Mon. Apr 22nd, 2024

There’s no beating a roast chicken for versatility — it’s great on its own, or the meat can be a key building block in tacos, sandwiches, casseroles and chili. It often produces welcome leftovers or lends itself to multiple dishes. And the easiest shortcut to a flavorful, golden bird can be found in your grocery store, where rotisserie chickens have become a staple, beloved by shoppers looking to put a hot meal on the table for the family during a busy school week and by those cooking for only one or two.

And while most consumers will simply opt for the cooked rotisseries from whatever grocery store they typically frequent, we wanted to see whose chickens stood out from the flock.

The logistics for this taste test were a bit more complicated than for others we’ve done. First of all, many grocery chains are regional, so in addition to several nationwide brands, we scooped up samples from the major chains in the Washington region.

While variations abound, including lemon-pepper, barbecue and herb-bedecked, we opted for the most traditional, plainest version that each store offered.

There was potential for variation: How fresh were the chickens? How long was their commute to our office, where we did the test? We aimed to standardize things as best we could, arranging pickups by multiple staffers at about the same time (yes, a spreadsheet was involved) and stashing the chickens in insulated bags upon their arrival, a process we hoped would best mimic a shopper’s experience with them. And it’s interesting to note that the freshness didn’t seem to matter — one of our colleagues waited as the grocery-store worker pulled the chickens out of the oven, and that bird still wound up at the very bottom of our list.

Even before lifting a fork, we discovered that not all rotisserie chickens are created equal. There is a vast difference in size — our samples ranged from 4 pounds, 2 ounces (Costco) to a petite 1 pound, 9-ouncer from Food Lion (below, we list the weight as we measured it, not as described on the packaging). Prices vary wildly, too, as do the nutritional factors, all provided by grocers. People watching their salt intake might want to take note of sodium amounts in particular. In some cases, it was difficult to locate the nutritional information, a process that required inquiring at the deli or even calling customer service. In one case, it couldn’t be found. The overall performance of these birds was similarly all over the map — we had a clear winner, an obvious loser, and a pretty murky middle.

How to use rotisserie chicken as a shortcut to easy weeknight dinners

To judge the field, we asked eight tasters to sample each, making sure they tried white and dark meat and some skin, and to award each a score of 1 to 10, taking into account flavor, texture and overall appeal — meaning each had a potential for a high score of 80.

So which rotisserie rules the roost?

The texture was a huge (and unanimous) turnoff for our tasters. “Mealy,” “mushy,” “pasty,” and “chalky” were among the unappetizing adjectives ascribed to this entrant, which was the definitive low scorer in this feathery sweepstakes. There was little by way of flavor, either, with one describing a “yellow-bland nothing” and another likening it to baby food “with a slight metallic taste.” And it provoked some outright jeers: “I inadvertently said ‘I hate this’ while swallowing,” said one taster.

($7.99/1 pound, 9 ounces/$5.11 per pound)

Nutrition information per serving (4 ounces): Calories: 190; Total Fat: 14 g; Saturated Fat: 4 g; Cholesterol: 70 mg; Sodium: 420 mg; Carbohydrates: 0 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 17 g

9. Whole Foods lemon herb

Your news feed is probably filled with reports of massive droughts. This chicken, which many tasters found to be severely parched, might find itself right at home on the evening news of late. “Another day, another dry chicken breast,” lamented one. They also dinged it for a lack of seasoning, with one calling it “tragically bland.”

($9.99/2 pounds, 8 ounces/$4 per pound)

Nutrition information per serving (3 ounces): Calories: 180; Total Fat: 12 g; Saturated Fat: 3.5 g; Cholesterol: 60 mg; Sodium: 160 mg; Carbohydrates: 0 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 15 g

Some people found this to be another dry specimen (“like the surface of Tatooine,” in the words of one Star Wars aficionado). And it was the baby of the bunch, size-wise. But at least one taster found it more appealing than they originally thought: “looked pretty sad but actually didn’t taste terrible.” A few wanted a little more seasoning from this to make it a stronger contender. “Is salt really, really expensive?” one wondered.

($6.99/1 pound, 9 ounces/$4.47 per pound)

Nutrition information per serving (3 ounces): Calories: 160; Total Fat: 11 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 55 mg; Sodium: 360 mg; Carbohydrates: 0 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 14 g

7. Kirkland seasoned (Costco)

This is the rotisserie chicken to beat — the membership club’s roasted poultry has attained iconic status, maintaining its low price as a loss leader (Costco subsidizes the $4.99 price tag to entice shoppers to also purchase bulk quantities of protein bars and tube socks) and attracting devotees along the way. It’s far and away the plumpest of the bunch. Our tasters weren’t unanimous on this one, with one declaring it her favorite (“not too salty, the dark meat has some flavor”), others found it inoffensive (”nondescript but solid”) and a couple were decidedly not fans (“stringy” in the words of two tasters). Still, if you are looking for heft and value, this might be the chicken you’re seeking.

