farm version?

I realize that the supermarket version is shot full of chemicals and (probably) genetically engineered and ultimately worse for you in the long run than the free range version. But based on my very non-scientific, and certainty not double blind tests, I've never been wowed by pork or beef purchase directly from the (very) small farmer who raised them. I eat it and think, "this is good, but it doesn't taste any different than what I had last night from Safeway". Again, I'm not doing a side by side comparison so my taste test is flawed, but I could certainly tell the difference between a tomato out of my garden and a Safeway version.

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Thanks for posting that. I hadn't seen it before.

I especially liked the part about the discredited tongue map. I remember leaning about that way back in elementary school and it never made sense that I could only taste sweetness on a certain area of my tongue.

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I bet most people couldn't tell in a random taste test - Perdue vs a whatever fancy artisanal bird - but I guess like that really good post by johnb says, it's so much more than that. And I guess when we go into a restaurant, we aren't doing random taste tests. That would be sort of a neat experiment, but it would be a flawed one, because we are humans.

Say in a randomized, blinded taste test the Perdue bird tasted as good or better... I still don't think all people would then choose the meal prepared with the Perdue bird. I think to a lot of people, the story matters, the cost matters, the treatment of the animal matters, and it makes the food taste better and the experience more richer. And, I think that's okay, especially for those with a lot of money. Some people like books on Kindles, while others swear it's just better to hold and feel the pages of a book. The words are exactly the same, eBooks are cheaper, but there are readers that just won't read on an eBook. I'm not one of them, but I totally get what they are saying. I'm sure with my palate, there are some macrobrewers that could produce a really good double or imperial IPA and I wouldn't be able to differentiate it between Pliny the Elder in a glass in my living room, if you didn't label them. But being in Sonoma County with my little sister, having pizza at Russian River Brewery, drinking that beer ... senses be damned, that is one of the best beers I've ever had, and I bet you'll think so, too, if you were there with company that you love. I like skiing out west at many resorts, and there are places with better snow and more skiable acres, and it's objectively people rate many of them as the best places in the world to ski. But, if I could afford it more often, I would go to Vail the majority of the time. It just "feels" better. The snow might not be "as good". It may be a bit smaller. True ski in and out is a bit harder to find. But, the place is absolute magic, and it doesn't matter what's objectively rated better, it's just the most magical place on earth.

I do love the discussion, I don't think it's tedious. I think it would be really interesting to have these tests and experiments, but I would hope people wouldn't change what they do, at least completely, based on the results. Context and the experience and the story matters... Otherwise, what are we?

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I *think* it's been proven that there's no difference in taste between the eggs of backyard, free range chickens and an Eastern Shore, bionic but caged-for-life bird's eggs.

Um, no, I don't believe that's been proven. I believe that I can tell the difference. It's not just taste, but color as well.

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Um, no, I don't believe that's been proven. I believe that I can tell the difference. It's not just taste, but color as well.

Color can certainly vary in eggs, but there's no taste difference related to how the chickens are housed or, within normal limits, of what they eat (e.g. if you feed them onions you may be able to tell, but nobody feeds chickens onions).  The egg industry has done carefully controlled tastings, in artificial lighting that masks any color or appearance differences, and nobody can reliably distinguish among different ones based on inherent flavor.  Eggs are a good example of what I posted earlier; any perceived difference in taste flows from expectations, not from inherent differences in the eggs themselves.  It's your brain, not the egg.

Here's an article.  Pay special attention to the comments of Pat Curtis on the second page.

To the extent that local organic free range etc. reach you in a fresher state that might have an impact, but it's very subtle, and commercially-produced eggs can also reach you quickly and fresh.

Me, I always buy cage-free eggs, but that's for humanitarian reasons, not because they taste different.

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Um, no, I don't believe that's been proven. I believe that I can tell the difference. It's not just taste, but color as well.

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And this is the same phenomenon that has wine experts not being able to tell which is "better", a $20 bottle of wine or a $2000 bottle of wine until after they see the label.

A $20 wine *can* be better than a $2,000 wine, it really can be. But people who rely *solely* on this line of thinking need to explain to me why I can often guess the exact wine served double-blind: vintage, producer, and vineyard. It doesn't happen often, but it happens often enough where it's not coincidence.

And in case that sounded like a "humble brag," ask yourself this: if you hear a song, can you tell it's The Beatles? Can you sometimes name the exact song? Assuming "yes," then what's the difference? One is auditory; the other is gustatory - granted, one is much more subtle than the other, and requires more training, but the two are essentially the same thing - it's simply your brain recognizing something you've encountered in the past, nothing more, nothing less.

