Just about every grocery store in the area offers rotisserie chickens-- those ready-to-eat whole chickens that are so handy to pick up and carry home for a quick weeknight meal. So we thought it might be a worthy exercise to see how they stacked up against each other.
While there are many chicken carryouts, franchises and specialty stores, we'll save our review of them for another day. Instead, we fanned out to hit six area markets that offer chickens every night--Fresh Fields, Giant, Magruder's, Safeway, Shoppers Food Warehouse and Sutton Place Gourmet--and bought chickens between 4 and 5 p.m. on a weekday.
After tasting all of them we came away with some winners and some losers--and, more importantly, some guidelines on what to look for in a rotisserie chicken.
No matter where you shop, be diligent in picking out the best chicken in the bunch. Skip birds that are obviously overcooked (legs pulling away from the body are a good indication of this). If the chickens are already packaged, ask how long they've been tucked under plastic. A bird that goes straight from the rotisserie to a plastic container will continue to cook, which is why so many rotisserie chickens end up being dry. Finally, speak up--if you don't like the looks of what's being offered in the warming bin, ask if there's a bird that's ready to come off the spit.
Here are the results of our survey, in alphabetical order.
FRESH FIELDS We got two birds here--a lemon chicken and a Moroccan chicken--and they were easily the best-looking of all the rotisserie chickens we sampled. As for taste, they tied with the chicken from Magruder's as the absolute best of the bunch. One slight problem: We couldn't taste any difference between the "lemon" chicken and the "Moroccan" chicken. In fact, we couldn't make out any special lemon or Moroccan seasonings at all. What we got were two really good roasted chickens, plenty moist and generous in size. (About $7 each; whole chickens roasted with the skin off are about $8 and are available at some locations.).
GIANT This is the tale of the good chicken and the not-so-good chicken. There was such a disparity in the way the Giant chickens looked beneath their clear plastic domes that we figured it would be a good idea to buy two: one with nice brown coloring and another pale washed-out creature. Would there be a difference in taste?
There sure was. The browner, more classic-looking roast chicken turned out to be dry and tasteless while the paler bird was moist and full of flavor. We should have looked beyond the brown color of what we thought would be the better bird; those legs pulling away from the body were a sign that this chicken had cooked much too long. (About $6 each.)
MAGRUDER'S Rotisserie chickens have caught on like wildfire at Magruder's--or at least at its Chevy Chase/D.C. location. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, when whole birds are sold at all Magruder's locations for $3.99 (rather than the usual $5.79), this store alone sells as many chickens as it can roast, about 200. This has prompted the store to initiate a reserve list. Call your order in ahead and you'll be assured a bird after 6 p.m.; stop by without calling first and you take your chances.
It's not just the lower price that's got people interested in these birds. They really are quite good. One of our tasters thought the meat was mealy, but he was in the minority. The rest of us loved the rich chicken flavor and moist interior. A great bird --at any price. ($5.79 each; $3.99 on Wednesdays and Saturdays).
SAFEWAY This small, shriveled bird, sealed in a plastic bag, looked pretty unappetizing when we lined it up with the others. But it tasted remarkably good, with just the right amount of salt. Be careful selecting a bird here, though; many had that unmistakable overcooked look to them. (About $6 each.)
SHOPPERS FOOD WAREHOUSE This bird was just all wrong: rubbery skin, overcooked interior and a texture that suggested this chicken had been in the warming oven for quite a while. The worst of our survey. (About $4.50 each.)
SUTTON PLACE GOURMET Once again, we discovered that looks can be deceiving. You'd be proud to put this bird right onto a platter and serve it up, at least if you went by its appearance, which was big, beefy and brown. But the chicken itself was almost tasteless, unless you count the strong hint of thyme that came through from the seasoning (a taste that would probably be overpowering by Day 2). (About $8 each.)