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The Unparalleled Versatility Of Chicken

Updated on May 31, 2010

From buying to roasting, America's most popular meat is the most versatile of all proteins! Chicken is clearly the most popular meat in America. We eat an average of 70 pounds each year, and that's not counting consumption of chicken-flavored products. It's easy to see why this bird is such a hit - it's mild, tender, inexpensive, and non-threatening. Chicken is liked, or at least tolerated, by almost everybody. It's the epitome of inoffensive edibility.

Chicken is also easy to prepare and incredibly versatile. You can sauté it, deep-fry it, grill it, bake it, poach it, stew it, broil it, or roast it. There's only one rule, the Golden Rule of Chicken: Don't overcook it. So how come there are so many questions about a one-rule food? For instance, is it worth the extra money to buy the fancy-pants (a.k.a. free-range) chicken? Also, considering salmonella and other not-so-pleasant chicken dwellers, is it safe to handle and eat?

Yeah, sure it's simple. Once you know the basics, that is.

The first step is buying it (unless you raise your own, but if you're looking for plucking and cleaning tips, I'm afraid this isn't the place). Is ordinary supermarket chicken good enough, or is it worth the extra couple of bucks a pound for free-range chicken? (I did a taste test to find out.)

Once you've selected your chicken, it's important to know how to handle it safely, from refrigerator to table. When do you stop cooking it? After it's safe to eat but before it's shoe leather.

And then there's cooking. Chicken's mildness makes it amenable to every kind of cooking, and there are entire books on what to do with it. I'll tackle the most difficult - roasting.

In case all this seems too complicated, I've also got a foolproof method for easy, perfect, chicken.

Buying Chicken: Supermarket or Super-premium?

The best way to answer that question is with a chicken taste-off. I roasted an ordinary supermarket chicken and an organic, free-range chicken that cost more than twice as much. Then I conducted a blind tasting with a scientifically chosen panel - family and friends, who are all experts on something. The result? The free-range bird was universally preferred; its dark meat was considered slightly better than that of the supermarket chicken, which was said to have had a greasy texture. But the dramatic difference was in the white meat: The breast of the free-range chicken was deemed moist and flavorful, while the supermarket bird's was bland and a little stringy.

Using the upscale chicken is worth it for any dish where the chicken stands more or less on its own. If you're making a dish where it's a supporting player among lots of other flavors and textures, such as Chicken Cacciatore, a supermarket bird will do fine. But, since chickens vary, the best way to know what to buy in your area is to assemble a "scientific" panel of your family and friends, and host a chicken taste-off of your own. Then you'll know for sure.

The Unparalleled Versatility Of Chicken Part 2

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