I have a well-developed palate memory, I acknowledge that, but so do other people - blind tasting is an acquired skill, and people who poo-poo it are simply mistaken - it's not some type of superhuman feat. It takes years of practice and training, but it can be done by the average person, I promise you.

One of my favorite anecdotes about this involves two gentlemen talking about blind tasting. One asks the other:

"Have you ever mistaken a Rhone for a Burgundy?"

"Not since lunch."

It's very easy to get tripped up and go down the wrong path, and even the very best blind tasters can make terrible mistakes, and sound like complete fools, especially when they start hedging and losing confidence. It's happened to me more times than I can count, and in the wrong circumstance, it can be extremely embarrassing. One thing I've learned is that first instincts should not be discarded entirely - once you start second-guessing yourself, go back to what you originally thought, and ask yourself why you thought that. While it may not be correct, there are often aspects about your first thoughts that are insightful. A common practice of mine is to sniff the wine, without tasting it, and to immediately blurt out a vintage, region, producer, and vineyard, completely on instinct - *then*, I start to think about things. But a shocking amount of times, those initial instincts turn out to be pretty good - it's like an officer reverting to basic-training in a panic situation.

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Many expert wine drinkers can indeed identify specific wines tasted blind.  Wines are different and distinct.  But there are stories that go the other way.  I recall many years ago, when I was just getting interested in wine, I subscribed to a wine and spirits newsletter that always included a blind tasting article, where the tasters were persons in the trade.  On one occasion the tasting was of sweet sherries.  Gallo Livingston Cream Sherry was the winner, basically wiping out Harvey's Bristol Cream and others.  In another example from that era, I recall an article in a British wine magazine in which Cognacs were tasted blind, again by folks in the trade.  In that case the organizer slipped in a bottle of good single malt scotch and said nothing.  Nobody realized it was a scotch.

Take it FWIW, but no question we can fool ourselves.

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I am more sensitive to textures than I am to tastes, and commodity chickens have a very unpleasant stickiness to me. When I chew it, I get this taffy like resistance and my molars feel like they are smacking as they process the protein. Butcher birds are cleaner and don't have that residue or whatever it is. For fried chicken I don't notice it as much bust definitely for roast chickens.

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Don-

You're saying without any information other than a glass full of wine, you can often identify that much information?

I want to see this in action!

It's rare, but it can happen, and it's not just me; all of these people studying for Masters of Wine and Master Sommelier can do it on occasion - what usually happens is that you'll be wrong, but for the right reasons (if that makes any sense). You'll say such-and-such is an old-world wine, less than five years old, and hasn't seen any new oak. Then you'll start getting more specific, often becoming incorrect at that point. Once in a while (maybe 5% of the time?) you'll nail something, and it feels great!

Again, this is not unlike you hearing a song and saying, "This is the Beatles singing 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,'" only it takes much more study and practice - maybe a better analogy is seeing a canvas of paint with a blob of color on it, and knowing who the artist is, because you've studied that artist's works before, and because there's something about that blob that recalls a particular artist. That's much harder than identifying a Beatles song, right? The great thing (for me, anyway), is that even though you lose your chops when you stop practicing, it's kind of a lifetime skill (like riding a bike?) because olfactory memory lasts a long time (think of scents that evoke memories of your childhood - things that you haven't thought of for decades, but there they are, plain as day).

I don't sit around doing blind tastings much these days, but I used to do it as a matter of course, and so do all these Master Sommelier candidates you read about - they can do it, too (although I've never seen it, I'm sure they can; otherwise, they wouldn't pass the tasting portion of the exam). The important thing isn't "to be right," so much as it is "to be intelligently wrong" - to have the person serving the wine say, "You're wrong on all counts, but what you say makes perfect sense." Now *that* is something that happens to me all the time, and I'm no more gifted than anyone else; just a little more experienced than a non-oenophile.

All this to say that you can *absolutely* tell the difference between an industrial chicken and a high-quality chicken. Some people can't, but many others can. Look at the post about the Mast Brothers Chocolate Scandal - the blogger who suspected they were melting down pre-existing chocolate used the exact same methodology that a good blind wine taster uses. I'm not trying to insinuate that there's a small group of super-tasters who possess a talent that nobody else possesses - I'm saying that most people can do this with enough study.

