Take a look around the meat case in the grocery store and it's pretty likely that you'll notice packages of chicken labeled "air-chilled." But what exactly is air-chilled chicken, and what makes it so special?
Air-Chilling Is a Method for Cooling Chicken During Processing
Air-chilling refers to a specific method for cooling chickens during processing. The USDA mandates that all poultry must be cooled to a temperature of 40°F or lower within four hours of slaughter, to prevent the growth of bacteria causing food-borne illness, like salmonella. Air-chilling, which can take up to three hours, works by blasting the chickens with purified cold air or rapidly cooling them in cold air chambers to reduce body temperature.
Air-chilled chicken has been widely available throughout Europe for decades, but only relatively recently in the U.S.
Air-Chilling Versus Water-Chilling
There are two methods for cooling chicken: the traditional method, which uses ice-cold water, and air-chilling. The majority of processors in the U.S. rely on water-chilling, which submerges the chicken in a large vat of chlorinated ice water. This method lowers body temperature quickly, although the carcass absorbs excess water, particularly in the skin.
Both methods are about equal in preventing bacterial growth. While air-chilling takes longer, the biggest difference is that water-chilled birds absorb excess water, while air-chilled chickens may actually lose a small amount of their water content.
Tip: Don't see any mention of air-chilling on the label? It's pretty likely that that package of chicken was chilled using water.
The Benefits of Air-Chilled Chicken
While both methods of cooling — air-chilling and water-chilling — are effective, the former comes with a range of benefits like better flavor, texture, and value; quick cooking time; lower risk of contamination; and environmental benefits. And as you might suspect, these benefits do come at a premium, which means you're likely to find a higher price tag on air-chilled chicken.
- More flavor and better texture: Since no excess water is absorbed, the natural juices in air-chilled chicken are not diluted and the texture is unaltered, which leads to more flavorful and tender pieces of meat.
- Faster cooking: Because air-chilled chicken doesn't absorb excess water, it tends to cook faster than its traditionally cooled counterpart.
- Better value: When you buy air-chilled chicken you are just paying for the chicken. Traditionally chilled chicken can contain upwards of 8 percent water, which factors into the price tag.
- Less risk of cross-contamination: Because many chickens are cooled in the same vat of water with traditional chilling, there is an increased risk for cross-contamination. Air-chilling avoids this risk.
- Environmental benefits: Air chilling uses significantly less water, which saves thousands of gallons a day.