Does chicken taste different in New England?
October 31, 2018 11:39 AM   Subscribe

I grilled some chicken last night. Unremarkable, except that it tasted horrible. And this is not the first time that has happened. Since moving to New Hampshire a little over a year ago, I've had several instances where I've cooked chicken breasts whose flavor made the dish inedible. I've cooked a lot of chicken in my life, of all different qualities, all over the country. This has never been a problem anywhere else. Why now?

I really don't like living in New England, and at first I was inclined to attribute the difference in flavor to a psychosomatic dislike of all things northeastern. But it's real, and it keeps happening, and it never happened anywhere else.

I've purchased my chicken (always breasts; my wife and I don't care for dark meat or thighs) from various places. The first time I noticed the problem was with chicken from the local supermarket (Shaw's); we attributed it to general
low-quality supermarket crap and decided to start buying better poultry. The second time was with chicken from a specialty butcher shop. Their pork is the best I've ever tasted, and their beef is also high-quality. Their chicken... sucks. Last night was with chicken from Trader Joe's.

It's hard to describe the flavor. Kind of gamey, I guess, but lacking any real meatiness - almost tofu-like. A little sweeter than chicken normally is.

I've lived and cooked in Ohio and Missouri, and I've grilled chicken while on vacation in Florida, western New York, and North Carolina, and no chicken has ever tasted like this before. (I hated living in St. Louis more than I hate living in NH, which eliminates the psychosomatic projection of negativity issue.) I've purchased chicken everywhere from Aldi to super-rich-suburb farmer's markets. It all tastes like, well, chicken.

Ruling out some other potential variables:
-I've cooked plenty of past-its-prime chicken in my life, so I don't think it's a spoilage issue.
-I've prepared the chicken various ways: grilling, baking, sauteeing, with and without marinating and pre-seasoning, and served with condiments like barbecue sauce and teriyaki sauces.
-I've eaten undercooked and overcooked chicken before; I don't believe the issue relates to my preparation.
-I've had the problem with both fresh and frozen chicken breasts.
-None of the breasts I've had the problem with were marketed as anything but normal, garden variety chicken. Not free-range or heirloom or anything like that. And at any rate, I've bought free-range and heirloom chicken breast before that did not taste like this.
-I've never ordered a chicken dish from a restaurant in New England that tasted bad. From fast food to fine dining, they all taste like the chicken I'm accustomed to.

Confounding the issue even further is the fact that some of the best chicken I've ever had came from a specialty foods store in New Hampshire. We've started buying all of our chicken there, but it's an hour's drive away, and our freezer isn't big enough to really stock up.

So I'm pretty sure that, as much as I want to blame New England for everything I don't like about life, it doesn't seem like a regional thing, but I can't isolate any other variables. Have I just been unlucky a few times?
posted by kevinbelt to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I mean, the basic chicken you buy at Shaw's or Market Basket isn't coming from New Hampshire or even New England, so as you say it's not likely to be a regional thing. I will say that we, who live in New Hampshire and typically buy either Market Basket's organic chicken or Bell & Evans if they have it, have sometimes found Shaw's chicken to be not as good. Maybe try Market Basket and see how it goes?

Also, I don't know where in NH you are, but you could try Maine Meat in Kittery Foreside for another comparison.
posted by schoolgirl report at 11:50 AM on October 31, 2018 [9 favorites]

Yeah, neither Shaw's nor Trader Joe's is killing the chicken out back or anything (and who knows about the butcher shop). These are national chains and the chicken was probably shipped in from somewhere else. I've never been a fan of Shaw's/Star meat anyway. Is there a Whole Foods nearby you could try?
posted by praemunire at 12:12 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Other things you could look at:

Are you using the same pan/dishes to cook with in NH that you did other places?

What about the water? Does it taste different out of the tap? Maybe it's harder or softer, or the pipes cause a taste that comes out from when you rinse the meat, or in the sauces or other things you add.

Do you use different soap to wash your pans?

Are you able to get the same spices/brands?

Are you allergic to more things in NH, more congested than you were? Or less?

Is your oven clean?
posted by emjaybee at 12:27 PM on October 31, 2018 [24 favorites]

(I hated living in St. Louis more than I hate living in NH, which eliminates the psychosomatic projection of negativity issue.)

Yeah... I find that life doesn't often work like that.

