Kitchen Experiment: Does Free-Range Chicken Actually Taste Better?

By Raymond Castillo/March 1, 2013

45 30

Free-Range. Pesticide-free. Hormone-Free. Those buzzwords seen in supermarkets show that the organic revolution is catching on in the Philippines. With consumers becoming increasingly concerned about how their food is raised, companies have started to introduce organic versions of mainstream products. These are priced higher than the regular kind, with free-range chickens costing more than twice as much per kilo.

Winner, winner…

Though I am not much of an environmentalist, I am passionate about delicious food. So, I came up with a quick kitchen experiment to find out if organic chickens taste better than their conventional counterparts.

Method

I kept the test simple. I cooked 4 similar-sized chickens (3 free-range ones, and 1 regular, to serve as the control factor) the same way, in the same oven, and with similar flavoring ingredients.

I used Thomas Keller’s foolproof method for roasting chicken. Just “rain” salt and pepper all over the bird, and bake it at 450-500 degrees F, until the juices run clear. A 1 kg bird would take about an hour to cook.

It’s the simplest recipes that often yield the best results.

To allot for minor differences in size and, consequently, cooking time, I cooked each chicken until the thickest part of the breast  registered around 165 degrees F.

From there, I took the meat from the left breast of each bird for sampling. (Yes, I was taking this experiment way too seriously.)

The Result

 

Will calling this “free-range” make it taste better?

Alas, there was no noticeable difference in taste that I could identify among the four roasted chickens. Maybe one was a bit moister than the others, but I only noticed the difference when I concentrated hard enough. I even asked some of my family members for their opinion. They tasted it blind, not knowing which chicken was which. Still, they unanimously said that it all tasted the same.

Bottom Line

If you don’t really care how your food was raised, then just buy any chicken you can afford. It’s hard to justify spending more on something that generally tastes the same as the cheaper alternative.

Also, keep in mind that the free-range label could just be a marketing gimmick to justify selling the same product at a higher price. With a bit of research (i.e., typing “free-range chicken definition” in Google), I found that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows producers to use the free-range label if it has proven that the birds were raised “with access to the outside”. It’s quite clear that the definition is too broad, and open to different interpretations. I mean, what does “access” and “outside” actually mean? So, unless stricter guidelines are made, that free-range bird you’re eating could easily have been trapped inside a pen together with its regular cousins.

What you don’t see on the menu…

In terms of taste, it was clear that all chickens are made equal. Of course, this doesn’t mean that using other free-range meats will also yield similar results. Culinary rock star David Chang (of Momofuku fame) professes that humanely treated pork tastes a great deal better  than its factory-farmed kin. And we all know that lovingly treated Kobe cows result in a fatty and incredibly delicious end-product.

Still, do you believe that organic ingredients are worth their bigger price tags? Have you tried anything organic that tasted better than the regular version?

[Image via Academic.Ru]

Raymond Castillo

Writer

Raymond dreams of a time when Filipino cuisine will rule the world. That adobo will be as common as burgers, and ensaymada will be more popular than cupcakes. His personal goal in life is to be just like Ryan Gosling, but with Anthony Bourdain's job.  See More.

  • http://www.facebook.com/feanne Feanne Hontiveros Mauricio

    If taste is your sole criteria for food selection that you’re really going to get a varied experience when it comes to organic food. My dad doesn’t like the taste of any organic food except for the grass-fed baboy damo lechon (which even I really enjoy, and I don’t even like lechon!).

    I care about how my food was raised, so I like buying from good farms. These farms have healthy, mineral-rich, microbiologically balanced soil, resulting in healthy, nutrient-dense plants and healthy, nutrient-dense animals… ultimately resulting in healthy food with bioavailable nutrients. Where else am I supposed to get these nutrients if not from food? And where else will the food get these nutrients if not from the soil? :)

    http://www.themeatrix.com/ – The Meatrix is a fun little cartoon that shows how animals are raised in most industrial farms.

    http://michaelpollan.com/books/the-omnivores-dilemma/ – For more substantial information, check out this book which talks about “industrial food”, “big organic farms”, “small family organic farms”, and “hunting and gathering”. Also covers the historical, cultural, and political nuances of the food industry.

    Personally I’ve found that free-range / organic chicken is usually just okay… the meat is usually tougher so it has to be cooked properly. The chicken is leaner and more muscular. Well, it’s supposed to be. So we usually just put it in tinola.

    That said, I do believe grass-fed / organic pork tastes better. Its fat doesn’t taste “malansa”. Our cook remarked that their pigs in the province taste the same way since they’re just allowed to roam around in small family farms.

    Real pastured eggs taste excellent! Look for the ones with yolks that are plump and orange-colored, indicating high nutrient density. The orange color comes from carotenoids indicating that the bird got to eat a natural diet of wild foraged grub.

