Poultry Meat Buying Guide

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poultry

Poultry is the most popular meat in the U.S. because of its low cost and pleasant flavor. As consumers have become more aware of where their poultry comes from and how it is raised, new cooks may be confused by the variety of labels on their chicken or turkey.

Labeling

POULTRY PACKAGING TERMS THAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
USDA Organic

In order to be labeled as “USDA Organic”, farmers have to adhere to guidelines set forth by the USDA for the care, feeding, and slaughtering of poultry animals.  Animals must be raised on an organic feed diet without animal byproducts, antibiotics, or growth hormones.  They must be given year-round access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, and clean water.  Any bedding must be made from organic materials and shelters must allow for adequate exercise and normal behaviors.

raised without antibiotics

The term “Raised Without Antibiotics” is a marketing term and is not regulated by the USDA.  It generally means that animals were not given any medications classified as antibiotics for disease prevention or treatment.  Since the USDA requires that an animal treated with antibiotics cannot be slaughtered until the substance has left the animal’s system, all poultry is technically antibiotic free when it reaches the market. 

Hormone-free

“Hormone-Free” is also a marketing term used on poultry packaging.  Contrary to popular belief, the USDA prohibits the use of steroids or hormones in all poultry or pork production.  Companies that use “hormone-free” labeling are free to do so, but it is not indicative of a better quality product than poultry without the designation.

Natural and all natural

The USDA requires that poultry products carrying these labels have no artificial ingredients, artificial colors or chemical preservatives.  However, “natural” and “all natural” labels still allow for the injection of sodium solutions to enhance the flavor of the product.

Vegetarian-Fed and the Vegetarian Diet

The USDA has no specific regulation regarding this claim.  Traditional poultry feed is made from corn and soybean meal but may be enhanced with protein, fats, and oils from animal byproducts.  Farmers may choose to use a feed that does not contain animal products, but chickens are not naturally vegetarians. Wild birds consume a diet rich in insects and other small creatures in addition to seeds and plant matter.

Air-Chilled

“Air-chilled” poultry products refer to the way the meat was treated after slaughter.  In the US, most poultry is chilled in large, chlorinated ice water baths before packaging.  While this process is fast, it also uses a tremendous amount of water, dilutes the poultry’s flavor, and causes the finished product to weigh more due to water retention.  Air-chilling poultry is a much slower process, where the product is hung individually on a conveyor belt and circulated around a chilling room.  Not only is it more environmentally friendly, it results in a more flavorful final product.

Free Range

The only USDA requirement for a poultry producer to label its product as “free range” or “free roaming” is that the animal has access to the outside.  Unfortunately, this does not guarantee that the flavor or quality of the meat be grossly affected in any way.


Shopping Guide for Poultry

Chicken

Types of Chicken Packaging

Whole: Roasters, Broilers, and Fryers


Roasters - Older chickens that typically weigh between five to seven pounds.

Broilers and fryers - Younger chickens that weigh between 2 ½ to 4 ½ pounds.

Avoid labels that say the chicken is “enhanced”.  This means it may contain unnecessary “flavor enhancers” that may affect the flavor and texture of the chicken. Not to mention, you are actually paying for the water solution they inject the chicken with.  Buy birds labeled “air chilled” or “USDA Organic” for the most flavorful chicken.

Ground


Ground chicken in supermarkets is prepared in one of two ways: prepackaged or ground to order. 

Prepackaged - ground chicken meat from either dark or white meats

Ground to order - ground meat from buyer’s choice of chicken

Because chicken must be cooked thoroughly, choosing ground chicken with a large amount of dark meat will yield a juicier, more flavorful end product.

Boneless, Skinless Breasts and Cutlets


Boneless, skinless breasts and cutlets are the most popular cuts in the US.  Lean, versatile, and neutral in flavor, they are a staple in households throughout the country.  Just be sure to use a meat thermometer when cooking them as they become dry and rubbery when they are overcooked.

Next time, give boneless, skinless chicken thighs a try in place of the breasts.  They are packed with chicken flavor and won’t dry out as quickly.

Bone-In Parts


Chefs generally agree that roasting chicken with the bone in and skin on will yield the juiciest, most flavorful outcome.

Bone-in, skin-on parts are ideal for the barbecue or grill.






Turkey

Types of Chicken Packaging

Whole


Most whole turkeys available in the market today do not contain as much fat as they did fifty years ago, leaving the birds dry and flavorless. 

Heritage birds are purebred or cross bred descendants of wild turkeys that roamed freely decades ago.  These turkeys have a rich flavor and texture but may be difficult to find in a supermarket.

To combat the lack of flavor in traditional birds, some processors “prebaste” the turkey with a sodium solution to improve the flavor. It is always better to buy a bird that has not been injected with water and brine it yourself.  Not only can you control the ingredients in the brine, you do not pay for the additional weight of the sodium solution.

Bone-In Breasts


Bone-in breasts found in supermarkets are available in two varieties: 

(1)Regular or True Cut 

(2)Hotel or Country-Style

Regular or True Cut

The cut which includes the whole bone-in breast section with ribs and parts of the wing meat, back, and neck skin.

Hotel or Country-Style

This cut is basically the same as regular  turkey breast, except that it comes with the neck, wings, and giblets.




Ground


When buying ground turkey, be sure to buy a variety that contains a mixture of white meat and dark meat for extra flavor and added juiciness. 


Sad Truth

Most of the meat in the United States is produced industrially. Cramped living conditions, artificial diets, and growth hormones are utilized in many facilities to produce more livestock or poultry for consumption. Unfortunately, this affects the quality of the meat you find in the supermarket.  Your best bet is to befriend a trusted butcher who sources his products from local farmers.  Not only are you supporting your local agricultural industry, you will have access to high quality meat and poultry raised in more humane conditions.

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