An Informal Heritage Chicken Tasting

On Sunday afternoon we hosted a small, informal heritage chicken tasting at our house with a few friends.  The birds were roasted in two batches of four.  To prevent other flavors distracting from the taste of the actual chicken, it was a simple roasting affair: each bird was rubbed down with butter, salt, and pepper, then roasted at 425 degrees for one hour (15 minutes on each side, to thoroughly cook the leg/thigh meat, and 30 minutes with the breast up).

After they cooled enough to handle, the meat from the breasts, drumsticks, and thighs was cut up into bite-size pieces, the meat from each breed put on its own plate.  The plates themselves were marked “A” through “H” without any breed identification.  Participants took a few pieces of each and scored them for flavor and texture on a scale of 1 to 6, adding comments to their scorecards as they went.  When we were finished the scores were totaled.

Prior to the tasting I gave our friends a brief overview of our project, explaining that the American chicken industry is dominated (to the tune of 90+%) by the Cornish-Rock Cross (CRX), but that we wanted to determine how some of the heritage breeds compared, both to the modern hybrids as well as to each other.  Since we raised eight breeds, as far as they knew they were tasting the eight breeds that we raised; however, one of the breeds we raised (Buff Orpingtons) turned out to be all females so we didn’t process any of them, instead replacing them in the tasting with a local pasture-raised CRX.

The first batch.

The first batch.

The second batch.  Can you guess which is the Cornish-Rock Cross? (Hint: it's obvious.)

The second batch. Can you guess which is the Cornish-Rock Cross? (Hint: it’s obvious.)

Our friends, it should be noted, did not see the birds prior to carving (as seen above); they only saw the meat after it had been cut into pieces and put on plates for serving.  When all were finished, out of 48 possible points for flavor, here is how they stacked up:

  • Speckled Sussex: 37 pts.
  • New Hampshire Red: 34 pts.
  • Dominique: 34 pts.
  • Silver-Laced Wyandotte: 32 pts.
  • Naked Neck: 31 pts.
  • Delaware: 31 pts.
  • White Plymouth Rock: 30 pts.
  • CRX: 21 pts.

So the Speckled Sussex was the clear consensus “winner” and the CRX was the clear consensus “loser.”  But to me, the real takeaway was that they were all good (with the exception of the CRX, which most agreed was just bland), and that they were all different.  Hopefully we can get away from this notion of “tastes like chicken” and realize that different chickens taste different, and indeed that “tastes like chicken,” when we’re talking about the modern hybrids, usually just means “tastes like whatever flavor was added to it.”

In the end Ame and I amused ourselves with the observation that we used to think the heritage breeds looked pitiful and scrawny, but after more than a year of eating them exclusively we now find the CRX to be disgustingly obese and disproportionate.  Maybe it’s no wonder we, as a country, look the way we do when we eat chicken that looks the way it does.