We set out to buy whole organic or high quality, carefully raised chickens, but organic was not available in some stores; when it comes to whole birds, most meat cases offer very little choice. In many stores, the birds were much larger — up to 5½ pounds — than we would have liked. We were looking for 3½ pound birds, which are a practical size and ideal for four people. This tasting was neither scientific nor comprehensive. Roasting four or five chickens in a single oven, even a large one, isn’t ideal, though we left plenty of space in the roasting pans so birds weren’t crammed. During cooking, we rotated the pans back to front and turned the birds from backbone to breastbone. The first batch of birds rested for two hours, the second batch for one hour; in a perfect world, they would all have been treated exactly the same. Prices per pound are what we paid that day. Chickens are listed here in the random order in which we tasted them. All were tagged on their legs with a number and tasters did not know the brand on the plate until after the group voted for their favorite bird.
Star Market Signature Farms ($.97/pound on special; usually $1.97)
At the bottom of most tasters’ list, the Signature Farms chicken was chewy for a few minutes, then mealy. “Dark meat greasy on the palate, white breast Styrofoam-y,” read one comment. “Dark and white meat both a bit dry,” “mushy.” www.starmarket.com
TIED FOR SECOND PLACE Stop & Shop Nature’s Promise ($2.49/pound)
Stop & Shop says that Nature’s Promise chickens are antibiotic-free, raised on a 100 percent vegetarian diet with no added hormones. They’re American Humane Certified, grown on a family-owned farm in the United States. “Silky dark meat, firm textured white meat,” “noticeably juicy,” “good chicken flavor,” “firm, not mushy,” “slightly gamey.” www.stopandshop.com
Trader Joe’s Young Whole Chicken ($1.69/pound)
Before we cooked the Trader Joe’s bird, we poured out ½ cup of water from the cavity. This house brand chicken is raised in the United States on an all-vegetarian diet. “At the end of the bite, the meat disintegrates,” wrote one taster. Another: “Bland and fibrous breast.” “Flabby skin, a bit bland.” www.traderjoes.com
TIED FOR SECOND PLACE Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds at Codman Community Farms ($7.49/pound)
Concord Community Farms’ Pete Lowy, who is farm manager, says that he and his wife, Jen, started raising birds in 2003, first at Verrill Farm in Concord for 12 years before moving to Codman six years ago. They grow 6,000 Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds a year, which are fresh from late May to late October, frozen the rest of the year. Lowy says birds are fed certified organic grain and moved every day to fresh pasture. “Fit, muscular chicken, densest texture, nice breast flavor.” “Breast has meatiest texture, gamey.” “If this one isn’t farm-raised,” said one taster, “I’m turning in my right to do the food shopping.” www.peteandjensbackyardbirds.com
Roche Bros. Organic Whole Chicken ($4.99/pound)
The organic whole chicken from Roche Bros. had a very white flesh with a lot of liquid in the cavity. In the roasting pan, it looked “yummy.” Tasters said: “Dry! Bland leg, bland breast.” “Dirty flavor.” “Fast food vibe.” www.rochebros.com
Feather Brook Farm Free Range Chicken ($5.99 to $6.50/pound)
Feather Brook chicken right out of the packaging looks very clean, skin is smooth with a good color, and no excess liquid. Grower Tad Largey of Feather Brook Farm in Raynham describes the process of raising free-range birds as “attention to detail and nurturing these living creatures right up to and including processing.” Tasters found the birds had “reasonable juiciness,” “solid texture,” “milder dark meat.” Available at Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge, www.formaggiokitchen.com, Pemberton Farms, Marketplace, www.pembertonfarms.com, www.facebook.com/featherbrookfarmsraynham.
WINNER Green Circle Whole Chicken ($4.99/pound)
Free-range Green Circle chickens are raised by 17 farmers in Amish country in Pennsylvania. They are never given antibiotics, says Ariane Daguin of D’Artagnan, the company that oversees the poultry program and distributes the chickens. Birds are fed vegetables from farmers’ markets and professional kitchens, along with grains. They’re certified by Humane Farm Animal Care and air-chilled. “Best one yet!” “Excellent flavor, meaty!” “Clean winner in flavor.” Available at Wilson Farm in Lexington, www.wilsonfarm.com, Idylwilde Farms in Acton, www.idylwildefarm.com, and D’Artagnan, www.dartagnan.com/buy/green-circle-chicken.
Wegmans Organic Whole Chicken ($2.99/pound)
The bird from Wegmans was very white and clean in its raw state. According to the website, birds are free-range, fed a vegetarian diet, are antibiotic free, and air chilled. They’re raised on family farms in Pennsylvania. “Little flavor, flaccid dark meat, mealy white meat,” “Weird breast flavor, leg mushy.” https://shop.wegmans.com/
Bell & Evans ($2.99/pound)
The raw Bell & Evans bird was clean and fresh with slightly yellow skin. After it turned golden in the oven, it looked grand in the roasting pan, prompting one taster to describe it as “large, bronze, Herculean.” According to Bell & Evans’s site, the family-owned business raises birds with “no added water, no antibiotics, no junk” and they’re endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States. Birds are air-chilled, which the site says “eliminates the need for chilled chlorinated water that most producers use, which ends up in your chicken.” Tasters found the breast dry and “powdery,” and other comments included “soft texture, dark dry,” “little dry, mealy,” “this is a commercial chicken,” “the roastiest tasting of the birds.” Available at many markets including Whole Foods Market, www.wholefoodsmarket.com, and Market Basket, www.shopmarketbasket.com, www.bellandevans.com.