Did you know that 99% of regular frozen chicken is water-chilled, and only 1% is air-chilled?
And that the latter is way more expensive? Any idea why the difference is so big?
Is it only the cost or several other things that make air-chilled chicken a better choice?
This article will explore all the differences between air-chilled and frozen chicken, besides the basic freezing technique.
Air Chilled vs. Regular Chicken: What’s the Key Difference?
Before freezing meat or chicken, it’s chilled using water or air. “Frozen chicken” is commonly associated with water-chilled chicken, likely due to water chilling being the most common method in the United States. In contrast, air-chilled chicken involves hanging it in cold air before freezing; it’s a slower process that preserves meat taste.
Exploring the Difference Between Air Chilled vs. Regular Chicken
Below is a quick overview of both chilling methods: water chilled (frozen chicken) and air-chilled chicken.
1. Regular Freezing Method through Water Chilling Porcess
Dunking chickens in a frigid water bath is the go-to method for about 90% of chickens in the U.S. It’s quick and efficient but has some downsides, like potential water weight gain and cross-contamination risks.
This method is commonly used in the poultry industry due to its efficiency and lower cost than air-chilling. The cold water quickly absorbs the heat from the chicken carcasses, reducing the overall processing time.
2. Air Chilling Method
Air-chilled chicken is poultry that undergoes a chilling process using purified cold air before freezing. In this method, chicken carcasses are hung in a cold air environment.
Unlike water-chilling, where chickens are immersed in icy water baths, air chilling avoids contact with treated water or solutions. This slower process, popular in Europe and Canada, results in chicken with a more natural and intense flavor.
Air-chilled chicken maintains better texture and taste, making it a preferred choice for those who appreciate a higher quality and less water-absorbed poultry option.
Other Players in the Chilling Game
- Blast Chilling: The rare chilling method, making up less than 1%, involves a high-speed, cold air exposure. It’s the Usain Bolt of chilling, rapidly cooling chicken from 140°F to 39°F in under 90 minutes. Expensive and specialized, it’s a commercial kitchen hero.
- Brine Chilling: Submerging chickens in a brine solution for a temperature drop and improved moisture retention.
- Ice Pack Chilling: Chicken meets ice packs for a cool-down session.
- Cryogenic Chilling: Think liquid nitrogen – a fast track to freezing.
Why Air Chilled is Better than Water Chilled (Regular Frozen)
Differentiating between frozen and air-chilled temperatures is a long story. So, we can’t cut it short.
Both methods have several advantages and disadvantages.
Let’s get into the details.
1. Texture and Taste
The water-chilled chicken absorbs 2-12% water of its total weight. That’s why the frozen or water-chilled chicken loses its taste to some degree owing to water absorption.
Then, the freezing and thawing process deprives the chicken of its moisture. This produces a washed-out taste and drier or tougher texture than air-chilled chicken.
It’s why water-chilled frozen chicken has a diluted flavor.
Contrarily, the air-chilled chicken tends to have a more natural and intense flavor because of no added water during the chilling process. Likewise, it typically has a firmer and more tender texture due to the lack of added water during chilling.
2. Less Risk of Freezer Burn
Meat, like water-chilled chicken, with more water, is prone to freezer burn as water molecules form ice crystals, piercing cell walls and drying the meat. Oxidation, breaking down molecules, also causes freezer burn. Higher water content lets oxygen penetrate easily, accelerating freezer burn.
Yet, air-chilled chicken, owing to its lower water content, is less prone to freezer burns.
3. Less Risk of Contamination
Since frozen or water-chilled chickens are cooled together in a communal water bath, there is a potential risk of cross-contamination between the birds if the water is not properly sanitized or replaced regularly.
Since the chickens are not submerged in a communal water bath, there is a lower risk of cross-contamination between the birds during chilling.
4. Environmental Friendliness
Air-chilling uses less water compared to water-chilling methods, making it a more environmentally friendly option.
Water-chilled chicken is less environmentally friendly than air-chilled chicken, primarily due to the water usage involved in the process.
Water-chilling requires large amounts of water to cool the chickens. It increases the overall water consumption in the process and can put a strain on water resources.
Additionally, the water used for chilling can become contaminated. So, before disposing of this water, it must be treated before being released into the environment. This further adds to the environmental impact of the water-chilling process.
The air-chilling process is generally more expensive, which may result in a higher price for consumers. Despite the higher cost, some consumers prefer air-chilled chicken because of its perceived superior quality, taste, and texture.
On the other hand, water-chilled chicken remains a popular and cost-effective option for many consumers. Proper handling, storage, and cooking practices can help to mitigate some of the risks associated with this chilling method.
6. USDA Approval
Both water chilling and air chilling get the nod for safety. Yet, the USDA notes air-chilled chicken might bring a slightly different taste and texture to the table.
Final Thoughts: Air Chilled vs. Frozen Chicken, Which is Better?
The chicken labeled as “air chilled” has a really great taste and ultimate value for money. Give it a try. If you find it super expensive at your nearby grocery store, go to Costco.
How can You Tell if Chicken is Air-chilled or Frozen?
The best way to tell if chicken is air-chilled or frozen is to look at the label. Air-chilled chicken will usually be labeled as such, while frozen chicken will not. If the label does not specify the chilling method, you can ask your butcher or grocer.
How should You Store Air-Chilled Chicken?
You should store air-chilled chicken in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours. If you are not going to use it within 48 hours, you should freeze it.
How Longer Can Air-Chilled Frozen Chicken be Stored Compared to Regular Frozen Chicken?
Both air-chilled and regular frozen chicken have a similar shelf life in the freezer:
- Up to 1 year for whole chickens
- 9 months for parts
However, air-chilled chicken can last for up to 48 hours in the refrigerator, yet while regular frozen chicken should be used immediately upon thawing.
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