    Oh and I agree that the terms “free-range” and “organic” are not properly regulated. If you really want biodynamic / organic / pastured produce, you have to get it from a farm you trust. Best to visit the farm yourself, or get referrals from friends. I’ve listed several that I like on my Sustainable Shopping Guide:
    http://www.sustainablemanila.com/p/sustainable-shopping-guide.html

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Den-Alibudbud/520953364 Den Alibudbud

      thanks for sharing that link on sustainable shopping!

      • http://www.facebook.com/feanne Feanne Hontiveros Mauricio

        Glad you found it helpful! :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/castilloraymond Raymond Castillo

      First, you had me at grass-fed baboy damo. Any significant difference in taste? is it leaner and, therefore, have *gasp* less pork fat?! Where can you actually get one? (Forgive the enthusiasm, but pork is my favorite animal. Yes, I said pork.)

      Thanks for sharing all these resources! Personally, I agree that anything that raises people’s consciousness on what they’re eating is always a good thing.

      On this whole movement which I’m sure will continue to get bigger, unless it’s been empirically proven that organic food is more nutritious and healthier (So far, I’m still doing fine eating the regular and cheaper kind ), my personal criteria will still be on taste. To that, I’ve read many articles showing no clear proof that it matters

      http://bit.ly/apCWms – On organic eggs and how color affects our judgement
      http://nyr.kr/KVDuUD – Nothing organic here. But, it’s an interesting study of what influences the taste of wine

      This shows that that all our senses and, even our perception, comes into play in determining whether we find pleasure in anything that we eat. If you believe it will be good (objectively and on your conscience), then those free-ranging birds will end up tasting awesome.

      • http://www.facebook.com/feanne Feanne Hontiveros Mauricio

        Yeah, I don’t think taste is an objective experience, as shown by both your article and the egg article you linked to. :)

        As for nutritional value, the label “organic” might not mean much because of poor definition and regulation. The legal definition of “organic” emphasizes a reductive process– simply removing synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. That’s an improvement since it reduces toxins in the food… but if that’s all they’re doing then the soil quality still isn’t much better (it’s still depleted of minerals, and has no good microbial population). It would make sense then that such organic foods don’t have a better nutritional profile, they’re just potentially cleaner. So this is just another reason to buy from farms you trust, if you’re looking for healthier food. :)

        I’ll get back to you on the baboy damo lechon source :P since I don’t really eat lechon I can’t tell you in detail how it compares, sorry! I can tell you though that my dad’s a certified foodie. :D I’ll ask him about the exact location.

      • Abbu Cabrera

        Funny that you mentioned terroir, because with all things considered, I think I have a preference for Manila chicken. Bacolod chicken tastes a little gamier, for some reason.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=538120403 Sonny Thakur

      multi-vitamins

    • Abbu Cabrera

      Pigs for slaughter in my province (Negros) are often fed with a very stinky mixture of ipa (ground rice chaff), kaning baboy and chopped kangkong. My dad used to feed it to our pigs and it really does taste good. He doesn’t use commercial feed as it stinks up the piggery really badly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Den-Alibudbud/520953364 Den Alibudbud

    Chicken should taste like chicken. In fact, some things that aren’t chicken still taste like chicken. End of story. :) But seriously, the whole organic labeling thing doesn’t have standards to adhere to. Some products would have obvious differences (organic eggs have yellower yolks, good beef is well-marbled, etc) but it doesn’t seem like chicken is one of them. That’s why we still eat Chicken Nuggets. :p

    Also, the nitpicker in me would like to point out that it’s “Thomas Keller”.

    • http://www.facebook.com/castilloraymond Raymond Castillo

      Thanks for the input!

      Also, as an ardent fan, I’m embarrassed that I spelled his name incorrectly :|

    • http://www.facebook.com/sergia.susana Sergia Susana

      Oops, sorry. Missed that. Fixed it now, though. :) Thanks for pointing it out, Den! :)

  • you should taste the dark meat too. Since the “free-range” chickens were supposed to be roaming and such wouldn’t it have meant that they used their legs more.

    • https://twitter.com/Jeffrey_RamZ Jeffrey Ramirez

      true.

  • kaye

    Hi! Chickens do taste different. I grew up eating the chicken my grandma raised on her backyard. My mom cooks it as tinola and the breast part is gril.ed for my brother. One time we were craving tinola but the chickens were not ready yet so my mom bought from the supermarket… It didnt taste as it is supposed to be. Free range chickens definitely taste better. The same thing goes for eggs.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=538120403 Sonny Thakur

      you were nostalgia-ing hard while typing this

      • kaye

        yeah… well, was commenting using my phone and using my stubby fingers at that :-)

  • arman

    Question: there is a distinct taste on organic product… in my case I purchase locally grown produce fruits, veggies and fish. The taste is dfferent maybe because its fresh and less pollution… I stayed in Guimaras for 5 years and quarterly i visit our place in Cavite and I tell mum its food is different and the air.

