POULTRY: WHY FREE RANGE MATTERS
Excerpt from: The Ethical Gourmet by Jay Weinstein
If we start with the premise that we won't all become vegetarian, the issue of how we treat other animals is a logical consideration. There's nothing inherently immoral or unethical about eating meat. That's life in the food chain. There's no greater nobility accorded the wilde-beest because it's prey than the lion because it's a predator. Each does what it has to do to survive. We regret that our nourishment comes at the expense of other creatures' lives, though. That sympathy is one of the finest attributes of humanity.
We all know the bad things that animals experience in our American food production system. This is not meant to be an expose about the technique of veal manufacture, foie gras creation, or chicken farming. These stories are frequently reported in the news. What's not reported are the sensible alternatives to supporting the cruelest practices in the meat industry.
For thousands of years, chickens and their wild fowl ancestors scampered freely around farms. It is only in modern times that the advent of an entirely caged life came about. A chicken that is born in darkness and lives in darkness for its entire life until it is slaughtered is a recent development. That these birds could live their entire existence in cages, stacked upon many other cages, beneath many other cages, never touching the ground, covered with the excrement of other chickens, is unnecessarily cruel. The pain these creatures endure as the chicken wire cuts into their feet, causing infections, is gratuitous. So are the antibiotics the birds have to eat because of those infections.
When I first heard of free-range chickens, my first thought was how funny the concept seemed—chickens in cowboy hats, swinging lassos as they ambled across the range. My second thought, after I tasted my first free-range chicken, was that it wasn't better than regular chicken. It wasn't as tender. I concluded that it was a scam, to make extra money from wealthy people for inferior chicken. It was only years later, as I came to know the difference between the lives of these birds and those of conventional chickens, that I gave the meat a second chance. It was worth it, after all, to support a system that allowed the animals to live in the open air, see the light of day, walk on the soft ground, and consume food unadulterated by chemicals and unnecessary medicines. That's when I opened my mind to discover that the free-range, organic bird yielded superior meat.
The first thing to learn is that conventional and free-range meats are not the same productwith different prices. They're different meats. The next logical step is to treat them differently. My favorite part of a roast chicken had always been the thigh. It was juicier, fattier, and deeper in flavor than the plainer breast, which I often found dry. Thighs had bones that you could pick up with your hands (finger food is a favorite among cooks). Bones also impart flavor as the meat cooks, so pieces with central bones have more taste. And, since every part of a conventional chicken is usually tender enough to cut with the side of a fork, thigh meat was the most texturally pleasing and flavorful part to me. When I'd tasted that first free-range chicken, I'd automatically gone for my favorite thigh portion. As other guests waxed poetic about the juiciness and cleanness of flavor, I felt I was looking at the emperor's new clothes, and this chicken was naked. This time around, I sliced the breast It was like slicing open a capon. Juice ran down the handle of my knife as I cut.
I learned that free-range chickens are much more like wild birds, in that their weight bearing muscles, their legs, actually bear their weight. By contrast, conventional chickens' feet are in such discomfort, the birds spend most of their lives sitting down. Naturally, less active muscles make much softer meat. The plus side is that there's an intensity of flavor in a worked chicken thigh that far exceeds what a flaccid thigh can attain. One thigh can impart as much flavor as a whole conventional bird to a batch of chicken soup. Chicken and dumplings take on a depth of flavor that hasn't been widely tasted since the dish was invented. And the breast of free range chicken is a special, sensual flavor and texture experience. That's all assuming you throw out the old chicken playbook, and cook with a new set of rules.
Free-range meat is lean, and that means that slower cooking times yield better results. Slow and low roasting brings about a sublime roasted free-range chicken, where it would make a conventional one soggy and overdone. Searing becomes more important when lower temperatures will give less browning. Learning to cook free range is like learning to cook chicken all over again. The same is true of other free-range, pasture-raised, and grass-fed meats.