Picking out a quality chicken at the supermarket is a guessing game. The terms fresh, organic, free-range, all natural, and lean rarely indicate good flavor or texture, and neither does price. For our tasting, we gathered nine widely available brands of chicken. We chose broiler/fryers that weighed from 3 1/2 to four pounds. The birds were roasted without additional seasonings to an internal temperature of 160 degrees at the breast and 170 degrees at the leg/thigh and were served to 30 members of the Cooks staff. Among the contenders were one kosher bird, two "natural," and one "free range." The remaining two were just plain "chicken." But before we started tasting, we identified a long list of genetic and environmental factors that might help consumers purchase a high-quality, tasty bird. Our first stop was genetic engineering, through which birds are bred to meet the goals of a particular producer, such as yielding a large amount of breast meat and a low amount of fat. Other chickens are bred for a high ratio of meat to bone. (We found this means big breasts and scrawny legs.) But it seemed to us that few, if any, producers were engineering birds for flavor. Next we examined a wide range of environmental factors, including feed and living conditions. Some birds dine on feed that is free of animal byproducts and animal fats, but our tasters could not detect a difference in flavor or texture based on the presence or absence of animal byproducts in the feed. A low-stress environment is supposed to produce more tender meat, but this theory was impossible to confirm or deny. A chicken's age can also have an effect on flavor. The older the chicken (an older broiler/fryer is seven to nine weeks old rather than the more typical six to seven weeks), the more distinct its flavor is thought to be. Free-range chickens are usually older than indoor chickens when processed because they take longer to reach their proper weight. (Because free-range chickens have unrestricted access to the outdoors, it is virtually impossible to prevent them from eating random grasses and insects. Consequently, their diet is a mix of these elements as well as feed, and they gain weight more slowly.) Nonetheless, we found the "free-range" moniker to be no indication of superior flavor. Does Processing Method Matter? Processing factors that can affect the flavor and appearance of a chicken include how the chicken was rinsed and chilled prior to being packaged. Antimicrobial agents, such as sodium triphosphate, are sometimes added to the rinse water to cut down contamination by bacteria like salmonella. (Some tasters can detect traces of this chemical. It is usually described as "metallic.") Some rinsing methods inadvertently add excess water under the skin, leading to a shriveled appearance after cooking. After being slaughtered and rinsed, the chickens are quickly chilled to a temperature of about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, or just above their freezing point. If the chickens are chilled too quickly, their meat can get spongy and watery. If chilled too slowly, the meat can dry out and develop an off color. None of these effects could be confirmed in our tasting because we could not be certain about how a particular bird was processed. Our first solid clue to any possible connection between processing method and flavor emerged when we discovered that the only kosher chicken in our tasting was also the best tasting. Kosher birds are hand-slaughtered rather than killed by machine, which ensures both a clean kill and a quick and efficient "bleed-out." Industry experts indicated that machine-processed chickens are more likely to be subject to improper slaughtering, which can cause blood to clot, resulting in tough meat or a livery flavor. Because tasters far preferred the kosher chicken to the other brand that used the same process, however, it followed that more was at work here than slaughtering technique. For one thing, kosher chickens are dunked in cold water to remove feathers after slaughter. Cold water firms both the skin and the fat layer beneath it. In contrast, most other producers scald birds in hot water to remove the feathers. The experts we talked to said that scalding can "solubilize" the chicken's fat, leading to excessive moisture loss and a wrinkled appearance in the chicken skin after cooking. Uneven scalding can also cause "barking," or a blotchy appearance in the skin. Appearance aside, perhaps the most noticeable difference between the winning bird and the others we sampled was that the winning bird tasted juicy and well-seasoned. To remove as many impurities as possible, the chickens are buried in salt for one hour and then rinsed off with cold spring water. The combination of salt and water acts like a brine, encouraging the fibers in the meat to open and trap the salt and water, leading to a juicier, more flavorful bird. This single factor, more than any other, seems to have put this bird ahead of the pack. If you are looking for advice on purchasing a high-quality chicken, we recommend kosher. All the other adjectives free-range, natural, lean, organic, and the likedon't necessarily translate into a better-tasting chicken. Home Brining: Turning Losers into Winners Because the winning bird in our tasting is packed in salt and then rinsed, we wondered what would happen if we brined the runner-up, as well as the last-place chicken, tasting them alongside the first-place bird. To find out, we put three more chickens into the oven. The same birds still finished on top, but the losing chicken wasn't far behind. This brined chicken was milder and less toothsome than the other two birds, but it was certainly acceptable. Our conclusion: If your local market doesn't carry kosher chickens, you can use a quick saltwater soak to improve the quality of just about any chicken.