The phrase “tastes like chicken” is beyond cliché. We use it for any whitish meat that we can’t accurately describe any other way – frog’s legs, alligator, lizard – guaranteed someone trying any of these for the first time will compare them to chicken.
But what, exactly, does chicken taste like? The specimens we get in supermarkets or most restaurants are all the same breed (White Rock), probably fed with some mixture of GMO corn and other grain, raised in a barn for optimum growth in a minimal time frame, and likely pumped full of a saline solution during processing to make the meat look plump and full and heavy.
But chickens come in different breeds, and like beef and pork, those different breeds have different characteristics, in the kitchen and on the plate.
At a recent tasting event at Victor Restaurant, participants got to clearly see the difference between breeds, and the phrase “tastes like chicken” no longer applies.
Hosted by Slow Food Toronto, the tasting was led by Carrie Oliver of The Oliver Ranch Company and the Artisan Poultry Institute. Oliver’s experience is in working with beef and pork but she saw early on that the same rules that apply to other meats, not to mention wine, coffee, and chocolate, could apply to poultry.
The flavour of the meat we eat is directly influenced not just by the breed of the bird, but by where it is raised, its diet, the producer and butcher and even the time of year. The birds we tasted, courtesy of Kawartha Ecological Growers, all came from the same geographical area. Mark Trealout and his partner Laura Boyd of KEG pointed out that the birds had all been raised and fed in roughly the same way; certified organic, GMO-free grain, as well as being truly free-range, so they all had lots of bugs, veg scraps and garden goodies to influence the flavour.
Four different types of birds (Ameraucana, Barred Plymouth Rock, Jersey Giant, Buff Orpington) were each prepared four different ways (roasted, braised, pan-seared and as a broth) by local chefs Donna Dooher (Mildred’s Temple Kitchen), David Chrystian (Victor) and Mark Dufour (Wine Bar).
All three chefs were astounded in the differences in the birds, not just when compared to the “plonk” chickens we’re used to eating and cooking, but from breed to breed. “The structure is very different,” said Dufour. “Some had huge long legs, some had breasts that were really small and thin.”
“The cartilage, ligaments and structure were all different,” continued Dooher. “It makes me think of the chicken we’ve become so familiar with in supermarkets, and it makes me wonder what we’re missing.”
Trealout and Oliver gave tasters a brief overview of each of the breeds and how to assess the different samples, then we sampled the birds based on preparation.
I was surprised to see the Ameraucana on the list, given that these birds, relatives of the Auracana, are predominantly bred for their beautiful blue eggs. As with commercial chickens, different breeds are used for different purposes – that is, meat birds and egg birds are not the same breeds – and the Ameraucana is very much a laying bird first and foremost. The chefs pointed out that the meat of the Ameraucana was sparse and thin and a whole bird wouldn’t stand up to roasting, that it would have to be separated and prepared in other ways.
The Barred Plymouth Rock is a dual purpose bird and was the generic chicken of its day, up until the 1950s when production of the White Rock took over. This was our most “meh” selection of the lot. It wasn’t awful in any of the preparations, but it also didn’t knock our socks off. It tasted, well, like chicken.
Compared to all the other breeds, the Jersey Giant was the gamiest of the bunch, a trait that we found especially appealing. This might have been psychological – it was the most distinctive and most like what we expected an artisanal, free-range chicken to taste like. But there was a richness to the meat without being greasy and comparisons to duck could be heard from tasters throughout the room.
Finally, the fat little Buff Orpington came up as our choice for the most well-rounded “chickeny” tasting chicken. It had more visible fat – in all preparations except the broth, and we can’t discount skimming – than any of the other birds, and even when it was presented pan-seared or roasted, it was juicy to the point of being mushy, and had a full, herbal, “chicken soup” taste to it. This would be my choice for a roaster, particularly if I was planning on using up the leftovers for sandwiches – I can’t see the breast meat of this bird ever getting dry and mealy.
In talking with Dooher after the tasting, we concluded that, if we had access to a variety of different breeds, it would almost make sense to base the choice of breed on the desired preparation technique. The Ameraucana would make great stock, whereas the Jersey Giant would work better braised, and the Buff Orpington would be a great roaster for someone who wanted a really juicy bird.
The only problem with this theory – these rare breeds are still difficult to get, even from Toronto’s many artisanal organic farmers. Even Trealout still raises the White Rock breed for what he refers to as “poussins”, slaughtered at 4-1/2 weeks. (Note – these still taste far better than your average factory-farmed chicken due to the fact that they’re given organic feed and get to run around outdoors. I once had one of Trealout’s poussins at a dinner event and remember remarking that he raised the most chickeny-tasting chicken I’d ever had… that was until I met that Jersey Giant.) To get rare breed birds on our tables, customers actually have to make special requests to the growers (soon – they need to order the hatchlings within the next few weeks) so they can raise them to order.
My one complaint about the event is that it would have been nice to have samples of that plain old factory-farmed supermarket White Rock chicken as a point of comparison against the other four breeds. The Barred Plymouth Rock came the closest to a generic bird, but I don’t think the flavour difference really hits home until you’ve been able to compare any of these breeds against that bland, dull, anti-biotic fed meat.
At the end of the day, we all came away knowing that there’s a lot more to chicken than we realized. And that maybe, it might be an idea to pick a favourite breed, find a farmer who can raise a few birds for us and support our local farmers while helping to promote heritage breeds. It’ll be more expensive than those saline-pumped breasts from the supermarket, but I think we’ve conclusively proved that the flavour is worth it.