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I am more sensitive to textures than I am to tastes, and commodity chickens have a very unpleasant stickiness to me. When I chew it, I get this taffy like resistance and my molars feel like they are smacking as they process the protein. Butcher birds are cleaner and don't have that residue or whatever it is. For fried chicken I don't notice it as much bust definitely for roast chickens.

Texture is an extremely good point as a quality that is easily overlooked in these conversations about taste. It is overall very representative of the quality of meats and something that is still evident after a meat has been cooked.

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Texture is an extremely good point as a quality that is easily overlooked in these conversations about taste. It is overall very representative of the quality of meats and something that is still evident after a meat has been cooked. 

Don't forget also the relative size of the leg meat in relation to the breast meat - chickens that walk around have more meat on their legs.

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Don't forget also the relative size of the leg meat in relation to the breast meat - chickens that walk around have more meat on their legs.

Are you conflating egg production (chickens kept to lay eggs) with broiler production (chickens kept to produce meat)?  These are totally different and distinct.

Chickens that you eat (broilers), both low end and high end, are raised in roughly similar conditions, in chicken houses, and have been "walking around" roughly the same amount.  None have been constrained by being raised in cages; cages are strictly for egg producers.

Only a very tiny proportion of chicken meat in commerce comes from chickens that ever laid an egg, caged or free-roaming, and you only get it when you sit down to a nice bowl of canned chicken noodle soup or canned broth or something along those lines, because by the time they reach the end of their egg-laying careers they are about 1.5 years old and no longer suitable for table use.  Essentially all chicken raised for fresh meat has been walking around, for their short life spans of just a few weeks.

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Are you conflating egg production (chickens kept to lay eggs) with broiler production (chickens kept to produce meat)?  These are totally different and distinct. 

Maybe you're right - I always thought "free range" was (at least in theory) the opposite to "high-density floor confinement," and that both terms applied to chickens for consumption.

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Yes, you can absolutely taste the difference. I can also taste the difference between the chickens from different local farms (I believe taste varies most based on what they have eaten, but I'm sure there are other factors). I don't mind the meat from Polyface chickens, but really dislike the flavor of the skin and fat. The chickens from P.A. Bowen I adore. Ferguson Family falls somewhere in between.

Eggs also vary quite a bit, especially in yolk quality.

Middleburg's Fields of Athenry belongs in any discussion of the best supplier of chicken in the Mid Atlantic.

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Maybe you're right - I always thought "free range" was (at least in theory) the opposite to "high-density floor confinement," and that both terms applied to chickens for consumption.

Ratio of dark meat to breast meat has to do with breeding methods more than anything. Some time ago -- before I was born, probably -- mass-consumer poultry farming companies got the idea in their head that we love breast meat. One only has to sit at a Thanksgiving table and witness everyone and their dog hoarding the dark meat to know this isn't entirely true but if you look at sales numbers for chicken breast compared to legs or thighs at the supermarket, you can see where distributors got the idea. So ever since then, the average birds you pick up at the grocery store, whether it's a chicken or a turkey, has been specifically bred to maximize breast meat. So next time you're shopping for a whole bird, compare the breast on a generic Butterball to that of an organic, free-range, heritage, whatever you want to call it, bird. The mass-market one will have a breast that looks almost engorged, oversized to the point of ridiculous. The other, more expensive, bird, will have a more even distribution of white and dark meat, without a breast that looks like it's been injected with botox.

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Ratio of dark meat to breast meat has to do with breeding methods more than anything. Some time ago -- before I was born, probably -- mass-consumer poultry farming companies got the idea in their head that we love breast meat. One only has to sit at a Thanksgiving table and witness everyone and their dog hoarding the dark meat to know this isn't entirely true but if you look at sales numbers for chicken breast compared to legs or thighs at the supermarket, you can see where distributors got the idea. So ever since then, the average birds you pick up at the grocery store, whether it's a chicken or a turkey, has been specifically bred to maximize breast meat. So next time you're shopping for a whole bird, compare the breast on a generic Butterball to that of an organic, free-range, heritage, whatever you want to call it, bird. The mass-market one will have a breast that looks almost engorged, oversized to the point of ridiculous. The other, more expensive, bird, will have a more even distribution of white and dark meat, without a breast that looks like it's been injected with botox.

What you say is partly true but it's much more true of turkey than of chicken.  Turkey has been bread to maximize breast size to a much greater degree than chicken.

