August 18, 2020
The Convenient Truth of Rotisserie Chicken
Article-Rotisserie-Chicken

A look at America’s favorite illogically cheap, ecologically dubious roasted chicken.

Emma Feigenbaum remembers when she first dropped a rotisserie chicken into her basket in the supermarket. She was about twelve, on vacation with her family on Long Island. At home, she enjoyed home-cooked meals almost every night, and prepared foods were not something that her family typically bought. Then she turned a corner and arrived at the warm, glowing display of rust-colored birds.

“It was revelatory,” Feigenbaum recalls. “I remember thinking to myself, It’s a whole roast chicken, I don’t have to roast a chicken.”

Her practical purchase was further justified upon a taste test; Feigenbaum was blown away by its flavor, the sticky skin and crispy wing tips. Even if the breast meat was a little dry (it’s always a little dry), nowadays she finds the slightly chewy breast meat of a supermarket rotisserie chicken appealingly nostalgic. Since then, rotisserie chicken has stuck around as occasional stand-in for home-cooked dinners, and it’s had an immense presence in her work—Feigenbaum is a food stylist and chef, and she has previously served as a food editor for Martha Stewart Living. She says that when styling any recipe that involves shredded chicken meat, it’s a no-brainer. “It looks the same as if I’m spending $16 for a Bell & Evans [raw chicken],” she says. “It’s not a better or worse product than what you roast at home, just a more convenient one.”

Roasting a whole chicken at home is a rite of passage for nearly everybody who has turned on an oven, and for avid home cooks, perfecting one can border on a spiritual quest. There are numerous gurus of the craft, as well as buzzworthy home hacks, from spatchcocking to brining to using a hair dryer to ensure a crisp skin and juicy meat. Roasted chicken is the entrée that many food critics regard as a “litmus test” for a restaurant’s worth—and it is essentially beloved all around the globe. Yet going out of one’s way to roast a chicken at home seems futile when there is a hot, glistening, extremely delicious roasted bird a few aisles away, priced as low as a bag of chips. And an entire generation has been raised with them around.

In the United States, rotisserie chickens are available for an ever-deeper—even artificial—bargain compared to the price of a whole, uncooked chicken at the same store. While a home-roasted chicken represents an idealized American dinner, the rise of the ubiquitous takeout rotisserie chicken is an extreme microcosm of the commodification and exploitation of that vision.

At Costco, the wholesale supermarket chain founded in 1983 with 785 locations in the United States, rotisserie chickens have been widely reported to be a “loss leader” at $4.99 each; they’re sold for less than they cost, but they are there to lure you into the store, so you can buy other goods (at a profit to the company) while you’re shopping. (Representatives at Costco declined to comment for this article.) At many other supermarkets selling cut-rate rotisserie birds, the same strategy has been in place for decades. A spokesperson for Kroger, a supermarket chain with nearly 3,000 stateside locations, says that their rotisserie chicken program began in the 1980s: “Hot rotisserie chickens are a prepared food mainstay for many households,” she added.

Even restaurant chefs have a soft spot for the supermarket entrée. King Phojanakong, chef-owner of Kuma Inn on New York City’s Lower East Side, remembers that rotisserie chicken was an imperative whenever his family shopped at Costco growing up. Now, he goes with his kids.

“I cook a pot of rice, there’s salad, and that’s dinner,” he says. “The next day, we make a fried rice, and everybody loves it.”

For Moonlynn Tsai, co-owner of Kopitiam, a Malaysian restaurant on the edge of New York’s Chinatown in Manhattan, rotisserie chicken from Costco was also on rotation in her household growing up in California. She describes it as a “multipurpose meal”: her mother would serve her and her brother the drumsticks on the first night for dinner, then pull the meat off and save it for later, and finally turn the carcass into a stock that would be used for soup.

“What I do is pull the meat off, put it in a pot and make stock, and cook a lot of beans,” says Tyler Kord, chef-owner of No. 7 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. In his latest cookbook, Dynamite Chicken, he includes a recipe for his “Rotisserie Chicken Beans (aka The Only Thing That Tyler Kord Would Eat If Left to His Own Devices),” which he says he wrangled his editors to include, since it starts off with a rotisserie chicken rather than instructing you how to cook one yourself.

