April 18, 2008

Recently Spotted: Air Chilled Chicken


In our home, meals with meat tend to be relegated to special occasions or the appearance of  dinner guests.  Don't get me wrong, we like our meat in a variety of packagings but the truth is that we can't afford to eat the kinds of meat that we're morally comfortable buying all that often so we just eat less of it.  My wife returned home yesterday from a busy week of playing the job interview game so I felt it warranted a bit of protein.  While browsing around the meat counter for some chicken I noticed a new addition to the very small corner of the counter reserved for the  natural/organic poultry - several packages of chicken with a very large typeface emblazoned across the front reading:  "Air Chilled Chicken."  At which point I thought to myself, "What the hell does that mean?"  Butchers tend to be some of, if not the, nicest and most helpful employees of grocery stores so I would normally have asked but I was running late so I grabbed my normal package of "All-Natural" chicken (and I assume by the absence of the 6o point font, conventionally chilled) and headed off confident that in time Google would reveal to me the secrets of air chilled chicken. 

Well, air chilled chicken is apparently a new trend to the American chicken processing market that has been around Europe and other places for quite some time.  I became fairly intimate with the "conventional" method of chilling poultry last year when I oversaw the raising and butchering of 100 turkeys that we sold for the Thanksgiving and Christmas season and the 1000 times more onerous process of being licensed by the state to sell said turkeys.  Conventionally (by which I mean at whatever point in the past humanity had the ways and means to decide that it was a good idea to butcher more birds than they could cook and eat in one go - which I assume was the advent of refrigeration) poultry is butchered and then placed in an ice bath to bring the internal temperature of the bird down to between 40-42 degrees fahrenheit as quickly as possible.  This is done for a couple of reasons.  Preservation is obvious.  The sooner you get the bird down to a temperature at which it is difficult or impossible for bacteria to survive-in the case of poultry salmonella is the main nemesis-the better chance you have of presenting to the public a product that won't make them puke their brains out.  There are also some flavor and texture issues at play.  The colder and more rigid the bird gets the fewer natural toxins are released and the more flavorful the bird remains.  We chilled our birds by placing them in two large stainless steel tubs that we filled with tap water (after it passed a state purity test) and lots and lots of ice (which, oddly enough had to pass no test).  So, you butcher the bird, clean it up, wash it off, and dunk it in.  It usually took anywhere from 40-60 minutes to get the birds down to the right temperature depending upon how hot it was and how many turkeys were in the bath already.  In large scale poultry production, compared to which we were anything but conventional, you have enormous ice baths with hundreds of chickens floating in icy chlorinated water moved around with giant paddles. 

Air chilling however circumvents the whole process by getting rid of the ice bath (they still get hit with a chlorine spritz) and running the birds down a series of conveyer belts along which they are blasted with super chilled air that lowers their body temperature to the appropriate degree - I couldn't find anything on how long that process takes.  The supposed benefits of this process are less time soaking in chlorine water (for those who are anti-chlorine water) and supposedly "more natural" flavor.  Oh, that and being able to charge $8.99 lb. for boneless, skinless breasts.  (As opposed to the $5.99 for the "natural" and $1.99 for the conventional)

I don't know enough about the chlorine water issue to speak to it.  For good or ill chlorine is pretty ubiquitous in food production and water supply these days so I'm not sure what to think.  The flavor issue I profess to being skeptical about.  I have never claimed to have the most refined palate so I confess to being able to taste little difference between any poultry regardless of how it was raised.  I have eaten chicken whose journey from butchering block to my plate could be measured in hours and it tasted remarkably similar to that which you pull out of the freezer after who knows how long.  So, air chilled isn't necessarily a value added commodity I'm looking to pay an extra $3/lb. for.  I'm much more interested in buying my chicken (and meat in general) from producers who took that bird from egg to market within the context of a worldview that treated it with the intrinsic, and not simply utilitarian, value that I believe it possesses.  That, I'd be willing to pay an extra $3/lb. for.

So, there you go.  Air chilled chicken.  Keep an eye out for it and its freakishly large font.

You can read more here, here and here.

1 comment:

Joel Bartlett said...

Thanks for this!

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