Rotisserie chickens — those $5.99 (or less) already cooked birds that supermarkets sell — are a dinnertime favorite. The Wall Street Journal reports that Americans bought well over 600 million of them in 2017 alone, and the trend has been growing since. Our consumption of rotisserie chickens has only increased since they became a supermarket staple in the 1990s, yet their price hasn't increased. Why? Because grocery stores don't want to raise the price of this weeknight staple.
They've kept prices steady for 20 years because they make more money over time by keeping the price down. For one, it keeps people coming back for more. And many people, myself included, often buy their side dishes at the same time they buy the chicken, and those side dishes are money makers.
The problem with rotisserie chicken
The Wall Street Journal says the majority of rotisserie chickens sold weigh about two pounds cooked and come from chickens that are 4 weeks old. Costco sells larger chickens, roughly three pounds when cooked, that are 11 weeks old. Anyone who has ever sliced up a rotisserie chicken knows that a big part of those birds is breast meat. These are chickens that are bred to have large breasts, which isn't the natural state for most chickens. They are almost certainly factory farmed, and whether they have a 4-week life or an 11-week life, they are raised in cramped, inhumane conditions.
There are other issues with rotisserie chickens, too. The ingredients aren't simply chicken and spices like sage and thyme. For example, the ingredients in a basic three-pound rotisserie chicken are water and seasonings (salt, sodium phosphate, modified food starch, potato dextrin, carrageenan, sugar, dextrose, spice extractives). There are 460 milligrams of sodium in a 3-ounce portion of chicken. That high sodium content is common in most rotisserie chickens, and some other brands can have ingredients that contain gluten, preservatives and food dyes.
Interestingly, Costco has decided to take control of its chicken supply chain — from egg to bird. The goal is to maintain its famous $4.99 price for a bigger, but not-too-big chicken. To do that, Costco is opening its own poultry complex in Fremont, Nebraska, reports CNN. Not everyone is thrilled with the prospect, and there are worries that the operation will suffer from the same problems that have plagued chicken operations elsewhere, including the ones mentioned above. Costco says it plans to change the standard, but critics say the farmer contracts set up so far are no indication of that level of change.
So that leads us back to the underlying question: If you can't change the quality of what you buy at the store, what other options do you have?
Why not cook a whole chicken at home?
A roasted chicken is so easy to make at home that it's a legitimate question to ask.
There are many reasons — and all of us have experienced this at one time or another:
- Not everyone has the skills to cook a whole chicken. If you've never done it, it seems intimidating. But with the correct tools, a roasting pan being the most important, it's a simple, mostly hands-off process. Here's a simple recipe to get you started: Perfect Roast Chicken
- Whole uncooked chickens are usually more expensive than rotisserie chickens. A $5 cooked chicken seems like a better deal than a $9 uncooked chicken, right? But that $9 uncooked chicken is probably bigger and will yield more meat, meaning you can probably count on leftovers.
- We have limited time. I usually end up buying rotisserie chicken when I don't have the ingredients at home to make a quick dinner. I'll stop at the store and grab a chicken (an organic one, if there's one available, and that adds another $2 to the price), along with mashed potatoes and vegetables. However, those side dishes cost a lot more than if I bought the ingredients and made them myself.
- If you want to make something like chicken pot pie or chicken noodle soup, you need cooked chicken as one of the ingredients and a rotisserie chicken is a quick way to get it.
- Sometimes, you just don't want to cook.
Tips for avoiding rotisserie chickens
Perhaps it's time we re-think how often we rely on store-bought rotisserie chickens and buy them sparingly. Here are some tips that, with some forethought, can help you reach that goal.
- Buy the best chicken you can afford. Ideally, that means farm-raised, truly free-range chickens, from a trusted source. Of course, you can't always afford the ideal, so do the best you can.
- If you don't have the time to roast a chicken after work, consider doing a whole chicken in the slow cooker. My favorite recipe for this approach is Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic, but there's no shortage of slow-cooker chicken recipes online. The recipe I use calls for a 7 1/2-pound chicken and cooks on low for 8-10 hours while you're at work. And, unless you're serving a lot of people, that chicken will give you leftovers for a couple of meals. Yes, it will cost more than $5, but in the end it will be worth it.
- If you need cooked chicken for a recipe, keep chicken breasts in the freezer. Defrost them safely in the microwave, and then cook moist chicken breasts in about 20 minutes. If you need that meat shredded for your recipe, shred them super quickly using an electric hand mixer.
As long as you've done the shopping ahead of time, these tips should have you heading to the store for a cheap chicken and expensive sides less often.
The only thing I can't help you with is the desire to not cook at all. That's all you.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was published in January 2018.