Cook Chicken Based on Bird’s Age
By Christine Heinrichs
As summer draws to a close, farmers look toward the harvest. Traditionally, the family would work in the fields and enjoy cool chicken salads for lunch, fried chicken for dinner. As fall unfolded, chicken stew would warm the family.
The chicken on the menu from traditional breed flocks is different from the pale plastic-wrapped meat now sold at the supermarket. Particular dishes are best prepared with chickens of different ages and breeds. Some knowledge is needed to cook them well.
"There’s no such thing as tough meat," Joseph Marquette of Yellow House Farm in New Hampshire, tells students in the eco-gastronomy program at the University of New Hampshire. "Only bad cooking."
He mellows that to say, "Perhaps inappropriate cooking." The time and temperature have to be appropriate to the age and strength of the chicken, to avoid so much heat that the strong muscles of well-developed chickens flex instead of relaxing as they cook. Low temperature and long cooking times can cook any well-raised chicken to heavenly splendor.
"Progression in strength is a progression in age and progression in season," he says. "Flavor increases with age."
Professional chefs have discovered traditional breed chickens. Steve Pope, a chef working with Frank Reese’s Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas, gets frequent inquiries for the ranch’s poultry. Events such as the First Annual Heritage Chicken Cooking Competition held in April 2010 help spread the word. The contest attracted 823 entries and judges of national stature.
"Chefs understand that they can use the whole bird in all their creations," he says. "They are putting their signature on their creations."
A small family flock of 50 birds of a single breed could provide plenty of meat for a family for a year, and sustain the flock into the following year. Chicks would hatch in March, April and May, and be culled as they grow. For the table, chickens progress from broilers to fryers, next to roasters, and after that to stewing fowl. The farmer would plan on keeping a dozen hens and two cockerels for the next breeding season. That leaves 36 from that hatching season, plus older birds, for the table.
The first birds culled are the ones with the most obvious faults, ones the owner would not consider breeding. They might be culled as early as four weeks, although usually they are aged to 8 – 13 weeks old. The youngest birds, in French cuisine, are called poussin (pr. poosang). Technically, this is what all industrial supermarket chicken is, killed at 42-60 days old. Even flavorful traditional breeds don’t have enough time to acquire much flavor in that short a time.
The meat of older traditional breed birds raised in small flocks is darker because the birds are stronger. Better developed muscles also become more oily, so that they work well, carrying the bird through the daily routine of scratching and pecking. Because of their ancestry as upland game birds, chickens prefer to run from their predators, and only fly up to their roosts. They develop dark meat legs and thighs, and light breast meat.
"When you have a healthy, strong, able-bodied bird, its muscles are strong, dark and well lubricated," Joseph Marquette says. "Muscles only seldom used are light and have little lubrication."
Up until 13 weeks of age, the birds are so young that their muscles won’t flex and cook tough, even when cooked under the intense heat of the broiler. Hence, their name. Broilers can also be fried and prepared other ways, but their significant characteristic is that they can be cooked hot and fast and still be tender.
Birds can be considered fryers from 13 to 20 weeks, with the ideal age being around 16 weeks. They can be cut up and pan fried, another high heat cooking method. They can be spatchcocked: cut in half, the backbone and sternum removed and the half-bird flattened, then grilled that way. Keep the bird away from the heat, to grill at 275-300 degrees.
Sixteen weeks is also a good time to take a serious look at culling the breeding flock. Quicker growing Anconas, Leghorns and Andalusians will show obvious flaws by then. You’ll want to give slower growing Dorkings and Sussex more time to develop.
Some breeds make better fryers than others. Chef Pope recommends dual purpose breeds such as Barred Rocks and Orpingtons for frying. They are the traditional breeds to prepare Southern Fried Chicken for summer picnics. The Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices give flavor to bland industrial chicks.
"That’s what you are tasting, not the chicken," he says. "You need the right bird with the right texture."
In the fall, after 21 weeks, the birds are roasters. Five to seven months is the ideal age, depending on the breed. Moist heat, provided by a cup of liquid such as wine or broth, in a covered roasting pan, at 325 degrees, timed at 25 minutes per pound, warms the kitchen and feeds the family.
"Grandma would put that bird into the oven before church, listen to the pastor and was home when the bird was finished cooking," says Pope.
Being at church also kept the curious and hungry from peeking into the pot and releasing the moisture. Hands off to succeed with this method!
Roasters can also be dry roasted, on a spit. This method requires more attention to oil the bird and keep it basted. Olive oil, butter, bacon, goose or duck fat or any other oil will do. The white meat of the breast and the dark meat of the thighs require different cooking times. Use a cooking thermometer to check for done-ness. Cover the breast with a dish towel soaked in oil or aluminum foil shiny side up, to reflect heat away, and give the legs time to finish cooking.
"Though chicken is a whole bird, it is made of different cuts of meat," says Mr. Marquette.
Older birds, the roosters culled during the winter, or birds from previous years that you don’t want to feed over the winter, become stewing fowl. These birds have developed full flavor and should not be confused with industrial chickens tossed in a pot of water and boiled. They can become coq au vin as well as Grandma’s chicken soup.
Slowly simmer the bird in a bath of liquid until the meat falls off the bones. The slow moist heat relaxes the strong muscles and releases flavor. The liquid may be part of the dish, or it can be broth used later.
Egg breeds may not have the large carcasses of dual purpose Buckeyes and meat breeds such as Brahmas, but they are delicious and should not be under-rated.
"If you have a homestead that allows you to hold on to not only one top cockerel, but top four or six cockerels, you will have your choice when you set up your breeding pen the following spring," says Mr. Marquette. "Then you make the final choice and the others become coq au vin."
Whether you are in a position to keep a small sustaining flock or are more interested in the cooking, traditional breeds make the best choice. America’s cooks are learning how, and their satisfied guests appreciate the effort.
Chef Pope has recipes posted on his website, www.heritagechef.com, and welcomes additional recipes sent to him at email@example.com.
Christine Heinrichs is the author of How to Raise Chickens and How to Raise Poultry, which focus on raising traditional breeds in small flocks. As historian for SPPA, she maintains the collection of antique books and magazines, which she consults for research. Christine shares a wealth of information on her blog at http://poultrybookstore.blogspot.com. Her books are available from the Backyard Poultry bookstore.
Learn more about the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities (SPPA) at http://www.feathersite.com/Poultry/SPPA/SPPA.html