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.
Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but they’re a good place to start. Six hundred million rotisserie chickens were purchased in U.S. supermarkets, club stores and similar retail outlets in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the National Chicken Council. An additional 200 million were sold through food-service outlets. A market study by NPD Group, a consumer research firm, found that consumers 50 and older eat more rotisserie chicken than other age groups, and the higher the household income, the more it is eaten.
A classic roast chicken is certainly one of the easier entrees 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 a trussed, store-bought option that often costs less than the price of raw poultry.
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 food scientist and author Robert L. Wolke.
And even though the list of additives on the label of Costco’s $4.99 birds appears to be longer than most, consumers love the product. Ongoing improvements and efficiencies sent 50 million rotisserie chickens through Costco checkout lines last year nationwide, a spokesman says.
Getting two or three family meals out of an inexpensive bird offsets the big advantage a home-cooked chicken has over its commercial cousins — crisped, golden brown skin. 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.
The charms of juicy, warm rotisserie chicken fade further with refrigeration. 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.