Ongoing improvements and efficiencies sent 50 million rotisserie chickens through Costco checkout lines last year nationwide, he says. The program began in 1995, and a bird in the hand today costs less than it did in 2004, when the company increased the standard raw weight to a minimum of three pounds (from 2.75 pounds) and dropped the price from $5.49. The next year, it upgraded to a Grade A chicken. In 2007, it eliminated casein, a binder, in order to make the chicken allergen-free.
Costco uses a single producer, Pilgrim’s Pride, which marinates via injection, trusses and packs 10 birds to a case. The chickens look like pale, plump ghosts as they get threaded onto long rods that fit in ultra-modern, digital-display Inferno 4000 rotisserie ovens. A film of moving water on the oven floor transports dripping grease to a holding tank, to be collected for recycling. It takes 90 minutes to cook a full load of 32 or so; after an hour, it starts to “smell like Costco chicken,” says Tom Borkowski, a deli manager who just transferred from the Woodmore Towne Centre store to one closer to his home in Northern Virginia. Temperature is closely monitored.
The Lanham store’s proximity to FedEx Field makes the chicken a popular game-day item and accounts in part for the 2,100 purchased each week. Unsold birds get pulled after two hours to be chilled, then incorporated into Costco’s rotisserie chicken soup, chicken Alfredo, chicken wraps and chicken Caesar salads.
Savvy shoppers know to look for the tiny time-stamp sticker on the bottom part of each propylene box. On a recent weekday at Woodmore, Mary Jones of Hyattsville shoved containers on the heated stainless-steel surface like gentle bumper cars to find the prize she was after: 15 minutes old and evenly browned.
“I get one every two weeks,” she said.
Wegmans prides itself on offering a bird that “is not pumped — no phosphates or chemical solutions,” says spokesman Jo Natale. “We cook them to a temperature of 165 degrees [a USDA safety standard] and are careful not to overcook them.” Consequently, she says the company has seen double-digit sales increases for each of the past several years, selling millions each year.
It has been able to trace its rotisserie chicken roots back about 27 years, when, it was recently discovered, the deli item cost only one cent less than it does today. Wegmans uses proprietary rubs, which are applied to young, 31
2-pound chickens just before they are roasted. Unsold birds are pulled after three hours, blast-chilled overnight and used in the store’s Rotisserie Chicken Noodle Soup.
The charms of juicy, warm rotisserie chicken fade with a night’s refrigeration, of course. The sodium solution infused in the flesh of a raw bird can create pockets of uneven saltiness in a cooked one, evident in the Food section’s accompanying taste test. White meat can get mealy or stringy.
For best results, let the meat come to room temperature so you can assess texture and seasoning. Bland white meat that’s dry might be right for a fruity curried chicken salad, or shredded into a creamy tortilla soup. A highly spiced bird can hold its own with stir-fried vegetables. The remnants of a barbecue rub may be pronounced enough to reserve that chicken for pressed sandwiches.
Our reach for rotisserie chickens certainly came home to roost as Washington area cooks waited for Hurricane Sandy to hit. Over the weekend, the four ovens at Costco’s Woodmore store were going nonstop, says general manager Jeff Dawson.
“We could not keep up,” he said Monday afternoon. “We sold 1,200 birds in two days. Sunday was exactly double the amount we sold the previous Sunday. For some reason, whenever there’s a storm coming people go for the chickens.”
Aromatic Chicken Noodle Soup
Scott Drewno’s Chicken Curry Salad
Jeff Tunks’s Peruvian Chicken Stir-Fry
Silvia’s Quick Shredded Chicken
Taste Test: Next-day rotisserie chicken
How supermarket birds stack up
Leakproof beats flabby skin
What’s your favorite way to use leftover rotisserie chicken? We’ll discuss recipes on today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.