We’ve said it multiple times before, the fresher the meat you start with, the better the taste. This, of course, applies to chicken and other poultry as well. If you are headed to the store, knowing what to look for when buying chicken meat will help ensure you end up with fresh chicken and a great tasting final result. No matter if you are grilling chicken wings or smoking whole chicken.
But, it’s easy to start getting confused when you see labels that say cage-free, free-range, organic, etc. We’ve got you covered. Here’s what you need to know, straight from the BBQ pros:
One immediate way to pinpoint fresh chicken is its appearance. Fresh chicken will have a yellow tint to the skin and the meat will have a pinkish color. You also want to avoid meat that has any bruising, tears in the skin, or other cosmetic damages, all of which can affect the quality and freshness. Fresh chicken meat will also be plump. If you press against it, the meat should be resilient and resume its shape after a couple of seconds.
When it comes to the smell of it, fresh chicken will not have a scent. If the meat has an odor, it is not good and should be avoided.
Buying frozen chicken in larger quantities may be more convenient, but that’s not going to give you the best tasting meat. To achieve that, you want to go with chicken meat that is fresh and has never been frozen.
If the meat is labeled as fresh, then the internal temperature has never gone below 26 degrees Fahrenheit, the freezing temperature for poultry. Thawing frozen chicken can change the texture of the meat, which can greatly affect its taste after it is cooked.
If you are selecting chicken from the packaged meat in the grocery store, avoid packages that have excess liquid pooling in them. Liquid like this happens when the meat purges fluids picked up from a water immersion process sometimes used to cool chicken to a safe temperature. This excess liquid can cause a soggy texture to the meat and dilute the flavor.
The USDA allocates three letter grades to poultry meat: A, B, and C. So, when you’re shopping for quality chicken, you want to get Grade A meat. This meat will not have any deformities, be well-fleshed, have a generous layer of fat, and won’t have any hairs or feathers still attached to the outside. There also won’t be any tears or cuts in the skin or meat, discolored portions, or broken bones.
It’s important to know that the way the chicken has been processed does affect the quality and taste. Ideally, you want to get chicken that has been cut by a knife and not mechanically separated. Mechanical separation is a high-pressure way of separating meat from the bone and can often result in unwanted items mixing into a paste-like texture.
Buying a whole chicken and processing it and trimming it yourself is an even better move. Doing this will give you more for your money and result in better portion sizes. Breaking down a whole bird is actually easier than you may think.
Keep in mind that processing chicken yourself at home requires diligence in food safety. Be careful not to cross-contaminate kitchen surfaces and utensils.
When looking at the labels for chicken, you may see either “antibiotic-free” or “raised without antibiotics”. You want to go with chicken that is raised without antibiotics. This means that the chickens were never given antibiotics at any point. If the chicken is labeled antibiotic-free, that means that it could have previously been given antibiotics but, according to the USDA, the producer has to follow a withdrawal or waiting period to ensure the antibiotics are not present when it is processed/butchered.
Source: Backyard Poultry Magazine
According to the USDA, chicken is labeled as "free-range" if the producer has proven that the chickens are given access to the outdoors. When a chicken is raised and butchered in a more humane environment like this, the less stress they endure and the healthier they will be. This means better quality meat. Plus, in many cases, free-range chickens will also be fed a good diet.
Speaking of a good diet, you want to look for chicken that has been grass-fed and/or vegetable-fed versus grain-fed. As mentioned above, these chickens will be healthier, resulting in better-tasting meat.
If the label for the meat says grass-fed or vegetable-fed, it means that the chicken was raised on a diet that never included any animal by-products. Sometimes, producers who are trying to cut costs and speed up growth rates supplement their chickens’ diet with animal by-products.
It is highly debated among chefs and nutritionists whether there is a difference in the taste between organic and non-organic chicken. The USDA’s National Organic Program, the provider of organic certification, requires producers to implement and follow strict ongoing compliance with standards and practices that are much cleaner and environmentally friendly.
Many of the best organic producers also go a step further and get the HFAC (Humane Farm Animal Care) certification. This enforces guidelines for humane handling at every step. In theory, if they have this certification, this would mean that the chickens are being fed a healthier diet and raised in a more stress-free environment. Which, as we mentioned above, often results in better tasting meat.
If the chicken is labeled organic, chances are it will also be non-GMO certified. For chicken to have this seal, it has to be raised and fed on a certified organic, non-GMO diet that meets the Non-GMO Project standards. The Non-GMO Project is a third-party non-profit that provides verification and labeling for non-GMO products.
Another important factor to keep in mind is that you should avoid chicken that has been enhanced. Enhanced chicken has either been injected with or soaked in a solution during its processing. This solution can include enhancements like saltwater, chicken broth, nitrates and nitrites, and MSG. All of these things can significantly raise the sodium level of the meat and take away from its natural flavor.
We’ve mentioned it before, but if you want the best quality meat and the best deals, you should make friends with the butcher at your local meat store. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. That’s what they are there for. Your butcher can tell you more about the chicken, like if it’s ever been frozen, or if it’s free-range, organic, all-natural, etc. They can even give you more info about the farm it came from.
When you shop at small, local butcher shops, you’ll get access to the close relationships that the butchers have with the farmers and you can help buy responsibly while also supporting small businesses.
We’ve previously covered how to select quality beef, but, as you can see, there are also some poultry-specific things you also need to know. It’s important to know what to look for when buying chicken to ensure you walk out of the store with good-quality, fresh meat. It can make a huge difference in the taste of the final result, no matter if you’re grilling or smoking chicken.
The things we covered above will help you buy the best chicken to cook today. And don’t be afraid to talk to your local butcher. They’ll be able to point you to the best quality chicken that checks all the boxes above.
Know of something else to look for when it comes to buying chicken that we left out? Plan on cooking chicken this week? Let us know about it and leave a comment below. We want to hear from you!
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