I’m not above an old-fashioned schoolyard boasting match when it comes to food. I shop carefully and I know a good chicken when I taste one.
When a guy beside me at a dinner party (yes, a proper, seated dinner on a balcony last summer) kept insisting that the Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds he buys at Codman Community Farms in Lincoln were better than all the other chickens out there, I was determined to match it against my favorites, one from Feather Brook Farm, a free-range bird raised in Raynham, and another labeled Green Circle, a brand famous for being fed kitchen scraps, raised in Amish country in Pennsylvania, and distributed by the supplier D’Artagnan.
Around the table that night Boastful Guy and I decided we’d have a Battle of the Birds to see which one really rules the quality roost. We got around to it quite recently. We started the contest with the three we’d discussed that night, and before we knew it we were up to nine birds — most organic, high-end house brands from local supermarkets — and I was slipping them onto roasting trays and cooking them in batches in my large oven.
On the list: Star Market Signature Farms whole chicken, Stop & Shop Nature’s Promise whole chicken, Trader Joe’s whole chicken, Roche Bros. organic whole chicken, Wegmans organic whole chicken, Bell & Evans whole chicken, Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds whole chicken, Feather Brook Farm whole chicken, Green Circle whole chicken.
You won’t find Whole Foods house brand here, nor Market Basket’s; both carry Bell & Evans and that bird was in our group. If you’re wondering why your favorite chicken isn’t in this mix, I can only say there were just so many birds I could get into my oven in one afternoon.
This was not a scientific tasting. It was a friendly chicken roast-off that was, in the end, enlightening, if not conclusive.
Here was my process: I left the chickens on the counter for half an hour before roasting. I removed any giblets — it’s surprising how many birds come without them — and patted the birds dry inside and out. I rubbed the skin all over with olive oil and sprinkled it with salt and pepper, sliding some inside the cavity. The legs were tied with kitchen twine and each bird got an oak tag with a number, which was secured to the legs. That meant that tasters had no idea which number was associated with each brand. An assistant and I who tagged the birds did not recognize them by the time they were cut up and served on platters hours later. While prepping, we kept notes on what the birds and skin looked like.
Initially we planned to roast birds not larger than 3½ pounds, what a friend calls “a chicken-sized chicken,” perfect for four diners, but growers are raising larger roasting chickens and ours ranged from 3½ to 5½ pounds. Prices went from 97 cents a pound (on special; usually $1.79) to $7.49 a pound.
As far as the cooking time was concerned, with such an array of sizes, well that’s enough to drive a girl crazy. Since I got myself a Thermapen instant read thermometer, I’ve never undercooked or overcooked a bird or roast or cake or custard.
I set out to dry brine all the birds — rub them with salt and leave them, uncovered, overnight in the fridge — but there wasn’t enough refrigerator space. I pulled out my turkey roasting pan and got three birds in it, put one in a smaller pan, and sent them to the oven. They roasted on their backs, then I turned them to roast breast side down for part of the time; the skin didn’t stick to the pan thanks to a little square of parchment paper under each bird. We used a 375-degree oven and they should have taken about an hour but it was longer because there was so much meat trying to heat up all at once.
We took the first batch out, then roasted the rest of the brood.
As tasters arrived, we nibbled on magnificent cheeses that one guest had brought from Italy a few days earlier. (He’s been doing this for years, he says, and US customs doesn’t confiscate them). Boastful Guy arrived with a baking dish holding divine Pommes Dauphinoise, the French dish of thinly sliced potatoes baked in cream. Tse Wei Lim and Diane Kudayarova, co-owners of Backbar in Somerville, made a pot of braised cabbage, which had the most pleasing sweet flavors. I served a large platter of greens with quick pickled vegetables. We ate the side dishes as palate cleansers between chickens, which were set out in pairs.
Tasters came into the kitchen to look at the array of golden birds and comment on their appearance (everyone was given a pad for notes). I had asked Tse Wei to carve chickens with me, which we would send out on platters, white meat separated from dark. We began, each with a bird on a cutting board. He had brought his own knife and I was using kitchen shears. “Is this a contest for speed?” he asked. I looked over at him to answer. “No, because you’ll win.” Indeed, he’d already carved half his bird. In the course of the night, Tse Wei ended up cutting all the birds — this after tasting them all and taking detailed notes. He left me in his wake.
One of my favorite birds was crowned the winner. We were nine tasters altogether and five voted Green Circle chicken the best all around. Some comments: “Excellent flavor. Meaty!” “Very bright.” “Clear winner in flavor.” “Good texture and flavor.”
That left four votes, which were divided evenly between Pete & Jen’s (“dark meat is intense, white meat is fine grain, tightly woven,” “deep leg flavor,” “great texture”) and Stop & Shop Nature’s Promise brand (“lots of texture,” slightly gamey,” “noticeably juicy,” “good chicken flavor”).
Green Circle chickens go largely to the restaurant industry, though locally two farm stands carry them. Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds are available at Codman Farms in Lincoln, and Nature’s Promise brand are at Stop & Shop locations. (See sidebar for more details on how the birds fared and where to find them.)
After the tasting, everyone ate more cheese, then later, for dessert, we had pints from Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream in New York City that Tse Wei and Diana brought home from a visit. Those went with Dorie Greenspan’s Chocolate Chunklet Cookies that I’d tested earlier in the week and tucked into the freezer.
The conclusion: You can get a delicious, carefully raised chicken at Stop & Shop for a remarkably reasonable price. I will continue to roast the chickens that started this battle — Feather Brook and Green Circle — and Boastful Guy informs me that he will continue to roast Pete & Jen’s birds, but now he’s curious to taste one beside a Nature’s Promise chicken from Stop & Shop.
“Do you want to convince people to be vegetarian?” asked one taster, who then answered his own question.
“Serve them nine chickens at once.”