Which Austin grocery store makes the tastiest rotisserie chicken?

How many rotisserie chickens do you buy in a year?

Americans bought nearly 700 million in 2017: about two chickens for every person in the country. We are a nation that gathers around the proverbial spit — in this case, a chrome carousel with heat lamps — to buy this ultimate supermarket timesaver.

The rotisserie craze started more than 20 years ago. The drive-thru restaurant chain Boston Market was expanding quickly, giving home cooks a taste of slow-roasted chicken that’s cooked while turning in an oven. In 1994, both Costco and Kroger started selling whole cooked chickens, often priced below their cost to entice shoppers to come into the store on their way home from work. It didn’t take long for customers to realize how much time and money they could save by buying an already roasted bird.

Fast forward to 2018 when Costco alone will sell about 90 million rotisserie chickens. Practically every grocery chain sells them, with many adding new flavors, including lemon pepper and barbecue at H-E-B, smoky Cajun at Whole Foods and jalapeño and garlic rosemary at Fiesta.

To find out which rotisserie chickens available at our local stores were the best, I set up an office taste test a few weeks ago. I trekked to six local grocery stores — Fiesta, Whole Foods, H-E-B, Costco, Central Market and Sprouts — to buy rotisserie chickens.

My colleagues tasted the chickens and ranked them, and we livestreamed the results.

Almost all the chickens were between 2 and 3 pounds. The crispness and color of their skin varied, with Sprouts having the least appealing outside and Central Market winning over many tasters on visual appeal alone.

But looks deceive: Tasters said the Central Market and H-E-B chickens were somewhat mushy or even “gushy,” a common problem in chickens that have been saturated in too much brine or saline solution. Even though Costco’s chickens are engineered to be larger than the rest by nearly a pound and cost $2 less than the winning chicken, it didn’t fare well in taste.

The chicken that unequivocally won over our panel was from Fiesta, whose bird had the darkest exterior but the best texture and taste. At $6.99, the Fiesta chicken cost the same as the ones from H-E-B and Sprouts. Even though the first two ingredients are brown sugar and sugar, some testers thought the chicken was on the salty side, but every single person who participated said it was their favorite.

After we posted the results online, reader Sally Jo Hahn asked about how to find out about the quality of the meat, specifically to find out if the chickens were raised on antibiotics.

Most grocery stores are not using their highest-quality chickens in the rotisserie oven. Whole Foods and Central Market both advertise that their rotisserie chickens, which cost $7.99, do not have antibiotics, added growth hormones or animal byproducts in the chicken feed.

Labels vary in how much information they give about the ingredients used to season the meat or how the chicken was raised. When you’re shopping around, look for “NAE,” or “no antibiotics ever,” on the label. If you’re unsure about the quality of the chicken, ask the deli counter for more information; if they can’t provide it, it might be because they source their chickens from the whole chickens in the refrigerated section that are approaching their sell-by date.

One of the universal truths about rotisserie chicken is that it tastes best as soon as you buy it. Many supermarket rotisserie chickens get their intense, if fleeting, flavor from being injected with solutions that help keep the meat moist during the roasting process. Those additives can include yeast extract, oleoresin, sodium tripolyphosphate and, of course, “natural flavorings.” This can also mean MSG, so if you are sensitive to it, ask the deli counter specifically about it.

Refrigerating the leftovers, either on the carcass or pulled off and stored separately, tends to cause the meat to lose a lot of its texture and flavor, in part because that liquid inside the meat that keeps it moist escapes via steam or collects in the bottom of the tray. That’s why many people prefer making chicken salad or enchiladas with leftover rotisserie chicken rather than trying to revive it on its own.

In the end, buying rotisserie chickens makes sense for quick weeknight dinners, but I still enjoy roasting my own from time to time. I get a little more meat off the bird and a lot more control over the seasoning. But it will be hard for me to walk into Fiesta without getting another one of theirs.

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