Chickens will eat just about anything - grains, grass, small lizards, even mice. But what if their meals featured moist bread and gourmet salad trimmings? Would they taste different - better - when it was their turn to be on the plate? New York’s top chefs are addressing that question in an experiment that’s either ingenious or preposterous (or both).
According to a recent New York Times article, the chickens at a poultry farm in Pennsylvania have been dining on scraps sent to them by chefs from some of the city’s finest restaurants. (The birds are also eating soy and corn.) The chickens started appearing on menus late last month.
"Listen, if the chickens ate ginger and lemon, you would have a gingery, lemony chicken, I think," chef David Burke suggested in the article.
Is that really how it works? Not exactly.
Here’s what we do know. An ordinary commercial chicken eats corn for carbohydrates and soy for protein, plus a variety of vitamin and mineral supplements. Research has suggested that dramatically changing the carbohydrate source affects the flavor of the meat. In 2004, for example, USDA scientists fed chickens soybeans plus either corn, wheat or sorghum, then boiled the meat in plastic bags and fed it to nine blindfolded taste-testers. The testers reported that corn-fed chickens tasted more strongly of meat broth and were less chewy than the wheat- or sorghum-fed birds.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can deliberately manipulate the flavor of chicken meat through the bird’s diet, or, even if you could, that it’s as simple as feeding the bird foods that you want it to taste like. In the absence of research on this topic, I turned to Doug Smith, who studies poultry processing at North Carolina State University.
"Feeding a chicken lemon juice will not make it taste like lemon," he predicted, "but there’s a chance the ginger would come through" if you added that spice to the bird’s diet.
To see why, you need to understand some chemistry and anatomy.
Smith explained that a chicken’s flavor is largely expressed through its fat. Fat-based molecules are therefore more likely to make it from the chicken’s mouth to your mouth. Citric acid, which is not a fat, dominates the flavor of lemon juice. A chicken would digest and utilize the acid, but it wouldn’t influence the flavor of the bird’s flesh.
The flavor of ginger, on the other hand, comes from its essential oils. The same is true of many spices. There is a chance that those oils would survive the chicken’s digestive tract intact, then make it into the bird’s fat stores and have some influence on the flavor of the fowl.
There’s a possibility that you could impart a lemony flavor, but you’d have to use lemon peel, which contains essential oils rather than lemon juice.
Would a chicken eat a lemon peel, you ask? Absolutely.
"Chickens have very little in the way of taste buds," Smith said. "The insides of their mouths have a lot of hard surfaces, because of the beak, and their tongue has more cartilage than the soft human tongue. Unlike most animals, they’ll even eat hot peppers."
It’s not clear, however, how much essential oil a chicken would have to eat for the flavor to be noticeable.
Few people have ever tried this, and for good reason. Soaking a chicken breast in a tiny amount of ginger- or lemon-based marinade would impart far more flavor than feeding a live chicken ginger root and lemon peel over the course of several weeks. More important, few Americans eat the parts of a chicken that really carry its flavor.
"In the large opening at the bottom of a grocery store chicken - the place where you might put stuffing - there are two abdominal fat pads," Smith explained. "The essential oils would first accumulate there, and then move to the lipids in the skin and around the edges of the muscle."
For the most part, Americans eat boneless, skinless chicken breast. It’s probably good for health, but it’s not great for flavor. To have any chance of passing on a hint of the chicken’s four-star diet to a taster in that New York experiment, the chef would have to prepare the bird whole, including the skin and fat around the muscle.
It would also help to let the bird have a long life. Most broiler chickens live for only a few weeks, which isn’t much time for essential oils from their diet to accumulate in the fat. The best choice would probably be an egg-laying hen, most of which live for months before being slaughtered for their meat. (If you’ve ever had canned chicken noodle soup, you’ve probably eaten an older hen. Soup companies value them for their tough meat, which doesn’t turn to mush in broth.)
If you really want to eat an animal product that expresses the creature’s diet during its life, Smith recommends eggs rather than chicken flesh. The oils in such spices as paprika quickly accumulate in yolks, influencing both color and flavor. ("It’s pretty easy to make designer eggs with black or red yolks," Smith said.) Another option is to use ducks rather than chickens. Ducks have a thick layer of fat between muscle and skin.
Before you build a backyard henhouse and start cooking gourmet meals for your chickens, one last comment. The New York experiment is based on the theory that we’ve lost the true flavor of chicken through selective breeding and homogenized feeding regimens. There may be some truth to that, but so what? In blind taste tests, American consumers either can’t tell the difference between commercial and heritage breed chickens, or they prefer the commercial variety. Why should you change your preferences?