Have You Noticed This Label on Chicken Packages?
If you've recently visited the meat department at your local grocery store, you may have noticed packages of chicken labeled "air-chilled." Costco, Publix, Whole Foods, and many other major supermarkets all carry chicken with this marked description. But what does air-chilled truly mean? Furthermore, why should you care?
According to Whole Foods, the air-chilled method to process chicken was predominantly used in Europe as a way to ensure food safety, but now it's starting to catch on in the U.S. as a means of cooling poultry to the proper temperature. Prior to air-chilling, though, processors would submerge the chicken in chlorinated ice-cold water to comply with USDA standards.
So, what's the difference?
While both methods are used to prevent—or, at the very least, reduce—microbial contamination, the problem, as Whole Foods explains, is water-chilling allows for excess water to penetrate into the chicken's skin, overwhelming the bird's natural juices. Whereas, with air-chilling, chicken is transported through temperature-regulated chambers for purified air to cool them to 40°F or lower. The air-chilling process does take a lot longer (up to three hours), but chickens only lose a minimal of water, making them much more tender and flavorsome. In addition, because there isn't any water involved in this method, chickens actually cook more quickly.
Beyond taste, air-chilled chicken is less likely to be exposed to cross-contamination, since the birds aren't all immersed in the same container of water. Of course, there's also the added environmental benefit when it comes to reducing water usage. Keep in mind, though, that the benefits of air-chilling do come with a higher price tag. But in this case, the cost may be worth it, if it results in safe, better-quality meat.
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