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

March 1, 2013

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 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. 
32 comments in this post SHOW

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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… Read more »
Den Alibudbud

thanks for sharing that link on sustainable shopping!

Feanne Hontiveros Mauricio

Glad you found it helpful! 🙂

Sonny Thakur

multi-vitamins

Noni 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.

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”.

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.

Jeffrey Ramirez

true.

kaye
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.

Sonny Thakur

you were nostalgia-ing hard while typing this

kaye
kaye

yeah… well, was commenting using my phone and using my stubby fingers at that 🙂

arman
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
arman

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

Albert Rendal

thanks for the info… 🙂

Sonny Thakur

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

Jay
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… Read more »
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
Nina Banana

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

gustr
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.

Jeremy Slagle
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… Read more »
the cook from the province
the cook from the province

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

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
shampster

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

Noni 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.

Junaid Mansoor
Junaid Mansoor

There are 225 chicken breeds. The best tasty chicken is la flèche. You will be amazed to see those beautiful breeds of chicken. In the market, only broiler chickens are available. Might be the experiment done was on same broiler breed. But if you try any other breed, you can really feel the difference in taste. No way a market chicken and free range chicken are same.

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[…] the meat both generally taste the same and the results are similar to our first free-range experiment. However, the differences should help you in determining  which chicken to buy, through their […]

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