From cradle to grave, there are lots of ways to raise a live chicken – but what about after its clucking days are done? Meat processors don’t wait for chicken carcasses to cool; in fact, it’s part of their job not to. Normally, chickens cool by the batch in non-chlorinated water, but “air-chilled” chickens are frosted with a blast of cold air. (The USDA mandates that processors cool chickens to 40 degrees F or below within four to eight hours of slaughter.)
Why should you care how your chicken got the chills? Fans of air-chilling tout lower bacteria levels and chance of cross-contamination; more environmentally-friendly plants; and superior flavor without water dilution. Air-chilled chickens have been around Western Europe for at least 45 years, but only caught on in U.S. markets within the last decade, and the verdict’s still out on their true benefits. USDA studies do show that water-chilled chickens gain an average of 9% of their body weight from moisture, while air-chilled chickens actually lose 2.5% of their weight, but the same studies provide conflicting information about bacteria and cross-contamination.
Air-chilled cluckers might be cleaner, taste better, and be kinder to the environment, but they cost more than standard water-chilled chickens. Our advice? Take your chicken with a grain of salt.