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Free range chicken is generally a lot more expensive than battery farm chicken, but it's often claimed it is better tasting.

I'm curious if restaurants stick to this mantra and use free-range chicken, or if it's just psychological, and if there any benefits besides ethical ones.

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There will be exceptions to the general rule, but - as a general rule - the 'classier' the restaurant, the more attention will be paid to locally sourced (bio)organic ingredients. –  Tobias Op Den Brouw Aug 19 '10 at 21:31

8 Answers 8

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Flavor in most meats is generally determined by a few things. How the animal was raised and if it is of a particular heritage breed, how it was treated over it's lifetime (i.e. diet and environment), when and how it is slaughtered, how it is handled from the slaughterhouse to the butcher, was it properly stored, etc. Also, how fatty the bird is and light to dark meat ratio will also determine flavor of the bird.

I definitely have tried a lot of different types of "free range", "organic", and/or "local" chickens out there and you basically get what you pay for in terms of meat quality and flavor. At my restaurant we try to source best quality chickens, local, organic and free range if possible because it just tastes better and it coincides with our philosophy. Properly cooking and seasoning the chicken will also help.

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A study done in July 2008 found that in blind tests (i.e. if the eaters did not know whether they were eating "standard" or free-range chickens) the free-range chickens were actually found to be less preferred in terms of taste.

They compared chickens that had been raised by "standard", maize-fed, free-range and organic production systems.

Taste panel assessments were made using 8-point category scales of texture, juiciness, abnormal flavour, flavour liking and overall flavour.

Fillets from birds reared in the standard system were rated by the taste panel as more tender and juicy. There were no significant differences in chicken flavour. Based on hedonic assessments of flavour liking and overall liking, by a small panel of assessors, meat from birds produced in the standard system was most preferred and that from organic systems the least preferred. Meat from free-range and maize-fed systems was intermediate in preference. This result reveals a trend, but does not infer consumer acceptance.

(emphasis mine)

In the course of tracking down the above study, I found a few people blogging about their own blind tests. Obviously, these don't have the rigor of a scientific study, but they do include control groups and blind testing.

  • This person cooked four chickens (three free-range and one normal) and concluded there was "no noticeable difference in taste" and family members (who tasted blind) "unanimously said that it all tasted the same".
  • Two chefs did a side-by-side test of free range vs mass-produced chicken and found "no appreciable difference in flavor". If anything, they noticed that the industrial chicken had "a marginally juicier and tenderer consistency".

So the conclusion seems to be that free range chicken does not taste better and if anything tastes worse.

However, it's worth noting that we don't actually eat things blind. (Well, you might if you were eating at a friend's house and they didn't tell you the type of chicken you were eating - but not in your own kitchen.) We are influenced by brand names, product descriptions and price. If you know you're eating a free-range chicken, it may actually taste better to you. This is completely subjective and unscientific, but... does it matter?

Furthermore, there are plenty of reasons for wanting to eat free-range chickens besides taste - the main one of course being concern for the welfare of the animal. If this is something important to you, it might even contribute to your subjective tasting from the previous paragraph. This is all1 speculative, of course, but I mention it as a caveat to taking the scientific findings as a rule for what chicken to eat, not as justification for an opposing rule about what chicken to eat.

1"all" =final two paragraphs

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Plus one for credible citation –  SAJ14SAJ Apr 17 at 10:02
    
@SAJ14SAJ Thanks, I was amazed to find this 3.5-years-old question with a plethora of opinion-based answers and no sources anywhere to be seen. –  starsplusplus Jul 26 at 13:41

"Free-Range" chicken or any animal in an ideal world is raised with access to the outdoors as well as a balanced diet. Same as when you go hunting, wild animal has a "gamey" taste the older it is simply from what it eats. What a chicken eats during it's lifetime and the exercise it is able to have will affect taste as well as fat content. If you want tasty, ethical, and better for you chicken; I would ask around your local farmer's market and get a healthy farm raised chicken that is grain fed with access to the outdoors. This way you can also help out the local economy and the earth by buying local.

On another note, how you cook your chicken and keep the meat moist is just as important as the original quality.

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Some good points here. Also worth noting, if you don't believe, try it for yourself and compare. –  Noldorin Aug 19 '10 at 22:53

The definition of "Free-range" is quite loose in the US. If the chickens are "free" enough to go outside and eat bugs as part of a more natural diet, it can improve the flavor (like grass-fed beef). This is not required to call chickens "free range" here, and merely getting a bit of fresh air and sunshine will not really improve the flavor. "Free range" is more about treating the animals well than getting the best flavor.

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This is a very important point. There are a number of terms that are regulated, but many more are basically free game for marketers to use at their will. Even the ones that are regulated may not be regulated in a intuitive way. I suggest doing some research about what "free range" actually means according to your local regulations before using that to make a purchasing decision. –  Preston Fitzgerald May 28 at 20:06

Also, breeding will affect the taste of the chicken. Factory farm chickens are designed to have more breast meat and to be ready for slaughter sooner.

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I've had a few Label Rouge chickens and definitely found them more tasty and richer flavored. You will notice that the bones are harder and in my opinion make a better stock. The meat looks less slimey than some of the typical US supermarket salt water injected fodder. Saying that, if you're just interested in breast meat I think it's a little harder to tell the difference.

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Based on my personal experience, free-range chicken does taste better than regular grade commercial chicken. But the call may be biased as there are confounding factors such as air-chilling, grass-diet, etc which are typical for free-range chicken products, and are possibly stronger determinants of what we perceive as better taste.

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Personally, I would say that a free range chicken is more tasty than commercial chicken. I've done several chicken roasting using both free range chicken and commercial ones and I can truly say that the free range chicken is more tasty and meat is tender and juicy.

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Even if we assume that your answer was written in good faith and not as spam, a link to a company selling free range chicken is totally unnecessary, so I removed it. –  rumtscho Apr 15 at 21:03
    
Well, I just wanted to share the brand I'm using as it's really a good one. –  chickenorganiclover Apr 19 at 22:50

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