If you received Walden chicken, you will notice a new label, “Air chilled!”

This may not seem noteworthy…isn’t that the standard? Not necessarily. An important element of chicken processing involves bringing the meat down to a refrigerated temperature as quickly as possible, to minimize any growth of harmful bacteria.  The most common cooling method in modern US poultry facilities utilizes a chlorinated bath.  If you’ve ever seen (or imagined) this process, it is quite messy. After just a few chickens the water is, well, frankly not something you’d enjoy for bathing.  The water becomes a vehicle for transmitting bacteria across birds and adds a substantial amount of water to the meat—up to 10% of the weight! This doesn’t just make the resulting chicken heavier (and pricier!), it also dilutes and changes the flavor of the meat.

Image source: Hawley Associates

A newer and alternative method of chilling uses air. Instead of using communal pools, the chickens are hung individually and moved through a series of refrigerated chambers blasting cold air.  The process is more expensive and less efficient than water baths – but it saves thousands of gallons of water. When it comes to taste and hygiene, we think it makes for a better chicken. Although this process is still a bit niche in the US, it has been common practice for decades in Europe. As we’ve always said, good things come to those who wait!  Instead of absorbing (chlorinated!) water, these chickens lose water weight, making for a denser, juicier and more flavorful meat, with a skin that more easily crisps in the cooking process.

In many ways, air chilled chicken is analogous to the dry aging process of beef.  Most beef in this country is “wet-aged”: cut immediately after slaughter, vacuum-sealed, aged in wet bags, and then sold 10-15 days later.  The 2-week period spent in a refrigerated bag relaxes muscle fibers and releases some water, which makes for a tenderer product.  But it also creates an irony taste (which many Americans associate with the natural flavor of beef), and leaves you with a bag full of water after you remove the meat.  Industrial producers like it for this reason (water loss costs money!), and the process is highly efficient because the finished product is shipped quickly and doesn’t require valuable storage space. The alternative, dry aging, requires a whole side of beef to remain uncut and unpackaged at a specific temperature and humidity.  The carcass can lose a significant amount of water weight (sometimes up to 10%), which concentrates natural flavors. The beef’s natural enzymes also begin to break down the connective tissue in the muscle, leading to a significantly tenderer product.  This is especially important for grass-fed animals that can lack the fat content of cattle from a feedlot.

For both beef and chicken, these few extra steps make a big difference. We believe better methods produce better products – both on the farm and in the processing facility.

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