The American preference for white chicken meat is based, in my opinion, primarily on the mostly erroneous idea that white chicken meat is significantly lower in calories than the more flavorful dark meat -- actually the difference is small.  The preference for white meat turkey is probably based mostly on the difficulty of carving a turkey leg which is full of those little bony things and is usually cooked to dryness to boot.

In practice, and in contrast to turkeys, dark meat of chicken is used up by selling it cheap and exporting lots of chicken legs.  That's great for those of us who prefer dark meat -- we buy thighs by the bag and eat cheap.

Key point is that, as you intimated, the relative breast size is based on breed, not on how the bird was raised.  So if your free-range organic bird has a small breast, it's not because of how it was raised and fed, but its breed; an "organic" turkey can have just as much of an oversized breast as a butterball.  Of course, a "heritage" breed presumably is old-school so would be expected to have a smaller breast.

My absolute favorite part of all poultry is the oyster, which is part of the thigh where it meets the backbone.  I'd be happy if someone would breed chicken/turkey to maximize the oyster, but of course no one ever will because hardly anybody knows about it.  Whenever I see anyone carving a turkey I ask them to turn it over and dig out the oysters, which I nearly always have to point to.  But OK, more for me.

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OK, I'll admit that I am late to this party. I'll just say that I never buy chicken or eggs at any supermarket. My eggs come directly from my CSA farmer in Pennsylvania and we don't eat much meat or poultry at home--except, when we have people in for dinner. Which was the case on New Year's Day. I picked up a chicken from Lancaster County at Smucker Farms on 14th Street. It cost nearly $20 for a nearly 5 pound bird. I forgot that birds from farmers markets come with the neck attached. Which, I don't know exactly how to deal with.

In any case, with a bird that expensive, I Googled the best way to roast it. The unanimous vote was Thomas Keller's method. Surprise, surprise. It worked out wonderfully. We have a smoke detector that is so sensitive that it goes off whenever I cook anything at a high temperature. Fortunately, we have found that a fan pointed directly at the smoke detector will make things right.

The bottom line is this: if you are willing to eat industrially-produced chicken (or other meat), then you can buy it cheap at your local supermarket. If, on the other hand, you care about where and how it is produced you will pay much, much more for the "artisanal" stuff. My only concern with this thread is paying a premium at a restaurant for CAFO products.

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Another one late to the party and here's my 2cents.

Every time i cook a virgin bird or virgin beef or virgin pork, my husband notices.  He asks:  What did you do to this thing, it tastes so good.  I just purchased expensive meat.  I notice that it's more forgiving. For example, overcook at regular bird and it tastes overcooked but over cook an Athenry bird and nobody's going to notice unless you really overcooked it. Same for pork chops.  I frankly never overcook beef; i barely cook it at all.

*virgin=ecofriendly, organic, locally sourced.

I LOVED the bird lesson above.

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Another one late to the party and here's my 2cents.

I LOVED the bird lesson above.

Totally agree - Julien, thanks for such an incredible post - I have to admit that the focus on prices and pricing/value independent of commentary on a restaurant's actual food in seemingly every thread lately has derailed discussions for me and limited my participation lately (it's beyond tiresome). In this thread between Julien and JohnB I can say I have learned something. Thanks!

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Great insight, Julien, a truly wonderful post.  But ...

How does this help somebody living in DC looking to make better poultry choices on a budget?  What local options are better than Whole Foods?  This ain't Paris.  i know that Harvey's Market stocks D'Artagnan Green Circle birds; are they any good?  What else doesn't require a trip across town or out to a farm to pick up a grocery staple?

I confess that unless there is a relatively convenient way to beat readily available CAFO product then it is a hard sell.  Our family would be willing to pay a premium for better quality (not a $10/lb premium, but something significantly more than $2/lb), and I would learn to stop being so damn lazy and start breaking down whole chickens instead of buying parts.  However, mail order artisanal birds from Long Island isn't an option.

This post has prompted me to look closer at some local meat CSAs, or CSAs that provide a meat option.  That has it's own set of challenges (we stopped our CSA share after kid #2, it was too much of a hassle), and aside from the free range aspect I think you're probably just getting premium Cornish Cross anyway.  What else is out there?

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i know that Harvey's Market stocks D'Artagnan Green Circle birds; are they any good?  

Last night, our family had a roasted 3.5 lb GC bird from Harvey's Market, as we have had for several months now since they've carried them.  From the roasted carcass and neck, I made about 4 cups of rich chicken stock, which I will use for soups, beans, or whatever.

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