In 2020, the United States is expected to eat an estimated 1 billion rotisserie chickens, according to the National Chicken Council. And yet many of them won’t turn a profit for their retailers—at least not directly. The fact that they double as marketing for so many businesses may help explain why they’re so ubiquitous today. But the economy of roasting many birds at once on mechanically rotating spits—and the sensory appeal of that process—is not to be underestimated.

“You get to the back of a huge, sterile store, and suddenly you smell that smell and you’re somewhere else,” says Maryn McKenna, author of Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats, about the Costco rotisserie chicken.

In Paris, where she has lived part-time for years, McKenna finds rotisserie chicken at just about every food market, as well as people lining up for their beautifully roast bird. “It’s efficient in terms of cooking, but it’s also very dramatic to walk past that cabinet and see the chickens turning and the potatoes cooking in the fat in the bottom,” she says. In France, these small potatoes and sometimes onions that are cooked in the rotisserie chicken drippings are typically given to the customer along with a whole chicken.

According to Hillary Davis, author of French Comfort Food, who lived in France for more than a decade, dripping, golden birds in a rotisserie oven—with the pan of potatoes below—are common sights in the food stores of Lyon, Dijon, and Paris. “I can’t walk by and not get one. The smell lures me in,” she says.

“I remember thinking to myself, It’s a whole roast chicken, I don’t have to roast a chicken.”

The concept of slowly rotating more than one chicken on a spit over a heat source is new to neither American grocery stores nor the streets of Paris. It is depicted in medieval European art dating back to the 14th century. It was prized by Napoleon. When it’s grilled outdoors, it takes on many time-honored formats around the world, from Brazilian churrascarias to Hawaiian huli huli chicken (“huli” meaning “turn”). In the 20th century, gas convection ovens filled to the brim with chickens speared on rods began to pop up in Europe and North America, at food stores and restaurants. But the term “rotisserie” (which can refer to both a shop specializing in roasted meats using this method, or the rotating spits themselves) and the concept of replacing a home-cooked meal with one centered around it, didn’t hit the American zeitgeist until Boston Market (formerly named Boston Chicken) was founded in 1985. Originally opened as a single store in Newtonville, Massachusetts, it capitalized on rotisserie chicken in a way that its founders hadn’t seen before in the United States—and it grew into a multinational franchise.

Kip Kolow, cofounder of Boston Market (and now chief strategy officer of Cowboy Chicken), remembers the rotisserie chicken that was available in local delis where he grew up in the Boston metro area. But they were just okay, he says, and they weren’t the focal point of the shop—just “ancillary” to the other offerings. They were mostly using “planetary type carousels that would just go around and around” he says, referring to an oven system in which the chickens are speared on horizontal spits arranged around a wheel, which constantly orbit while the individual spits rotate the chickens. When he and business partner, Arthur Cores, opened Boston Chicken, following extensive travel around Europe for research, they used a roasting oven comprised of seven vertically stacked spits of five chickens each; these spits only rotated the chickens but otherwise did not move up and down, allowing each row’s chickens to absorb the drippings from the ones above. The result was a deeply lacquered, crisp skin and richly flavored meat.

“Ours were really the best, because it was seven lines of chicken that were basting one another,” he says. (This is not the oven setup that Boston Market currently uses, however, which is a planetary system.)

But with either mechanism, rotisserie chicken is just different from home-roasted chickens, says Kolow. “Rotisserie chicken has a different caramelization, different moisture content, and you’ll never have better skin,” says Kolow. “It’s a great benefit that we can’t have in the house.”

Neither Kolow nor Boston Market’s current president, Randy Miller, would share the seasonings that Boston Market uses on their chicken, although Miller described it as “proprietary sweet garlic and herb spices.” Kolow says that the store’s original marinating process for the chicken was different—and likely more time-consuming—than the prevailing methods used throughout the food industry today: “Most of them inject things with spice, which changes the texture.”