I'm betting this is because you live somewhere you hate.
posted by Cosine at 12:34 PM on October 31, 2018 [12 favorites]

Could your NH refrigerator be on the fritz?
posted by mosst at 12:45 PM on October 31, 2018 [12 favorites]

adding to mosst's question, could there be a smell in your fridge that is transferring onto the meat?
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 12:46 PM on October 31, 2018 [16 favorites]

I don't think it's in the chicken; as others have pointed out, the chicken you're getting from a megamart in NH probably comes from the same Giant Chicken Processing Plant as chickens in many other states.

There are other things that could affect the flavor. Ambient humidity can make some foods cook differently, although I wouldn't think the difference in taste would be that noticeable. Minerality in water can as well, although that shouldn't matter unless you are brining or washing the chicken. Different cookware might have an effect, although I'd think only if it was offgassing or something (no old Teflon stuff in use, is there?).

A lot of what we perceive as "taste" is really smell—if the environment you're eating this food in smells different, then the taste will be different as well. Since you are getting this taste in many different dishes / preparations, I would tend to think this might be the case. Chicken has a fairly subtle (some might say 'generic') flavor; what you are remembering as the taste of the chicken might actually be a combination of the chicken plus assorted smells of side dishes, the house you were eating it in, etc. I don't really know why that would be different in NH versus somewhere else... but maybe because it's just a different house, or maybe because of the low humidity, or maybe because the furnace/heat is different than in other places. Hard to say.

Occham's Razor does tend to suggest the psychosomatic explanation though. I know that for myself, if I'm in a bad mood, nothing tastes good.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:57 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

You could soak in salt water in case they adding phosphate solution.
posted by 445supermag at 1:03 PM on October 31, 2018

I'd guess water. Food tasted strange to me in Colorado where the water has lots of minerals. Water where I live in Maine is the best water, barely treated because it's so clean. Try some Poland Spring water for cooking, maybe side by side with local. This was grilled, so maybe try different oil, charcoal, dunno. I'll be in Ohio soon, but I don't think I can safely transport chicken back. I plan to eat Cinci. chili, Cassano's pizza, Little Kings Cream Ale.
posted by theora55 at 1:04 PM on October 31, 2018

One other variable is time. What would happen if you were to cook chicken from the places you used to get it? It may be that something has changed in your sense of taste, so that it wouldn't taste good any more, even if it was exactly the same. If you went back for a visit, would the chicken still be as good as you remember? Not if the problem is in your sense of taste.

I used to like chicken breast fine, but when I was pregnant, two and a half decades ago, I developed an aversion to it that never completely went away. I used to like hoppy beer, years ago, until I began thyroid treatment fifteen years ago and suddenly became a supertaster for certain types of bitterness. Tastes do change, for different reasons.
posted by chromium at 1:14 PM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

With regard to kitchen factors, most things are the same. We're using the same pans and toaster oven (we've bought a new toaster oven, but I haven't made chicken in the new one yet), same dish soap, same spices (in some cases, literally - the same bottles we used in Ohio that we packed up and brought with us). There is no fluoride in the water up here, but that doesn't really seem to have an effect on taste.

And the biggest thing is, nothing else tastes funny (except for things you'd expect to taste funny, e.g. the time I left burgers on the counter to defrost for three days). The pork I've had up here, as I mentioned, is notable for being better than the pork I've had in Ohio. The beef is fine, not life-changing or anything, but just as good as supermarket beef elsewhere. Fruits and vegetables taste normal. Milk is good. And again, even some chicken is good. I left some of the chicken I like from the specialty food store out to thaw a little too long once, and it still tasted like normal chicken. So I don't think it's the fridge or the water or anything like that. Also works against the psychosomatic explanation, although maybe not entirely.

It's just weird to me that this one thing is so noticeably different when nothing else is.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:17 PM on October 31, 2018

FWIW I have had the same complaints about 9 out of 10 of the most recent chicken breasts I've cooked, and I'm in the Midwest. There's a lot of really fucking terrible chicken out there. We've stopped preparing breasts for anything except slow-cooking followed by shredding.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:23 PM on October 31, 2018 [13 favorites]

Does your wife agree with you on the poor taste?

If it's just you, are you on any new medications, or have any current or recent illness? It's probably a long shot as it's difficult to imagine that changes in taste due to these would affect only the taste of chicken, but I thought I'd throw it out there.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:27 PM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

Just out of curiosity: How big are the chicken breasts? Are they substantially larger than you think they should be? The Safeway near me (in DC) has started stocking cheap, generic—not even bothering with store-brand—chicken breasts that are enormous and are absolutely terrible. Just really, really foul-tasting. Suspect it's something related to how enormous they are, whether that's a new breed, or a new method of raising them, or feeding them.
posted by General Malaise at 1:28 PM on October 31, 2018 [5 favorites]

Another possible variable: did the chicken come in a vacuum-sealed package? And if so, did your previous place use cling-wrap instead of vacuum seal? I find vacuum-sealed meat is more likely to be... not spoiled, but a little off, a little funky, in a way that sometimes registers as gaminess.

