We Get Letters – v. 19: The Taste of Chicken

Maxine writes in, several weeks ago actually. It’s taken me that long to find answers to her question.

Hi,

I’ve just discovered your website and truly enjoy reading it every day.

I have a question and I feel you might have the answer to it. Why is North american chicken so flavourless? My partner comes from china and she just can’t eat chicken here; she finds it extremely bland and even a bit bitter. Since we moved together we didn’t have chicken on the menu very often…even the free-range and organic chicken we tried were still quite bland. I
have been able to try some of the farm raise chicken while in China and it was truly fabulous: a gamier taste and nothing of the bitterness I told you about.

Although free-range chicken do taste much better here, why is that that they are not as tasty as those I tried in China? Is it because we raise different species? Is it because of what they are fed?

I already sent an email asking the same thing to my local farmers’ organization but I doubt I’ll get an answer from them… with a bit of luck you might know the answer to this or might be able to direct to a reliable source of information.

Cheers and thanks for sharing your thoughts on food everyday on your blog!

Maxime

P.S.: I’ve posted the result of my recent experiment with chicken on my blog in case you are interested.

Hi Maxime, and thanks for your patience in waiting for an answer, as it’s taken me a bit to come to an acceptable answer.

It’s not a coincidence that you mention Chinese chicken when saying it’s different in taste from american chicken. This bit of information is the foundation of the answer to your question.

The first thing to understand is that what drives the availability and tastes of food is the cultural food preferences of any given society. The more a culture likes the taste of a product, the more resources will be applied to fulfill that taste. You can see this in the introduction of any new food product into a foreign environment. It’s why potatoes and tomatoes thrive in many cultures while vegemite seems to be curiosity in most places not named Australia.

So what does this mean in regard to chicken? Well for starters, Americans love white meat in their chickens. In Asia and other places in the world, consumer tastes primarily tend toward dark meat in chicken.

What this means is that the breeds of chicken used for meat in the various regions of the world are going to reflect the tastes of the region. In America, that means chickens that supply more white meat will be raised. In Asia, it means that breeds of chicken that provide darker meat will be more prevelant. This is a rough generalization, to be sure, but it’s a good start to understand the differences in taste.

Because white meat equals sales in the eyes of American Agriculture, poultry providers are now breeding chickens to supply more and more white meat. This means playing around with the genetics of chickens, whether through natrual means (breeding) or artificial ones. Whether or not this affects the direct taste of the meat has yet to be seen. I will say this however, fat is being bred out of chickens in the same way that it is being bred out of pork. Fat is the primary purveyor of taste in any animal. Less fat equals less taste. It’s why dark meat, in my opinion, is far more flavorful than white.

Finally, the taste of all meat is dictated by the diet of the animal. A chicken feed an diet entirely of grain will have a different taste than a chicken raised on a diet of grain and grain filler. A chicken who gets to eat proteins (in the form of worms and insects) and grasses will taste different than a chicken raised solely on grain. Here in America, industrial poultry’s composition of feed is determined primarily by cost. Cheap feed equals cheap taste. This would lead to a lower-quality tasting chicken.

These are only the primary reasons for the differences in taste. I’m sure there are many other variables I’m not taking into consideration. But, it is a good rough estimation of what is going on. I hope this gives you a small perspective on why American chicken would taste differently from those raised in Asia.

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