While most supermarket chickens are raised indoors in confinement, free-range chickens are allowed to roam outdoors. Their diet, supplemented by plants and insects, is more varied than that of conventional chickens, which are fed a diet designed to fatten them as quickly as possible. Leaner, older free-range chickens benefit from a variety of cooking tips.
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High Temperature Blast
Chickens get flavorful, crispy skin when roasted in a hot oven, but the meat can get quickly dried out. “Fine Cooking” contributors Beth Dooley and Lucia Watson suggest a solution when roasting free-range chickens. They season their birds, cook them at a high initial heat—450 degrees—and then finish roasting them at the moderate temperature of 375 degrees. Dooley and Watson say that free-range chickens “tend to be slaughtered later and so they've developed a fine layer of fat and muscle tone, all of which enrich flavor when roasting.”
Mike Robinson of the BBC reports that free-range chickens lead a more active life than conventional chickens, which can result in a leaner bird. Fat provides a cooked chicken with a moist and juicy consistency. “Cooks Illustrated” proposes that the technique of brining will result in chicken that is plump and well seasoned. Brining a free-range chicken involves soaking the bird in a solution of kosher salt, sugar and water for about 1 hour per pound.
Although free-range chickens, with their varied diet, tend to be more flavorful, salting can bring them to the next level. If you don’t have room in your refrigerator for a chicken in a large container of brining liquid, simply salting your chicken a few hours before roasting it will contribute to more a pronounced flavor. In a taste test, kosher chickens were rated the highest. “Cooks Illustrated” attributed this in part to the processing of kosher chickens, where they are buried in salt for an hour to remove impurities.
No one likes undercooked poultry, but fear of food-borne illnesses compels some people to overcook their chickens. Lean free-range chickens are vulnerable to becoming tough and chewy. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends that you should cook chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. They suggest testing the temperature with a meat thermometer to avoid either undercooking or overcooking your free-range chicken.