But also: If I'm reading right, this has happened to you all of twice? Once at Shaw's and once at TJ's? It's real tempting to infer a pattern when something happens twice in a row, but without more data all you can really say is "These two stores sold me crappy chicken this once." I'd keep trying other stores — or even giving the same store a second chance — to see if it's a real pattern or a fluke.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:29 PM on October 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

You could give the kosher chicken breasts a try to see if they're any better.
posted by trig at 1:31 PM on October 31, 2018 [5 favorites]

Just a thought... I know nothing about the packaged raw chicken market, but maybe something has changed with the chicken itself. Maybe seasonally, maybe there's something different being fed to them at the feedlots, preservatives, etc. Could be you're a supertaster for something that's only in chicken and not in pork, beef, etc.

I think the only way you're going to resolve this is by experiment... next time you have the opportunity to go back to Ohio, you'll need to make and eat some chicken there, and see how that tastes, and then maybe even bring some chicken back with you from OH to NH and cook it there, to see if it's the place the chicken originates or where it's cooked that makes the difference. (Do it for science!)
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:34 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

You might contact the retailers to see if you can suss out who the producers are. There may be a major producer who is supplying several of your area retailers. If you find that as a common factor, you might try to find a retailer who is stocking a different producer.

If it really is related to a particular producer, it could be related to the feed, or the way the meat is being processed. I have a friend from another country who never eats chicken here because she can taste the chemicals that are used in the production process, which are drastically different to how chicken in produced in her country.
posted by vignettist at 1:35 PM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Does your wife agree with you on the poor taste?"

She agrees that it tastes noticeably different, although she doesn't find it as repulsive as I do.

"did the chicken come in a vacuum-sealed package"

All three were in cling wrap, although I'm familiar with the effect you're describing. I've had vacuum-sealed beef that smells strangely when you open it, although it tastes normal after cooking.

"How big are the chicken breasts?"

Interesting question. I don't remember the first two instances, but the ones last night were enormous enough to warrant comment. As they were cooking, I wondered if I'd be hungry enough to eat that much chicken and started thinking about what to do with leftovers.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:51 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think there might be something lately in the chicken supply that just tastes like that.
posted by nantucket at 1:56 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's probably just that chicken in general is getting shittier with time. Everyone saying the same chicken is getting shipped to NH, Maryland, Hawaii and Florida is right. There's nothing special about the factory-farmed, trucked chicken coming to you from the Tyson plants, same as everywhere else. There are no more than about a dozen major companies supplying chicken to the US.
posted by Miko at 2:05 PM on October 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have noticed this specifically with Trader Joe's chicken, to the point that I won't buy it there. I've also experiences this at the shitty local supermarket. I'm in Philly. I think I chalked it up to something in the environment leaching into the chicken, but who knows.
posted by DoubleLune at 2:20 PM on October 31, 2018

Minor aside, but get a chest freezer. I'm happy when mine saves me trips to the supermarket during heat waves; you'll be happy to keep what you like in stock whilst dodging your own unappealing climate conditions.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:21 PM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

The first thing that comes to mind is whether the chicken was air-chilled or water-chilled after slaughter. Most regular/non-fancy chicken is water chilled which means right after slaughter/butchering the meat is put in a water bath to bring the temperature down quickly. This is required by the USDA. The water bath can be full of gross stuff from multiple carcasses at one time. This will also water-log the meat, meaning you are spending more on heavier chickens that are really just full of extra water.

Air-chilled chicken is going to taste cleaner because it doesn't sit in the cold ice water slurry for god knows how long. Look for chicken that is explicitly labeled as air-chilled. It will cost a little bit more but not significantly so. Whole Foods or a decent organic foods store should have this.
posted by joan_holloway at 2:21 PM on October 31, 2018 [11 favorites]

It's hard to describe the flavor. Kind of gamey, I guess, but lacking any real meatiness - almost tofu-like.

