food 09.25.07

Chicken v. Chicken

Chicken is so ubiquitous, and so frequently without taste, that it becomes the kind of thing you throw into your cart with a shrug—like Mary Tyler Moore used to do in the opening credits to her sitcom. It's the 'whatever' food.

That's a shame because with not much effort, you can have a chicken that actually tastes like chicken. Here's what you need to know. If you're at your local market and you have the option to get an air-chill chicken, go for it. Without getting into the details (if you want them, they're here), you'll pay more but get a chicken with more flavor. You'll find that, too, with the Silkie, which the Times wrote about earlier this year and which you'll find in Chinatown.

What we really wanted to know, though, was this: if we put some of the town's premium birds head-to-head, would we notice much of a difference? So we put them to the test one night, cooking a slew (a brood?) of chickens and then did a blind tasting with friends (only the cook knew which chicken was which).

• A d'Artagnan Blue Foot chicken from Ottomanelli's on Bleecker ($5.09/lb)
Murray's organic from Florence Meat Market ($2.29/lb)
• A free-range Amish country bird from Lobel's ($5.59/lb)
• A Knoll Krest Farm entry from Clinton Corners, NY, sold at Union Sq. Greenmarket ($3/lb)
• A Tamarack Hollow Farm entry from Vermont, also at Union Square ($6/lb)

Each chicken was conventionally prepared, with just pepper and salt on the skin, in a regular oven at 350 degrees for about 75 minutes with 15 minutes resting time at the end—they were all 3.5-4 pound birds. They were cooked at the same time, side by side.

Murray's has a lot of fans around the city but the taste is much lighter than the competitors here and in this company was judged "just not that special."

On the other end of the spectrum, the Blue Foot was the gamiest, with a tougher bite — even the white meat tastes like dark meat. Everyone liked this bird, but it's more of an acquired taste.

The Knoll Crest had more flavor than the Murray's — a solid B+ — but didn't wow the judges.

Two birds did wow the judges, and as it happens they were the most expensive. Both the Lobel's and the Tamarack were, in our highest praise, chickeny chickens — with real, old-world flavor that tasted like they came from a farm; they weren't some wan, vague memory of chicken-food product. If you want to make a textbook-perfect, Ozzie and Harriet, Sunday night roast chicken, splurge for Lobel's or Tamarack.

Note: Some of the chickens need to be ordered in advance, so call ahead.

Related: MUG's Chicken Soupathon

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