2011 February: Fresh or Frozen?

Grill it. Roast it. Fry it. Smoke it. Pizzeria operators have a seemingly endless list of ways to prepare chicken. However, deciding on what type to chicken to use — fresh or frozen — is more limited. There are benefits to both.

“Fresh chicken is not only the most economical purchase alternative, it’s also the most versatile, allowing operators to offer a variety of flavor profiles. Frozen chicken is a preferred choice where less prep work and longer shelf life is valued,” says Randy McKinney, vice president of product and program development for The Broaster Company in Beloit, Wisconsin.

Piazza Italian Kitchen in Colorado Springs, Colorado, only uses fresh, all natural cage-free chicken on its menu. “The chicken is minimally processed, which means that it is not injected with sodium solutions to plump the chickens up with artificial moisture. We feel it is the best product in flavor and tenderness available,” says Randy Price, president of the restaurant’s parent company, Rocky Mountain Restaurant Group.

Brenda McDonnell, owner/operator of Brenda’s Pizzeria and Trader’s Coffeehouse in Oakland, Maryland, purchases both frozen and fresh chicken. McDonnell places frozen fajita-seasoned chicken on specialty pizzas, while fresh chicken is incorporated into entrées. “The advantages to using the frozen, precooked chicken is that it is already cooked and sliced, so it saves on labor and time,” says McDonnell.

Incorporating products such as frozen chicken breast tenders, frozen popcorn chicken or frozen Buffalo wings provides operators with a cost-effective and easy way to enhance their chicken appetizer options without having to invest in much more labor.

The difference in food cost between fresh and frozen chicken products, explains McKinney, depends on a variety of factors — including whether the chicken is unmarinated or marinated, unbreaded or breaded, whole bird or cut (8-piece cut, leg quarters, etc.), and how it is cleaned and packed, such as super-clean vs. clean, ice-packed vs. gas flushed or vacuum packed.

Price finds that the cost of fresh chicken fluctuates throughout the year. “We currently pay $2.41 a pound for all natural fresh chicken. The current price for commodity chicken is around $1.68 per pound,” he says.

Whether you choose fresh or frozen chicken — both require strict adherence to safe handling and prep procedures. The chicken needs to be kept as cold as possible (40 degrees or cooler) and should never be left out at room temperature. McKinney recommends establishing a FIFO system (first-in, first-out) to ensure proper rotation of any food products and to dedicate an area to handling the product.

“We immediately put our chicken on a sheet tray in the raw chicken area in our walk-in. We date it and try to get it prepped within two days,” says McDonnell, who designates certain workers solely to chicken prep. Those workers must sanitize the surface area and any shears to be used prior to and after preparing the product and use food handling gloves, as well as specific cutting boards and knives. “You can’t start and stop when cutting or cleaning this product,” she adds. “We are extremely careful, and everyone is trained on this.”

Using separate cutting boards and utensils for raw and cooked/ready-to-eat products also helps avoid cross contamination. Other ways to avoid cross contamination include sanitizing all surfaces that come in contact with raw chicken, washing and sanitizing hands, and changing food handling gloves between handling raw meats and cooked/ready-to-eat products.

“Do not allow raw chicken to come into contact with cooked chicken or other ready-to-eat food products,” says McKinney. If chicken is frozen, thaw it in the refrigerator, not at room temperature. “It takes only 15 to 20 minutes for germs to produce, contaminate food and cause an outbreak of food-borne illness.”

Price recommends storing chicken in the coolest part of the cooler on the lowest shelf with nothing underneath it to prevent cross contamination from juices. The shelf life for a fresh chicken product depends on how the chicken is packed. Generally, says McKinney, from the kill date ice-packed chicken has a shelf life of seven to 10 days under optimum conditions, while gas flushed or vacuum-packed chicken still in the sealed bag has a shelf life of 10 to 14 days. Operators should check with their supplier to find out the supplier’s recommended shelf life specification. 

Chicken Parmesan

Yield: two 8-ounce servings
4 4-ounce boneless, skinless chicken
breast halves
½ cup seasoned breadcrumbs
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon basil
1 egg
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 ounces Tomato or spaghetti sauce
Four slices of mozzarella cheese
Basil sprigs, for garnish

Flatten chicken to ¼-inch thickness.
In a shallow bowl, combine breadcrumbs, cheese and basil. In another bowl, beat egg. Lightly coat chicken with flour, dip chicken into egg, then coat with breadcrumb mixture.
In a large skillet, brown chicken in butter and oil over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes on each side or until juices run clear.
Top each piece of chicken with tomato or spaghetti sauce and one slice of mozzarella cheese. Place under broiler to melt cheese. Place basil sprig on top of cheese for garnish.
Serve with a side of pasta and tomato sauce.
(Recipe courtesy of Randy Price, Rocky Mountain Restaurant Group.)

Melanie Wolkoff Wachsman is a freelance writer in Louisville, Kentucky. She covers food, business and lifestyle trends.

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