You are aware that chickens raised on a high-soy diet have been described as "tofu with wings"? Maybe the sources for supermarket chicken in New England feed their birds an extraordinarily high proportion of soybeans?
posted by tenderly at 2:41 PM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

Try kosher chicken. Some Trader Joe's have it. It will be a different supply chain and it is salted early which improves flavor and texture.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:52 PM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

Another recent-ish Ohio to New Hampshire transplant chiming in. I found it was easier there to find chicken, even at Kroger, that was verifiably local, and not like, monstrously oversized. I think there are just more chicken farms in central Ohio compared to here.
posted by damayanti at 2:56 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Vindaloo’s wife here. There’s an issue with factory farmed chicken now called “woody breast” that may be the culprit.

“Woody breast” could bite the chicken industry, CBS

I had a couple of experiences in Montreal in the past few years cooking oversized boneless skinless chicken breasts where the meat had a weird unpleasant flavour and bouncy texture that completely turned me off, and caused me to throw the whole dish out. I’m an experienced cook - this wasn’t an issue with spoilage or overcooking. Most people would probably have thought it was fine.

Even if it’s not full-on woody breast, it seems I’m sensitive to the texture and taste change - it’s always the oversized chicken parts that just don’t taste like chicken should. I stick to only buying normal sized whole chickens now or chicken thighs from local butchers, and avoid the supermarket packs.
posted by Vindaloo at 5:51 PM on October 31, 2018 [11 favorites]

I would think that a likely culprit is the chicken feed and also possibly hormone levels of the chicken. I had a similar experience with fresh milk that turned out to coincide with when they changed feed in the spring.
posted by forforf at 6:12 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think you may have just lucked out in the past. Most supermarket chicken is sketchy. As for the fancy butcher, they may have sold you pastured chicken, which I don’t care much for the taste of either.

Where I live (NYC) I only ever buy Bell & Evans or Murray’s brand chicken.
posted by STFUDonnie at 8:34 PM on October 31, 2018

From person I know who works in food: Either the chickens all come from the same source (even the fancy one might) and are being fed the same thing that you don't like the flavor of, or they are coming from the same distributor and experiencing temperature abuse or other handling issues. Different stores doesn't actually mean that the chickens have unique origins, and even if the origins might be different, the distributors might be the same.

If you really want to resolve this, you should find a local chicken guy (rural Vermont is not that far away) and get your chicken there.
posted by Toddles at 9:59 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree with others that the quality of chicken has decreased over the last few years. I have definitely experienced the woody texture. There were significant changes to USDA poultry inspection rules in 2015, so that the number of USDA line inspectors dropped. Instead, plants on the "NPIS" hire their own inspectors and are required to test twice for pathogens, which means they are looking less at overall quality. My understanding is that this was not done all at once but gradually across the industry. (I was sure we talked about this on the blue when it happened, but now I can't find the thread.)
posted by heatvision at 3:03 AM on November 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think you should do a double-blind taste test. Here’s how:

1. Buy a few varieties of chicken. Let’s say 5.

2. Get 5 bowls. Number them from 1-5.

3. Without your wife/a friend looking, on a piece of paper, randomly assign each type of chicken to a number. (“Trader Joe’s = 1, Fancy Butcher = 2, etc) Then cut the chicken into identical looking chunks and put them in the corresponding bowls. You shouldn’t be able to tell them apart easily. Label the bowls with numbers.

4. Without you looking, your wife or a friend should then, on a sheet of paper, randomly assign a letter to a number. (“A = 4, B = 1, C = 5...”). They then take the number labels off the bowls and attach corresponding letter labels on them.

5. Now you have a series of bowls labeled A to E. Nobody knows what chicken is what source unless you both sit down and compare notes.

6. Cook the chicken. Do a taste test. Write down your opinions. Afterwards, you can use both sheets of paper to find which letter corresponds to which source (“B = 1 = Trader Joe’s”, etc)
posted by suedehead at 10:08 AM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree with those who say there's a larger trend here. I've been buying chicken from the same Large Chain grocery location in Florida for 15 years and I have noticed slow, steady changes, none for the better. Flavor, but other things too. Ludicrous sizes, strange connective bits that didn't use to be there (or were well-trimmed before?), skin and bits of bone still in packaging...

We've actually gone almost-meatless in the last few months because of this. (Broader ethical issues and health, too, but at least equal parts this.)

I must've missed the threat heatvision mentions; I would've definitely piped up then.
posted by easement1 at 1:20 PM on November 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

you should find a local chicken guy (rural Vermont is not that far away)

Horrors! We're talking about NH here. You probably can't throw a rock without hitting local poultry. I don't know if you're in Southern NH or the Seacoast, but if so here's a start: Seacoast Harvest, the local food directory for that region, and here's the Winter Farmer's Market which is worth a road trip to stock up.
posted by Miko at 2:33 PM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

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