WHY did the chicken cross the road? Because it was a free-range chicken and could go wherever it wanted.
OK, not the greatest punch line. And in truth, free-range chickens are no freer than other chickens; it's just that they're allowed to move about in a tightly controlled outdoor facility and scratch for food, instead of being confined their whole lives. They eat the same foods that cooped chickens eat. They are not necessarily happier. They are no leaner. They are no healthier. They are, however, younger because they are slaughtered earlier and thus may be more tender. However, they are not less likely to be contaminated with Salmonella. They mostly just cost more.
It is helpful to know the various labelling terms once chicken gets to the market, so here's almost everything you ever wanted to know about the bird:
Unlike antibiotics given to humans to treat bacterial disease, domestic fouls are also fed antibiotics to encourage growth. Any chicken labeled “antibiotic-free” must not have been fed antibiotics for any part of its life, from the hatchery to processing.
Broilers and fryers
These are the most popular types of chicken. The birds are between six and eight weeks old and weigh between one and two and a half kilos. They are very meaty and tender, and are extremely versatile. You can broil, fry, roast, grill, poach, steam or sautee them. But don't stew them; their meat will dry out and become stringy. (See below for stewing chickens.)
Male chickens that have been castrated grow large and tender at a young age. Capons are about 15-16 weeks old and weigh between 4.3 and 4.7 kilos. They have more white meat than most chickens but also have a layer of fat under the skin. This makes the white meat fatter than that of other chickens. They are at their very best when roasted.
This is a fairly new United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) labelling term, which indicates, among other things, that a chicken has been fed certified organic feed throughout its life.
This means that the feed is made up of grains that have been grown free of pesticides and chemical fertilisers for at least three years. No drugs of any kind can be used in producing “organic chickens”. Animals must have outdoor access for fresh-air freedom of movement. The label should include the words USDA Organic.
Before 1960, hormones were used to calm down the chickens and standardise the meat, but they have not been used for more than 35 years. So if you see the words “hormone-free” on a label and think you're paying more, find another chicken. All chicken is hormone-free, whether labelled or not.
According to the USDA, the designation “natural” on any product means that it contains no artificial flavouring, colouring, chemical preservatives or other synthetic ingredients. It also must be processed as little as possible.
In the case of chicken, however, even if it is smoked, roasted, frozen, dried or fermented to make it edible or safe to eat, it can still be labelled “natural”. Another exception: Contrary to what some processors would lead you to believe, chickens labelled “natural” can be fed antibiotics.
These chickens are little older and larger than broiler/fryers. They can be three to five months old and weigh about two to three kilos. Their meat is tender and tasty, and they work well roasted (as their name would imply) and grilled, braised or stewed.
Rock Cornish hens
These little birds are a cross between a Cornish game cock and a White Plymouth Rock chicken. They are quite small and usually are served one per person. They are brought to the market at five to six weeks of age and consequently are very low in fat. Normally sold frozen, they lend themselves to roasting, broiling, braising or sauteeing. They are great fun to serve stuffed.
The life span of a commercial chicken is not very long, but when hens that are about a year old and weigh between two and three kilos are sent to market, they can still be used for stewing, braising or making stock. However, their meat can be tough if cooked in any other way.
Obviously, a vegetarian diet does not include chicken, but chickens can be raised on a diet that does not include any animal by-products and be labelled accordingly. – LAT-WP
Sheldon Margen, MD, is a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley. Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the university's 'Wellness Letter'.
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