In 1985, a fledgling shop with Boston in its name skewered and roasted its birds in rotating rows, so they basted each other with seasoned drippings until firm flesh morphed into Sunday dinner succulence. Since then, Americans have made takeout rotisserie chicken as much of a weeknight staple as a box of macaroni in the cupboard.
A classic roast chicken is certainly one of the easier entrées to master. Salt and pepper, a little fat rubbed into the skin and a lemon in the cavity can do the trick. If you're a self-sufficient omnivore, an iteration or two ought to be in your repertoire. But even cooks who take pride in their own recipes have come to rely on atrussed, store-bought option that often costs less than the price of raw poultry.
"Of course mine is best. When you don't have time to prepare it yourself, though, rotisserie chicken makes a decent meal," says Audrey Graziano. The 34-year-old Alexandria wife and mother of two has been buying supermarket- prepared chickens for about a decade. Leftovers go into chicken noodle soup, she says, and her mother-in-law may claim the bones for stock.
Getting two or three family meals out of an inexpensive 2½-pound bird offsets the big advantage a home-cooked chicken has over its commercial cousins. That would be the crisped, golden brown skin a source of guilty pleasure that most of the time provides the majority of flavor. Retail containers that allow for successful rotisserie chicken transport have gotten greener and more technically advanced over the years, but they sure do a number on the chicken's exterior, which gets clingy or splits in the time it takes to transfer a batch from store oven to heated store shelf.
So what have we learned in a generation of rotisserie chicken consumption?
It's tough to find a bird that can survive the journey of heated display shelf and leftover usage unless it has been treated with some kind of water or salt solution.
There are more flavors to choose from: barbecue, lemon-pepper, Italian and roasted garlic among them.
Paying extra does not guarantee quality.
If yield is important, use your own scale to weigh the chicken. In comparing rotisserie chickens from 14 Washington, D.C., area supermarkets, Food section staffers found more than one discrepancy between printed and actual weights.
Close readers of ingredient labels might find that yeast extract, oleoresin, sodium tripolyphosphate and the bewildering "natural flavorings" have been deployed. Most of those go toward flavoring and browning the chicken, says Pittsburgh food scientist and author Robert L. Wolke.
And even though the list of additives on the label of Costco birds appears to be longer than most, consumers love the product.
"It's pretty hard to pass up a big, meaty $4.99 rotisserie chicken," says Dean Desabrais, Northeast region deli and meat manager for the company.
Ongoing improvements and efficiencies sent 50 million rotisserie chickens through Costco checkout lines last year nationwide, he says. The program began in 1995, and a bird in the hand today costs less than it did in 2004, when the company increased the standard raw weight to a minimum of three pounds (from 2.75 pounds) and dropped the price from $5.49. The next year, it upgraded to a Grade A chicken. In 2007, it eliminated casein, a binder, in order to make the chicken allergen-free.
Costco uses a single producer, Pilgrim's Pride, which marinates via injection, trusses and packs 10 birds to a case. The chickens look like pale, plump ghosts as they get threaded onto long rods that fit in ultra-modern, digital-display Inferno 4000 rotisserie ovens. A film of moving water on the oven floor transports dripping grease to a holding tank, to be collected for recycling. It takes 90 minutes to cook a full load of 32 or so; after an hour, it starts to "smell like Costco chicken," says Tom Borkowski, a deli manager in Northern Virginia. Temperature is closely monitored.
Unsold birds get pulled after two hours to be chilled, then incorporated into Costco's rotisserie chicken soup, chicken Alfredo, chicken wraps and chicken Caesar salads.
Savvy shoppers know to look for the tiny time-stamp sticker on the bottom part of each propylene box. The charms of juicy, warm rotisserie chicken fade with a night's refrigeration, of course. The sodium solution infused in the flesh of a raw bird can create pockets of uneven saltiness in a cooked one. White meat can get mealy or stringy.
For best results, let the meat come to room temperature so you can assess texture and seasoning. Bland white meat that's dry might be right for a fruity curried chicken salad, or shredded into a creamy tortilla soup. A highly spiced bird can hold its own with stir-fried vegetables. The remnants of a barbecue rub may be pronounced enough to reserve that chicken for pressed sandwiches.
Silvia's quick shredded chicken
Makes 3½ to 4 cups
Makes enough for 6 tacos
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
½ cup finely chopped white onion
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 medium tomato, finely chopped
About 2½ cups cooked, shredded rotisserie chicken (white and dark meat, with no skin)
½ cup finely chopped cilantro leaves
2 teaspoons teriyaki marinade, such as Kikkoman brand (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic; cook for several minutes, until softened.
