What’s the Deal With Air-Chilled Chicken?

Take a look around the meat case in the grocery store and it’s pretty likely that you’ll notice packages of chicken labeled “air-chilled.” What is it and what makes it so special? Air-chilling refers to a specific method of cooling chickens during processing. The USDA mandates that all poultry must be cooled to a temperature of 40ºF or lower within 4 hours of slaughter to prevent the growth of bacteria that causes food-borne illnesses like salmonella. Air-chilling, which can take up to 3 hours, works by blasting the chickens with purified cold air, or rapidly cooling them in cold air chambers to reduce body temperature. Air-chilled chicken has been widely available throughout Europe for decades, but only recently made its way to the United States. There are only two methods for cooling chicken: the traditional method that uses ice-cold water — called “water-chilled” — and air-chilling. Water-chilled chicken is submerged into a large vat of chlorinated ice water, which lowers the body temperature quickly. Unfortunately, the carcass absorbs excess water, particularly in the skin. Both methods are equal in preventing bacterial growth, but the big difference is the excess water the water-chilled chickens absorb. Air-chilled chicken has more flavor and better texture because it doesn’t absorb water. It also cooks faster, is a better value, and carries less risk of cross-contamination. So, the next time you see air-chilled chicken in your grocery store’s meat counter, pick it up and give it a try.