If we had a dollar for every time we relied on a rotisserie chicken for a quick and painless dinner, well, let’s just say we wouldn’t be making food magazines anymore.
These pre-cooked birds sometimes get a bad rap as the David Hasselhoffs of the prepared foods aisle—frighteningly bronzed, wrinkly, and way past their prime—but, if you pick up a good one, they’re downright delicious.
Slowly cooking it on a spit lacquers the birds with flavorful pan drippings and gets the skin crispy all over. For dishes such as Thai chicken salad and tamales, where chicken isn't the main event, senior food editor Rick Martinez says picking up a rotisserie chicken is a great shortcut. He buys one almost every week: “I would rather save an hour of my time and do something complex in another part of the recipe.”
Here are his tips for finding the freshest, juiciest rotisserie chicken at the grocery store:
Pick the Heaviest One
Under a heat lamp, a plastic container acts like an Easy Bake Oven, continuing to cook the chicken as it sits. A heavier bird means the juices haven’t evaporated out of the meat. The only definitive way to tell—more accurate than time stamps—is to lift up every chicken and feel for yourself. “It’s going to annoy everyone around you, but it works,” says Martinez.
“You’ll feel a noticeable difference between the birds that just came out of the oven and ones that have been sitting there all day."
Check Out the Skin
While it’s sort of a common-sense move, look for the plumpest, prettiest one you can find. (The others won’t take it personally.) “As the juices leave the meat, the chicken’s skin begins to shrivel and becomes discolored,” says Martinez. A good one is evenly browned all over with taut skin. Leave anything that looks like a deflated balloon for some other poor soul.
Watch It Cook
There’s something, dare we say, foul, about a grocery store with a heat table of cooked birds and no rotisserie to be seen. “If they’re on display, that usually means the store puts fresh ones out throughout the day,” Martinez says. If your supermarket prepares its food behind closed doors, don't hesitate to ask how frequently their rotisserie chickens are restocked.
Go for Plain
Lemon-rosemary and barbecue seem innocent enough, but, if you have grand plans for that bird, like making a stew or turning the carcass into a stock, the strange mélange of spices and artificial flavors become more present (and sometimes metallic) the second time around. And, Martinez adds, “I’d rather season the chicken myself than run the risk of it being over-salted.”
Check Out International Stores
Whole Foods is fine and all, but Rick’s find of the century was the roasted birds from a small Latin restaurant in Spanish Harlem. “Unlike major grocery chains, your little, local ethnic food store is more likely to use better spices and herbs to flavor their chickens,” he says. If it has a line out the door, that’s a good sign.