Chicken. It’s that ubiquitous white meat, devoured by each American at the rate of about 80 pounds a year. With a population of 24 billion, there are more chickens in the world than any other species of bird. And when you think about it, it’s really no wonder that chickens are one of the earliest domesticated animals. They are the perfect meat: easy to raise in small spaces, and sustain on table scraps, nearly all the parts of the bird can be used for food, and a single chicken can be consumed during one meal. That’s why as early as 8000 BC the Indian jungle fowl, Gallus gallus were domesticated concurrently in China and India for both their meat and their eggs. Today we call the common chicken Gallus gallus domesticus. The chicken reached Europe about 3000 BC, but it took until the first millennium BC to hit Western Europe. When the Mediterranean grabbed hold of the chicken in the 1st millennium, it was spread to the rest of Europe in short order. Before too long there was a chicken in every pot.
Everybody’s Favorite Bird Every culture has an iconic chicken recipe, from chicken soup to roasted chicken, deep-fried chicken or chicken cacciatore….poule au pot, chicken pot pie, buffalo wings, chicken tenders, chicken tikka masala. The mild-flavor of the meat is amenable to any spice or preparation, it seems. Chicken is the meat to which we compare all others—snake? Tastes like chicken, as the old saw goes. But it’s the great flavor and versatility of chicken that have us all coming back for more. Forget boneless, skinless chicken breasts and go for the whole chicken—beak to tail. Nothing is quite as wonderful as a chicken roasting in the oven on a Sunday afternoon. And the flavor of chicken meat cooked on the bone is not bland and forgettable like so much chicken we eat. Savory dark thighs, succulent white breast meat, running juices to baste the bird, and crispy skin are just some of the benefits of roasting a whole bird. And you can make chicken stock with all the bones for a delicious soup later. Chicken stock is also handy to keep in the freezer for use in sauces and gravies.
Chicken in the Yard It used to be that every farm had a flock of chickens, providing fresh eggs and meat. Even city dwellers would keep a few chickens in a coop, since chickens require little space and, as omnivores, eat insects, grains and scraps. So it’s pretty easy to turn stale bread and oatmeal into high-quality protein. But today, most chicken comes from big factory farms, where chickens are raised intensively in crowded barns, pushed to grow quickly and processed at a young age to keep chicken meat on every table. Chicken is considered a cheap meat, and it’s raised in a way that keeps the price low, and if we may say so, keeps the flavor bland. This is not the chicken that our grandparents ate.
At D’Artagnan, we like chicken with real chicken flavor. So we work with farmers that raise chicken the right way.
Organic Chicken We sold organic chicken before there was certification for organic, and before the USDA even allowed the term on the label. Every one of our chickens is raised in open-coop, stress-free conditions on small Pennsylvania Dutch family farms using practices designed to maintain and enhance ecological balance. Birds are given ten-times the amount of space provided to commercial flocks to roam and grow. Their certified organic feeding program does not include herbicides, antibiotics, growth hormones, or additives at any time during the lifecycle. Diet consists of whole grains, as well as foraged grasses and insects. Birds are also given open access to the same well-water consumed by the farm families.
D’Artagnan organic birds are slaughtered at 7-8 weeks. After slaughter, they are perfectly chilled to minimize water weight while maintaining meat consistency. (If chilled too fast, meat gets spongy and watery. If chilled too slowly, meat dries and becomes off-color.) In fact, this process allows them to absorb 30% less water weight than commercially-raised birds. Each bird is processed by hand – never by machines – for consistency and the best flavor. Machine processing can cause blood to clot resulting in tough meat with a liver-like flavor.
Air-Chilled Chicken While our organic chicken is the flagship bird at D’Artagnan, we are very proud of the other hens in the house. Our air-chilled chickens are raised in much the same manner as the organic chickens, save for the organic feed. These chickens are reared on Amish and Mennonite family farms in the Midwest, in open barns with stress-free conditions, sunlight, and lots of room to grow. They are never given antibiotics or growth hormones. The main difference is in the processing. Air-chilling is a method for cooling chickens after slaughter, which involves “wind” chambers that blast cold air on the chickens, instead of dunking them into cold water tanks. Air-chilled chicken has less retained water as a result, which means deep flavor, tight texture, and skin that crisps nicely in cooking.
At D’Artagnan we believe that a happy chicken is a tasty chicken. And if you are going to eat 80 pounds of chicken a year, you might as well eat the very best. That’s why we partner with conscientious farmers and do plenty of taste-tests of their products ourselves! The chicken we sell is the chicken we want to feed our families.