Injecting birds with seasonings is one step that is not in your typical home-cooked chicken recipe. Neither are the food additives that can be found on many ingredient labels for rotisserie chickens—Costco’s, for instance, have ten ingredients, including sodium phosphate, carrageenan, and dextrose. With others, Emma Feigenbaum suspects that caramel color, a substance that she uses a lot in food styling, is partly responsible for that dark glaze. These are common food additives used in processed foods, some of which have been controversial. But there are several more questionable practices behind a whole, cooked chicken that retails for as little as $4.99.

“It’s going to be the cheapest chicken they can put up there,” says Andrew Gunther, executive director of A Greener World, a nonprofit organization that certifies the voluntary production claim program for Animal Welfare Approved, among others. “It’s still chicken, but it’s not been outdoors, and it’s going to have been grown as quickly as it can be by a contract farmer who has absolutely no rights,” he says. The financial situation of contract farmers who supply the heavily consolidated chicken industry’s large corporations with birds, he says, is so fraught that the growers are often stuck in massive debt and don’t earn enough to crawl out of it; it’s a long-standing issue that has been well documented, including in popular documentaries such as Food, Inc.

Then, there are the perilous working conditions of slaughter and processing plants, which are largely staffed by immigrants and people of color. These corporations have been criticized for making workers perform at breakneck speeds, which leads to more accidents, and with so few breaks that they have been reported to wear adult diapers so that they don’t have to stop to use the restroom. These issues have been exacerbated in the age of COVID-19, as poultry processing workers test positive for the disease and critics accuse the corporations of doing little to safeguard them. (Meanwhile, the Trump administration has issued an executive order to keep these plants open during the pandemic, citing dubious claims of a “meat shortage,” and pandemic recovery bills are tied to mandates to shield corporations from worker liability.)

“There is no such thing as cheap food—there is a consequence. Something has been compromised to give you that product,” says Gunther.

There is also a noticeable flavor and textural difference between a chicken that’s been raised in confinement and one that hasn’t. Pasture-raised birds that have used their bodies more, thanks to not being cramped in an enclosed barn with nowhere to roam, have a deeper taste and more prominent texture, says Gunther. But to the American palate, that’s not always a good thing.

“When we say something tastes like chicken, we really mean it doesn’t taste like anything,” says McKenna. “In America, it’s a bland, white protein, but that’s not true for other parts of the world, and it’s not true for pasture-raised chickens, because the animals have exercised.”

She says that birds raised in the “classic floor system” of the majority of US producers yields a mellower-tasting, paler, and more fatty flesh, and they’re typically slaughtered much younger than higher welfare birds. That’s the typical American chicken today. Over the years, however, some producers, including the multinational Perdue, have listened to animal welfare activists and implemented more ways for birds to exercise within the floor system, like adding windows, bales of hay, or palettes for birds to walk up and down. McKenna says that shifting to free-range birds may require consumers to reset not only their expectations when it comes to taste or texture but their preparation methods. Free-range chickens often benefit from a slower, lower-temperature roast, she says. “Just bunging a whole chicken into an oven at 400 degrees may not work with a higher welfare bird.”

When customers shop for a raw chicken in a supermarket, they typically face a number of choices, including organic or free-range from producers who voluntarily applied for these labels. With hot rotisserie chicken, it’s often much more opaque. Since labeling requirements differ for prepared foods and raw ones, not knowing how a rotisserie chicken was raised might even be part of the charm: It’s out of sight, and out of mind.

Gunther is mystified by this blasé attitude: “If you buy a car, you want to know everything about it: when it was last serviced, its safety ratings . . . then you pop off to a supermarket, where you actually put the stuff inside you, and you don’t ask how it was fed or how it was raised?”

Few supermarkets offer varieties—and when they do, as in Kroger’s Simple Truth™ Natural Roasted Chicken, which touts no antibiotics, hormones, or artificial ingredients, the price point is much higher, offered online at $9.99 each, as opposed to $5.99 to $6.99 for their Savory Rotisserie Chicken.

McKenna says she will occasionally buy a rotisserie chicken from her local Whole Foods in Atlanta, because she feels good about the chicken producers that the store sells in their meat department—including White Oak Pastures, a generative agriculture farm, and Bell & Evans, which is family-owned. “My assumption has always been that Whole Foods was cooking the chickens in its cases that are not selling,” she says.

