In 1985, a fledgling shop with Boston in its name skewered and roasted its birds in rotating rows, so they basted each other with seasoned drippings until firm flesh morphed into Sunday dinner succulence. Since then, Americans have made takeout rotisserie chicken as much of a weeknight staple as a box of macaroni in the cupboard.
Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but they’re a good place to start. Grocery stores jumped on the trend back then and continue to reap the rewards. Six hundred million rotisserie chickens were purchased in U.S. supermarkets, club stores and similar retail outlets in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the National Chicken Council. An additional 200 million were sold through food-service outlets. A market study by NPD Group, a consumer research firm, found that consumers 50 and older eat more rotisserie chicken than other age groups, and the higher the household income, the more it is eaten.
A classic roast chicken is certainly one of the easier entrees to master. Salt and pepper, a little fat rubbed into the skin and a lemon in the cavity can do the trick. If you’re a self-sufficient omnivore, an iteration or two ought to be in your repertoire. But even cooks who take pride in their own recipes have come to rely on a trussed, store-bought option that often costs less than the price of raw poultry.
“Of course mine is best. When you don’t have time to prepare it yourself, though, rotisserie chicken makes a decent meal,” says Audrey Graziano. The 34-year-old Alexandria wife and mother of two has been buying supermarket-prepared chickens for about a decade. Leftovers go into chicken noodle soup, she says, and her mother-in-law may claim the bones for stock.
Getting two or three family meals out of an inexpensive 21 / 2-pound bird offsets the big advantage a home-cooked chicken has over its commercial cousins. That would be the crisped, golden brown skin — a source of guilty pleasure that most of the time provides the majority of flavor. Retail containers that allow for successful rotisserie chicken transport have gotten greener and more technically advanced over the years, but they sure do a number on the chicken’s exterior, which gets clingy or splits in the time it takes to transfer a batch from store oven to heated store shelf.
So what have we learned in a generation of rotisserie chicken consumption?
■It’s tough to find a bird that can survive the journey of heated display shelf and leftover usage unless it has been treated with some kind of water or salt solution.
■There are more flavors to choose from: BBQ, lemon-pepper, Italian and roasted garlic among them.
■Paying several dollars extra does not guarantee quality.
■If yield is important, use your own scale to weigh the chicken. In comparing rotisserie chickens from 14 Washington area supermarkets, Food section staffers found more than one discrepancy between printed and actual weights.
■Close readers of ingredient labels might find that yeast extract, oleoresin, sodium tripolyphosphate and the bewildering “natural flavorings” have been deployed. Most of those go toward flavoring and browning the chicken, says Pittsburgh food scientist and author Robert L. Wolke.
And even though the list of additives on the label of Costco birds appears to be longer than most, consumers love the product.
“It’s pretty hard to pass up a big, meaty $4.99 rotisserie chicken,” says Dean Desabrais, Northeast region deli and meat manager for the company.
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.”
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.