    • arman

      ……..I tell mum (its) the food is different and the air.

    • http://www.facebook.com/castilloraymond Raymond Castillo

      Personally, I agree with you. I haven’t tested it with the same rigor, but I tend to prefer produce I buy from the farmer’s market vs. the stuff I get from the supermarket.

      Then again, it might just be my mind playing tricks on me (see note above)

  • http://www.facebook.com/aarendal Albert Rendal

    thanks for the info… :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=538120403 Sonny Thakur

    You guys might want to read this too ;)
    The great egg fraud
    http://www.thelocal.de/society/20130225-48173.html#.UTIWDKKceSp

  • Jay

    We attended a seminar on organic farming in Laguna and got a little background on the difference between “organic” and “free-range” from the farm director there.

    “Free-range” actually means that the chickens just have to spend a CERTAIN period of their lives outside. What the industry usually does is raise the poor animals in cramped warehouses (since all that running around will make their meat tough) and only release them outside a few days before they’re slaughtered. Then they become “free-range” chickens.

    Of course not all farms do that, but it’s still a business and we’ve been told that’s pretty much the standard here in the Philippines. I think it’s still a good thing to know where your food comes from so you can be sure it’s not just a marketing ploy.

    I guess one way to be certain if what you’re eating really had a free-range life is to check the meat you’re buying. Companies usually inject hormones to make them bigger faster (from the 2+ months it usually takes to grow the chicken to just 1 month) and confine their movements to ensure they don’t use their muscles and toughen up. If it’s too plump straight from the shop then maybe there’s something else there.

    On the other hand, products labeled “organic” actually have stricter standards before they can be labeled as such (no chemicals whatsoever, even the veggies the livestock eat are organically grown). Organic farms are also certified and regularly checked by the government before they get the “organic” stamp, and the process of certification is pretty arduous to ensure that there are absolutely no chemicals on the farm itself.

    They showed us how to make feeds for poultry and other livestock (they have organic baboy ramo too) and it’s really just veggies, corn meal, and water. Basically it’s just a salad of sorts. Organic chickens eat healthier than us :P

    During the seminar we had organic tinola and inasal and i’ve gotta say it’s totally different from what we’re used to eating. It’s more chicken-y (haha) and tastes loads better. Granted that they were raised outdoors the meat is a bit tough, but i guess it all depends on how you cook it.

    So, ORGANIC = fed organic food + raised outdoors
    FREE RANGE = (might be) raised indoors but given some time outside

  • http://twitter.com/dcintherye D Camacho

    Thanks for this, Raymond! I saw Hugh’s Chicken Run and Jamie’s Fowl Dinners some time ago and it turned me on to the idea of buying organic but I’m not really well-versed in all the comparisons and stuff. This article and this thread are good starting points for me.

  • Nina Banana

    bakit di nalang natin pwedeng bilhin ang organic o free range chicken dahil sa mga bagay na nirerepresent niya?

  • gustr

    Free range is different from organic as Jay pointed out. It’s a slighty more humane way of raising chickens but they’re still injected with a cocktail of antibiotics and hormones. How natural is it to have a fully grown chicken from a chick in just 30 days? Think about it. Instead of carrying out simplistic experiments. The flaw is your lack of understanding. Thus creating more misinformation. Free range AND organic chickens are more lean and has a more pronounced flavor.

  • mrdeliciousph

    I would be VERY skeptical of anything San Miguel Corp. calls “free range” and would not expect it to taste any different. You should try products from smaller farmers such as Herbana in Laguna, Brookside Farm in Pampanga or from Rolly Rodriguez in Legazpi Market (his farm doesn’t even have a name.)

    I have noticed a significant difference in flavor using these chickens. 3 of the 4 birds you picked are pretty much all industrially farmed. I don’t ususally get Pamora because of the price so I’m not personally familiar with that one. However you’re not going to find the good stuff in the grocery store.

  • the cook from the province

    native chicken taste better, but the commercially raised — magnolia etc, tastes the same.

  • https://twitter.com/Jeffrey_RamZ Jeffrey Ramirez

    nice article. it must be nice to be heston blumenthal–like. though, I cant help but notice straight away that you tied the wings with the string into the chicken instead of just tucking it under.

  • shampster

    Experimented with chicken hainanese and the free range one has better broth, less fat. Although I can remember better tasting native chickens.

  • Abbu Cabrera

    I grew up eating store-bought dressed chicken though my dad and my grandpa raised poultry in our small backyard farm. It’s more consistent and subtle than the ones that roam our backyard. In Bacolod, we call native chicken “bisaya”, and bisaya chickens are tough, lean and relatively darker. It’s also too small to be taken seriously, like half the size of the steroid-pumped freezer section produce.