While it sounds like a logical way for stores to recoup the cost of their products—and might help save some food waste—this is not, however, the way it works at Whole Foods, nor at most grocery stores. A spokesperson for Whole Foods who confirmed that their stores order fresh, new chickens for their rotisserie program added, “Like all our meat, our rotisserie chickens meet our high-quality standards for transparency and traceability to farm or ranch, no antibiotics, and no added growth hormones.” These are offered at Whole Foods stores around the country at $9.99 for an organic rotisserie chicken and $6.99 to $7.99 for the non-organic option.

A spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, Tom Super, says that rotisserie chickens are raised specifically for that purpose as an industry-wide practice: “They are generally much smaller than the whole birds you would find in a meat case,” he says.

Because it requires some investment and demands heavy sales, rotisserie chicken cases aren’t often found in smaller, independent groceries and restaurants. However, a fully roast chicken—and assorted sides—are available from many businesses that may pride themselves on ethical ingredient sourcing.

Tyler Kord says that he prefers the roast chicken at R&D Foods, a small grocery and sandwich shop in Brooklyn, to any rotisserie chickens from supermarkets. There are several other small markets in New York City with comparable offerings, but hovering around $20 for a whole chicken, they aren’t really comparable to a loss-leader supermarket rotisserie bird.

Not knowing how a rotisserie chicken was raised might even be part of the charm: It’s out of sight, and out of mind.

Eric Rivera, chef-owner of Addo in Seattle, has added family-style spatchcocked and seasoned chickens to his menu since the pandemic turned his tasting-menu restaurant into a pantry and take-out-only one. His birds are sourced from small local farms that the restaurant works with, and while they aren’t rotisserie-roasted, they’re also not quite fully cooked; after brining and marinating the birds—in a rotating selection of flavors—the chickens are cooked by sous-vide until they’re “90 percent of the way there.” All the customer has to do, he says, is roast them or throw them on a grill for 15–20 minutes.

This ensures a fresh and hot bird whenever the customer is ready to eat, without the overdrying that can plague some rotisserie chickens that are left too long under the heat lamps at a store. But it costs $19.

“If there was a way for me to sell a $5 chicken that checks all the boxes, I would do it,” says Rivera.

Growing up in Washington state, Rivera’s father served in the army and would be away for a couple years at a time. His mother typically cooked for him and his sister, but she would occasionally stop for a takeout rotisserie chicken from the supermarket after picking him up from Little League baseball games.

“My mom would take it and make rice dishes with it, or she would pick it apart and make salad or tacos—it’s endless,” he says. “They were always cheap, and you could feed two to four people.”

The takeout chicken hack felt like a novelty then, he says. Now, it’s much more normal for a family to grab takeout for dinner, because of the convenience.

Of course, another alternative to paying four times the price of a Costco rotisserie chicken is just not buying chicken. But for resourceful parents, it can seem like a poor economic decision when a $5 chicken is less expensive, pound per pound, than many types of vegetables—and is the gateway to soup, stock, and so many leftover meals.

Chicken is an expensive product, says Andrew Gunther of A Greener World—we’ve just been brainwashed to think otherwise. Nowadays, Gunther doesn’t eat much chicken. The inefficiency of converting plants into meat just doesn’t make enough sense. Beef is frequently singled out for requiring many more resources to produce, but chicken still consumes roughly twice as much plant-based protein per output of animal protein.

Labels, like Animal Welfare Approved, can provide consumers more choice in a free market, he says. But when those choices include a ready-to-eat, whole chicken for less than $10, there’s really not much choice for many.

Even Gunther recalls having a rotisserie chicken once in a while, when he and his wife were a young couple: “Because it was all we could afford.”

Know Your Chicken. When America’s favorite protein crosses cultures and winds up on a sheet pan, it’s a winner chicken dinner. Cathy Erway is forever inspired by the chunky, funky poultry and wants you to put this in your oven and roast it. Her book, Sheet Pan Chicken, arrives this September.

Cathy Erway

Cathy Erway is the author of the cookbook The Food of Taiwan and the memoir The Art of Eating In. She hosts the podcasts Self Evident, exploring Asian American stories, and Eat Your Words on Heritage Radio Network, and blogs at Not Eating Out in New York.