($4.99/4 pounds, 2 ounces/$1.21 per pound)

Nutrition information per serving (3 ounces): Calories: 140; Total Fat: 7 g; Saturated Fat: 2.5 g; Cholesterol: 55 mg; Sodium: 460 mg; Carbohydrates: 0 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 19 g

6. Signature Cafe traditional (Safeway)

Tasters detected a hint of welcome herbal seasoning here, but this specimen is only approaching middle-of-the-road territory. “Good flavor but overall not at all memorable,” said one. “Would be fine in something saucy or cheesy,” faint-praised another. The skin seemed to drag the scores down, though, with unimpressed tasters dubbing it “flabby,” “rubbery” and “slightly slimy.”

($7.99/1 pound, 12 ounces/$4.57 per pound)

Nutrition information per serving (3 ounces): Calories: 160; Total Fat: 9 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 100 mg; Sodium: 250 mg; Carbohydrates: 0 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 20 g

The level of salt appealed to many tasters, and a few particularly singled out the dark meat for praise (“rich flavor and juicy”). But some found the salinity a little overpowering, with one calling it a “salt lick,” and another lamenting that it immediately sent him for a gulp of water. A few thought it was a bit overcooked, but this was another one people thought could be serviceable in the right context. “Passable for many uses, not plain,” said one.

($9.99/2 pounds, 11 ounces/$3.72 per pound)

Nutrition information per serving (3 ounces): Calories: 180; Total Fat: 9 g; Saturated Fat: 2.5 g; Cholesterol: 95 mg; Sodium: 440 mg; Carbohydrates: 0 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 20 g

4. Member’s Mark seasoned (Sam’s Club)

A cushy size and inoffensive flavor and texture landed this chicken in the upper tier, even if it didn’t win it many effusive plaudits. It’s like the kind of music playing in your dentist’s waiting room, seemingly picked by an algorithm to be unobjectionable to most ears. “I wouldn’t be upset if someone served this to me,” said one. “Nothing about it makes me angry,” was another echo of its appeal. “Moist breast meat, good browning on the skin, not overly salted,” said one fan.

($4.98/3 pounds, 4 ounces/$1.53 per pound)

Nutrition information per serving (3 ounces): Calories: 140; Total Fat: 7 g; Saturated Fat: 2.5 g; Cholesterol: 75 mg; Sodium: 430 mg; Carbohydrates: 0 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 19 g

3. (tie) Wellsley Farms (BJ’s Wholesale Club)

This bird appealed to the eye straightaway, with our photographer identifying it as the most visually appealing of the lineup. “Nice grilled color,” said one, although another said the interior didn’t live up to the packaging’s promise: “the flavor of the breast meat doesn’t match the looks.” Muted seasoning didn’t bother our more salt-averse tasters, though. (“I would rather skew that way,” said one.) Several found the breast meat a touch dry, but others found the moisture level “decent” and “just fine.”

($4.99/3 pounds, 3 ounces/$1.57 per pound)

Nutrition information per serving (3 ounces): Calories: 180; Total Fat: 11 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 80 mg; Sodium: 320 mg; Carbohydrates: 0 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 19 g

3. (tie) Sprouts Farmers Market unseasoned

Salt with a side of chicken? This was voted the saltiest bird-testant, though tasters were divided over whether that was a good thing. “This one has allll the salt that was missing from the others,” according to one. And most thought the meat was relatively moist, a characteristic that one speculated might be due to being pumped full of brine. Some tasters found starker differences between the dark and white meat, the latter being saltier and unexpectedly a bit better textured.

($9.99/1 pound, 14 ounces/$5.33 per pound)

Nutrition information per serving (4 ounces): Calories: 170; Total Fat: 11 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 70 mg; Sodium: 420 mg; Carbohydrates: 0 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 18 g

2. Nature’s Promise classic (Giant)

Two tasters detected a pleasant note of smoke in this guy’s flavor panel, although another merely clocked a mystery “odd aftertaste.” And it got high marks for appealing looks. “Evenly bronzed, back from a beach vacation in the Mediterranean, surely,” according to one admirer. “Nice golden color,” said another. Our critics mostly agreed that the juiciness factor distinguished both the dark and white meat, with a number labeling it “moist and tender.”

($6.99/2 pounds, 11 ounces/$2.60 per pound)

Nutrition information not available

To be fair, this bird had a significant … wing up, since the big-box brand’s “traditional” variety was clearly, upon inspection, much more heavily seasoned than the others. Discernible bits of rosemary and other herbs flecked its skin and penetrated into the flesh. Multiple tasters dug the black pepper notes that were prevalent (“Omg pepper!” was a sample quote). One noted, though, that the aggressive seasoning might limit its versatility — “it might take over,” one surmised. It was also higher in calories and fat than all the others we sampled, which might have helped pack in some flavor. Still, overall, it won points for having equally moist dark and white meat and a prevalent (and, at least in this batch of chickens, elusive) poultry flavor, in addition to that garden of herbs. “Actually tastes like chicken that was cooked by someone who likes to eat rotisserie chicken,” praised one.

($6.97/3 pounds, 1 ounce/$ 2.28 per pound)

Nutrition information per serving (3 ounces): Calories: 250; Total Fat: 19 g; Saturated Fat: 6 g; Cholesterol: 85 mg; Sodium: 250 mg; Carbohydrates: 0 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 19 g

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