The Chicken Experiment…

Necessity has mothered a new invention for us — “How to do Paleo on a budget”. This week, we were forced to ratchet down seriously on expenditures, and wandered over to SR (a large chain supermarket with a reputation for significantly lower costs) to do our weekly shopping.

One of the first things we noticed was a remarkable difference in the price of chicken. For the last several months, we’d been buying whole chickens at WF (a popular organic grocery notorious for higher costs) and WM (sort of an outsized Trader Joe’s, with a similar crowd management problem [editor’s aside: why do certain establishments seem to create an environment of entitlement and hostility?] but not nearly the focus on packaged food that TJ’s makes).

We’d been using the whole chicken in this Peruvian Style Grilled Chicken with Green Sauce (the recipe pretty much describes how to grill the chicken perfectly), and had found that we were happiest with the flavor and freshness of the chicken we were getting at WF (not incidentally, the most expensive, too).

About a month ago, I spent a week down in Costa Rica, during which I had a meal at a soda (the Costa Rican equivalent of home cookin’, or comida tipical), which featured some chicken that had been killed and butchered literally as we were walking in the door. This was, hands down, the best chicken I’d tasted in a long time (and the guys I was eating with concurred).

Since returning from Costa Rica, Jenn and I shifted our chicken consumption to buying bulk packs of thighs (our favorite cut) so that we could get a few more meals out of the single round of cooking–here, we’d bought ten thighs (two packs of five) for roughly $15 from WM. (This was us planning to eat leftovers. You have no idea how alien this concept is for us, and an interesting bellwether point to underscore just how much we’ve already changed our outlook on food.) Jenn uses Amy’s Moroccan Chicken recipe over at PaleoCupboard.com (and quick side-note: Amy’s stuff is LA BOMBA, in the past few weeks, most of the recipes we’ve cooked have been from her site). The meal we had with this chicken and this recipe was exquisite: the skins crisped up nicely and the meat was succulent and deeply flavored.

However, back to our most recent shopping trip at SR, were able to buy ten thighs for a little over $5, and a pack of six wings for another $4: this would easily provide us not only with a nice dinner, but several lunches for the following week.

Jenn said that “…[C]leaning this chicken was harder: when chicken is first pulled out of a package, it generally has a certain level of sliminess that can be easily washed off under some cold water. Then the chicken is patted dry, with the skin noticeably dry to the touch. With the SR chicken, there was definitely more fat content in the skin, and it didn’t dry as cleanly. Also, there was visibly more blood and clots throughout the meat, with a couple of the wingtips so bloody as to be almost black.”

Cooking it was also a bit more difficult, although this may be more a factor of the level of crowding and/or my own relative skill on the grill. Even though all the data says that I only need to cook chicken to 165 degrees to be done, I tend to cook the darker cuts to 180-ish, with a focus on getting the skin nice and crispy. For the SR chicken, I found that the fat didn’t render as nicely and the skins just didn’t want to crisp up, even though the meat was registering at 180 degrees or higher.

Taste-wise, it was, well, chicken. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t awesome either, and that got us to thinking that maybe we should methodically go back through both WM and WF, and buy the same amount of chicken, note the price differences, and then attempt to cook each batch up the same way. Then, as a final cap on the experiment, find a source for fresh kill, and see if we can run the same experiment for that batch as well. My expectation is that the fresh-kill chicken should be remarkable, but probably too high in cost to be a weekly indulgence. What I’m more interested in is the practical, taste and cooking differences in the SR, WF & WM chicken.

Other notes: the SR chicken was packaged, from a known national brand. It would be interesting to find out the provenance of that chicken (when was it slaughtered, how long did it take to get to the store, what was its diet and caging standards, etc.) to the best extent that it can be known. And, obviously, to ask those questions of the other types of chicken, so that a full understanding of the costs and opportunities that each type of chicken presents. Because, really, if the fresh-kill chicken is not much remarkably different than the cheapest bulk chicken, then why spend the money? It would also be interesting to try the same experiment for other dishes and preparations, like the parboiled breast meat in my Paleo Pra Ram, or fried, roasted, or baked.

So yeah, The Chicken Experiment begins.

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