Healthy Chicken: 10 Tips on Sourcing, Jointing & Cooking
Despite ‘official’ rhetoric to the contrary, the prospect of chlorinated chickens appearing on UK tables is by NO means off the menu yet and it won’t be until, as they say, the Fat Brexit Lady sings. My 10 food wisdom tips on sourcing, jointing and cooking healthy chicken will make several delicious meals for roughly the same price as your average supermarket bird.
You think not? I say it will – and what you (and the chicken) will gain from that little extra you may pay, is more than worth it… on every level!
If you want to catch up on this miserable issue, check out my (angry!) post here: Chlorinated Chicken: An Omen for Brexit?
I’ve dedicated my new book ‘Once Upon a Cook – Food Wisdom, Better Living: The Wisdom and Science of Traditional Foods’ to explaining why we should care where our food comes from and chicken-y issues are discussed in the chapters on Eggs and Meat.
In the meantime, here are some practical tips to help you source and cook a whole, healthy chicken – without breaking the bank!
Our costly love affair with chicken
Back in the day, before industrial farming practises gave us ‘cheap’ food, chicken (like ALL meat) was a treat. Chicken was put on the table on high days and holidays… not every day! Now, over 50 billion chickens are reared annually to provide us with meat and eggs – that’s around seven times the number of people on earth – and most of these will be intensively produced. This love affair has cost chickens, the environment, our health and our consciences very dear.
I cannot put too much emphasis on saying: THERE. IS. ANOTHER. WAY.
#1. Beware Intensively Farmed Chicken…
Avoid buying any of your meat from retailers (supermarket or High Street butcher) who source their meat from conventional or factory farms. As you’ll learn see in more detail within within the pages of ‘Once Upon a Cook’, this is a system that farms animals intensively in confined, unhealthy conditions and feeds them cheap, unnatural diets of grains and soya. Often their feed will be from genetically-modified sources and contaminated with a cocktail of pesticides, including glyphosate. These animals are invariably weak, unhealthy and most likely have been subjected to regular doses of antibiotics; worse, they are often contaminated with harmful parasitic bacteria (like salmonella, e-coli). With this miserable state of affairs created, is it any wonder that producers have to resort of using (and justifying the use of) chlorine bleach?!
#2. Beware Imposters…
Many volume producers are increasingly using misleading labeling which implies that their product – particularly chicken – comes from small-scale farmers, or higher-welfare sources:
“Beware of false brands. This is where a name is created to suggest something about the origin of the chicken, without actually having any real basis in fact. For example, chicken in a discount supermarket labelled “Sunny Forest Farms Chicken” is unlikely to be from a small farm in a forest, with chickens given access to sunshine. It is simply clever marketing of standard, intensively-produced chicken.”
Jamie Oliver – Jamie’s Food Revolution
#3. Do your research…
Be aware that we can no longer trust the ‘food industry’ to provide us with clean, healthy, nutrient-dense food – so make some time to trawl the internet and make a list of local and national suppliers. Read the websites, compare prices and delivery charges.
#4. Learn what labels mean…
Organic: Standards are defined by law, and farmers & processors must be certified. Organic systems provide high levels of animal welfare so animals can go outside for part (or all) of their lives, don’t use chemical fertilisers or pesticides and the routine use of antibiotics is not permitted. However, unless raised on grass or pasture, these animals receive varying proportions of organic grains.
Free-range: Chickens and pigs can go outside for at least part of their lives, allowing them to be more active and exhibit more of their natural behaviours compared with intensively-reared animals. Free-range chicken typically contains less fat than intensively-reared chicken, as well as being tastier. But as we saw for laying hens in the EGGS CHAPTER, the extent to which any chickens are truly ‘free-range’ varies hugely; many are likely never to see the outdoors.
Pasture/grass-fed: Signifies the traditional practice of grazing cattle, sheep and hens & table chickens on pasture as opposed to the conventional intensive practice of fattening them on grains. Pasture-raised animals are often (but not always) reared to organic standards or certification.
Outdoor bred/reared: Refers mainly to pigs born in systems with outdoor space, then brought indoors for fattening after weaning (outdoor bred) or spend around half their life outdoors (outdoor reared).
RSPCA Assured is the RSPCA’s labelling & assurance scheme dedicated to improving welfare standards. About 30% of pigs in the UK are reared under this strict labeling scheme which covers both indoor and outdoor rearing systems and ensures that greater space and bedding material are provided.
Freedom Foods: This is the RSPCA’s higher animal welfare standards and labeling scheme that includes beef, chicken, pork and turkey. Freedom Foods allows free-range, organic, indoor and outdoor farms to join its scheme as long as the RSPCA’s welfare standards can be met.
Farm assured/Red Tractor: This label says nothing about how the animal was reared, but provides traceability back to the farm. Inspection standards include food safety and hygiene and basic (rather than higher) animal welfare standards.
Farm assured, locally sourced, farm fresh, natural: These labels tell us NOTHING about how the animal was fed and reared, nor do they guarantee the animals have been reared in higher welfare systems. So unless we know otherwise, we should assume nothing.
No label: Tells me to assume the worst!
#5. Certification isn’t everything…
Wherever possible, source traditionally raised, grass-fed, organic meat (and its products) from local farms, or farms which work with Nature, not against her. Even if a farm hasn’t got formal organic certification, many traditional farmers take great pride in time-honoured farming methods and are rightly proud of their soil and long heritage of producing clean, healthy meat.
#6. Establish a good relationship…
Find a producer you can trust and GO FOR IT! Establishing a good relationship with a trusted supplier is a win-win situation for both parties. Any farmer who genuinely cares about the food they produce (animal or vegetable) will be happy to share their farming practices with customers. If you can find a local supplier, all the better, but you can still establish good relationships with on-line suppliers via the telephone and friendly emails. Don’t be shy – it’s your health that’s at stake here!
#7. Eat less but better chicken…
By eating less (of any meat), but making it better nutritional quality, you’ll be packing in many more nutrients (and flavour) so you won’t need as much on your plate – trust me! When I bought pasture-raised, organic chickens for my very first ‘Chicken’ cooking workshop, I panicked when they arrived; they seemed SO small for the price I’d paid! I rang the (local supplier) who explained that pastured, or truly free-range birds were a completely different animal from those bred for intensive farming: their bone-to-meat ratio meant they had much smaller bones and shorter legs, but actually yielded much more meat! Factory birds need longer, stronger leg bones in order to be able to, literally, stand for distressingly long periods in confined conditions. I shared the story with my students, and needless to say Farmer Mark was proved right and my students and myself were astonished at the amount of meat (not to say flavour) from these modest-looking birds!
#8. Make your freezer your friend and buy in bulk…
Buying in bulk always save delivery charges, or club together with family, friends and to bring down costs. That just what I did (and still do) and sure, it’s a pain at first. But someone has to lead the way for change to happen… so if you care about your health, commit to making the first move! Freezing good quality meat does it NO harm whatsoever – make your freezer your best friend, wrap well and label it!
#9. Always, always, always buy a WHOLE chicken…
Buying neatly wrapped, pre-packed chicken adds HUGELY to the cost of an already deficient food; do the maths next time you’re in the store! So be brave and buy a whole bird… you just need a little help and the patience to learn a new skill…
#10. Joint a chicken and cook your healthy bird from scratch!
So, without further ado – check out my instructional video and recipes on how to source and joint a whole chicken and cook it in delicious ways!
How to Joint a Whole Chicken and Save Money.
Cooking Keralan Chicken.
Some other recipes to help you get the most from your delicious, nutritious, REAL chicken: