The price tag on a rotisserie chicken is often so reasonable that if you do the math, you can’t buy and cook a bird for less. Right now in the Boston area, walk into any supermarket and the first thing you smell is a chicken cooking — usually in the back of the store to get you way inside so you pop other things into the cart. A fiver can get you a big bird hovering around3 pounds, or something much smaller, often less than 2. Rotisserie chickens are so important to getting customers into a store that when Amazon bought Whole Foods Market last year, it dropped the price of a plain bird from $9.99 to $7.99.
Sure they smell good, but that seductive part is often unrelated to taste. So we lined up 10 chickens from area chains to find the best-tasting. As you can imagine, the aromas on the way home — with all those birds in the back seat — nearly drove us crazy. But under the microscope, our tempting packages were a little less exciting. When you get the chicken in the store, it’s typically already packaged in a large plastic container or a plastic bag. The birds go into the containers completely cooked and hot, then they’re set on heated shelving. A few minutes in there and skin that may once have been crisp turns flabby, and the flesh keeps on cooking.
Pricing a bird low is what the supermarket industry calls a “loss leader.” It gets you in the door. Perhaps you’ll want an order of mashed potatoes with your chicken, or mac and cheese, slaw, and more. No store knows this better than Costco, whose cheap, popular birds ($4.99) have customers raving online about them.
We shopped midmorning on a weekday and bought whatever was available so we wouldn’t come home empty-handed. For instance, there were no regular-size Market Basket birds ($4.59), so we tasted a large roaster. We never opted for the organic bird, if available, nor anything with dolled-up flavors if there was a choice. We sampled five birds at a time, found a winner, then bought another of the winning bird for the next group of five, to see how it matched up. We tasted some birds two or three times. We weighed the birds right out of the packages to check that weight against what the package states (some discrepancies here; see tasting notes).
We ate so much dry breast meat that we ran out of adjectives. Often the birds were bronze on top and pale along the thighs, which made us wonder if they had ever been on a spit. Some chickens that looked tempting delivered powerful chemical tastes that affected the entire bird. In the end we never did taste any skin that was crisp.
The Best Chicken Award goes to Boston Market for its all-golden bird, with breast and thigh meat that were both cooked just right, with teriyaki flavors on the skin. At $9.99 for a bird under 2 pounds, it’s the most expensive of our lot.
Company executives will not say what’s in the marinade, but the sweet-salty taste and dark skin suggest seasonings with a soy sauce base. Boston Market birds, billed as antibiotic- and hormone-free, gluten-free, and cooked without MSG, come from Tyson Foods and George’s, both in Arkansas.
The chain, based in Golden, Colo., began in Newtonville in 1985 as a single Boston Chicken location. It was at one point a subsidiary of McDonald’s Corp., but is now owned by Sun Capital Partners. There are 18 Massachusetts locations and chickens come off the rotisseries every hour.
The famous Costco bargain bird, plump and appealing (3-plus pounds), with a pleasing texture on both the white and dark meat, and just-right saltiness, had a chemical taste to both the flesh and skin. Since it costs less than $5, we gave it the Best Value Award. Attempts to reach company executives to find out what’s in the marinade were unsuccessful.
Finally, the purest bird of the lineup: We gave an Honest Chicken Award to Whole Foods Market for a plain bird that at first we thought was so unadorned it was tasteless. It has little or no seasoning and no discernible salt. Chickens are hormone- and antibiotic-free, raised on a vegetarian diet by FreeBird, based in Fredericksburg, Pa. But the more birds we sampled and the more unpalatable, suspicious tastes we were subjected to, the more this chicken became agreeable for what it was not. The company is letting a well-raised bird go completely unembellished. You can’t argue with that.
TASTE TEST ANALYSIS
Before we tasted the 10 birds, we weighed all of them and give that weight here, along with the label weight, if any was listed. The location of each store we shopped at is also provided. Markets tend to run out of chickens during the afternoon rush and if you want one, you may be looking at a one-hour wait. Some stores will save you one if you call ahead. Get the chicken out of its container as soon as you can. If you reheat the bird, you risk cooking it even more (and most are bordering on overcooked already).
BJ’s Wholesale Club (Waltham)
3 pounds, $4.99 (no package weight listed)
Breast skin golden and appealing but not skin on thighs. Tough and dry white meat, dark meat better texture, not dry, but tasteless. Label says chickens are Perdue, hormone-free, MSG-free, raised on a vegetarian diet. www.bjs.com
*BEST CHICKEN AWARD
Boston Market (Waltham)
1 pound, 12 ounces, $9.99 (no package weight listed)
Skin both sweet and salty, appealing dark color, teriyaki flavors. White meat firm and moist, sliced nicely, dark meat juicy. Skin dark all around the leg and thigh. Flavors on the skin amped up, but no chemical aftertaste. Website says bird is hormone-free, MSG-free, raised on a vegetarian diet. www.bostonmarket.com
*BEST VALUE AWARD
3 pounds, 3 ounces, $4.99 (no package weight listed)
Looks like grandma’s plump roast chicken. Dark golden skin, nice breast meat that melted in the mouth and sliced well. Dark meat juicy and moist. Salt just right. Chemical aftertaste on both skin and meat. www.costco.com
Hannaford Supermarket (Waltham)
1 pound, 12 ounces, $5.49 (no package weight listed)
Only chicken available labeled “winter whiskey cider.” Sorriest looking bird in the lot. Very dark, burnished brown all over. White meat dry and mushy, dark meat not as dry. Both white and dark meat, and skin, had a strange sweetness and odd, unpleasant taste that permeated the flesh. www.hannaford.com
Market Basket (Waltham)
4 pounds, 5 ounces, $8.99 (Only bird available was Perdue Giant Roaster; smaller birds are $4.59)
When sliced, breast looks white and moist, not overcooked, but not juicy either. Dark meat well cooked but not dry. Plenty of salt here, as if brined, but taste is artificial, as if it had been basted with cheap bouillon filled with additives. www.marketbasket.com
2 pounds, 8 ounces (label says 1 pound, 12 ounces), $6 (package marked $7.99 but register charged $6 without a coupon)
White meat weird and very mushy, dark meat better texture but still not right. Breast skin pale; skin around thighs looked uncooked. Label says bird is hormone-free, MSG-free, raised on a vegetarian diet. www.rochebros.com
Star Market (The StreetChestnut Hill)
When we went to include Shaw’s and Star Market on our pick-up route, this location was most convenient.
2 pounds, 4 ounces (label says2 pounds, 5 ounces), $9.99
Bronzed all over, though meat didn’t have much flavor. Both breast and thigh dry. Label says bird is hormone-free, raised on a vegetarian diet. www.starmarket.com
Super Stop & Shop (Watertown)
1 pound, 12 ounces(label says 1 pound,14 ounces), $4.99
Skin tasted good, wasn’t salty; breast meat a little dry and dark meat not quite juicy. Not memorable. www.stopandshop.com
Wegmans (Chestnut Hill)
2 pounds, 8 ounces, $4.99
Very dark skin, salty, dry white meat, dark meat not as dry, strange sweet artificial taste.www.wegmans.com
*HONEST CHICKEN AWARD
Whole Foods Market (Alewife)
1 pound, 13 ounces (label says 2 pounds), $7.99
Breast meat not dry, dark meat a little juicy. No discernible flavors. No salt on skin. But no taste of chemicals whatsoever. Antibiotic-free birds are raised on an all-vegetarian diet. www.wholefoodsmarket.com