Add the tomato and cook for 1 minute, stirring, then add the chicken and cilantro, stirring to incorporate.
Cook until the chicken is heated through; stir in the teriyaki marinade, if using. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve warm or cold.
A home cook who's not used to measuring, Silvia Duarte wanted to use up the rest of a leftover rotisserie chicken. This mixture is the result. It makes a nice filling for tacos and sandwiches, especially on a toasted roll spread with a thin layer of cream cheese.
Duarte is of Fredericksburg, Va.
Per serving: 130 calories; 17 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fat (2 saturated); 50 milligrams cholesterol; 90 milligrams sodium; 0 grams fiber; 1 gram sugar.
Rotisserie chicken with waffles and gravy
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 (4-ounce) containers sliced button mushrooms
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup white wine
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and ground black pepper
4 frozen waffles
Meat from a 2-pound rotisserie chicken, warmed and shredded
In a large skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the mushrooms, onion and garlic, then sauté until the mushrooms are browned and the pan is nearly dry, about 5 minutes.
Add the wine and stir to deglaze the pan. When the wine has evaporated, stir in the cream, then bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside.
Toast the waffles according to package directions. Place one toasted waffle on each serving plate. Top with a heap of warmed, shredded chicken, then spoon ample amounts of mushroom gravy over it.
This recipe is from Associated Press writer J.M. Hirsch. Says he, "This is my weeknight-friendly take on fried chicken served on waffles, a total comfort food perfect for a cold winter night."
Hirsch always has a box of frozen whole-grain waffles in the freezer.
Per serving: 510 calories; 29 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 32 grams fat (16 saturated); 165 milligrams cholesterol; 1,310 milligrams sodium; 2 grams fiber; 4 grams sugar; 57 percent calories from fat.
Scott Drewno's chicken curry salad
Makes about 2 pounds of salad
Makes enough for 8 servings
1 ( 4- to 5-pound) whole rotisserie chicken
¼ cup raisins
¼ cup coarsely chopped candied walnuts
1 cup diced green apple, such as Granny Smith (from 1 to 2 apples)
1 cup diced celery (from 2 to 3 ribs)
¼ cup diced red onion (from about ¼ onion)
¾ cup mayonnaise, preferably Best Food brand
1 tablespoon mild curry powder
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
If the chicken is hot, allow it to cool slightly, then remove and discard the skin and transfer the meat to a large mixing bowl. (Keep the bones for making stock, if desired.) The yield is 5 to 6 cups of meat.
Add the raisins, walnuts, apple, celery and onion to the bowl and toss to combine.
Combine the mayonnaise, curry powder and brown sugar in a medium bowl; fold it into the chicken mixture and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
At the Source in Washington, D.C., executive chef Scott Drewno serves this chicken curry salad in a sandwich.
Per serving: 330 calories; 21 grams protein; 10 grams carbohydrates; 22 grams fat (4 saturated); 70 milligrams cholesterol; 230 milligrams sodium; 1 gram fiber; 7 grams sugar.
Jeff Tunks'Peruvian chicken stir-fry
Serves 4 to 6
1 whole Peruvian rotisserie chicken (or another marinated spicy rotisserie chicken)
1 pound packaged frozen french fries
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large white onion, cut lengthwise into thin slices
1 large red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut lengthwise into thin slices
1 medium jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into matchstick-size slices
1 medium clove garlic, minced
2 roma tomatoes, cored, halved, seeded and cut into thin slices
¼ cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon chopped cilantro
Steamed white rice, warm, for serving
Remove and discard the skin from the chicken. Pull off the meat in shreds or pieces and transfer it to a covered bowl or other place where it can be kept warm. The yield is 4 cups.
Cook the french fries according to the package directions, and keep them warm and crisp.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the onion and the bell and jalapeño peppers. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes, adjusting the heat so they cook without browning. Add the garlic and stir for a few seconds, then add the tomatoes and cook, stirring frequently, for a few minutes. Pour in the vinegar and broth, and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any bits that might be sticking to the bottom of the skillet.
Add the pulled chicken. Add the soy sauce a tablespoon at a time, keeping in mind that the chicken meat is already salty. Stir in the french fries and cilantro.
To serve, press individual servings of rice into a ramekin or similar-shape vessel and unmold them onto serving plates, if desired. Spoon the stir-fry next to the rice.
This recipe, from chef Jeff Tunks, executive chef and partner in Passion Food Hospitality, was provided by The Washington Post.
Per serving, based on 6: 390 calories; 33 grams protein; 26 grams carbohydrates; 16 grams fat (4 saturated); 95 milligrams cholesterol; 590 milligrams sodium; 3 grams fiber; 3 grams sugar.