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Raising a spicy lemon chicken

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Chickens will eat just about anything -- grains, grass, small lizards, even mice. But what if their meals featured moist bread and gourmet salad trimmings? Would they taste different -- better -- when it was their turn to be on the plate? New York's top chefs are addressing that question in an experiment that's either ingenious or preposterous (or both).

According to a recent New York Times article, the chickens at a poultry farm in Pennsylvania have been dining on scraps sent to them by chefs from some of the city's finest restaurants. (The birds are also eating soy and corn.) The chickens started appearing on menus late last month.

"Listen, if the chickens ate ginger and lemon, you would have a gingery, lemony chicken, I think," chef David Burke suggested in the article.

Is that really how it works? Not exactly.

Here's what we do know. An ordinary commercial chicken eats corn for carbohydrates and soy for protein, plus a variety of vitamin and mineral supplements. Research has suggested that dramatically changing the carbohydrate source affects the flavour of the meat. In 2004, for example, USDA scientists fed chickens soybeans plus either corn, wheat or sorghum, then boiled the meat in plastic bags and fed it to nine blindfolded taste-testers. The testers reported that corn-fed chickens tasted more strongly of meat broth and were less chewy than the wheat- or sorghum-fed birds.

That doesn't necessarily mean you can deliberately manipulate the flavour of chicken meat through the bird's diet, or, even if you could, that it's as simple as feeding the bird foods you want it to taste like.

"Feeding a chicken lemon juice will not make it taste like lemon," said Doug Smith, who studies poultry processing at North Carolina State University, "but there's a chance the ginger would come through" if you added that spice to the bird's diet.

To see why, you need to understand some chemistry and anatomy.

Smith explained that a chicken's flavour is largely expressed through its fat. Fat-based molecules are therefore more likely to make it from the chicken's mouth to your mouth. Citric acid, which is not a fat, dominates the flavour of lemon juice. A chicken would digest and utilize the acid, but it wouldn't influence the flavour of the bird's flesh.

The flavour of ginger, on the other hand, comes from its essential oils. The same is true of many spices. There is a chance that those oils would survive the chicken's digestive tract intact, then make it into the bird's fat stores and have some influence on the flavour of the fowl.

There's a possibility that you could impart a lemony flavour, but you'd have to use lemon peel, which contains essential oils rather than lemon juice.

Would a chicken eat a lemon peel, you ask? Absolutely.

"Chickens have very little in the way of taste buds," Smith said. "The insides of their mouths have a lot of hard surfaces because of the beak, and their tongue has more cartilage than the soft human tongue. Unlike most animals, they'll even eat hot peppers."

-- The Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 D4

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