I just read a great blog article on meat cuts from Kitchen 101. It reminded me of a great article by Gina Bisco on cooking with heritage chickens. I have supplied links to both and they are worth a visit to read. So many folks today don’t know any more about the meat they buy in the grocery other than the price per pound.
I am an owner of a small backyard flock whose size ranges from as many as a dozen in the summer to six over the winter. My backyard flock is always a mix of ages and breeds. We eat both the eggs from our birds and our chickens themselves. I have to deal with the reality of culling hens from my little flock. Culling sucks, enough said. But with this comes an assortment of really good eating, that modern recipes have no idea how to handle.
Modern egg laying chickens are a specialized breed. A chicken’s best laying production usually tops out at about two years of age. Production birds that lay the eggs in your store, don’t usually live to their second birthday. Production birds are egg laying machines and don’t end up on your table after their useful life. There isn’t enough meat on those bones, and it isn’t the big breasted bird you find in you meat department.
Modern meat birds are also an extremely specialized breed. These birds without any growth hormones, just years of selective breeding have given us a bird that almost everyone today considers normal. These birds are highly efficient with food, growing from chick to dinner table in as little as six weeks. These birds are susceptible to a host of health problems because they grow faster than often their legs or heart can handle.
Heritage dual purpose birds are the breeds your grandmother or great-grandmother had. They could lay eggs and when the family was ready they could be dinner. They ended up as fried chicken on a picnic, Sunday’s roasted chicken, or chicken noodle soup. They are the breeds that are the basis after much selective breeding that made our modern production egg and meat birds. They are not as productive as modern egg layers, nor do they have monster sized big white meat breasts. They are a jack of all trades and a master of none.
One of the problems of having a flock of old-fashion dual purpose birds is that the modern cookbooks and online recipes call for that famous skinless boneless chicken breast. That monster blob of white meat that can serve two with only half a breast. It is easy to cook; easy to cut; without much form and can take on almost any taste. Old-fashion birds actually have assorted classes based on their age and size. They are broiler, fryer, roaster and stewing hen. Those are listed from youngest to oldest, smallest to largest. These like the many cuts of meat from your four-legged meat source also need different kinds of cooking methods, to be at their best. For this you need to get out to your favorite used book store, library book sale, or scour estate sales for old cookbooks.
If you have a dual purpose or heritage flock, you first need a print out of Gina Bisco’s article. She has done her research and brought it all together in a single source. Armed with knowledge of your butchered bird and cook books that actually call for broilers, fryers, roasters, spring chickens, stewing hens you are on your way. Once you understand how to use your chicken no matter the age, you will then be empowered to know how to use them in your modern recipes and understand any adjustments you might make.
If you have a back yard flock and have had less than stellar results when cooking them, I hope you will be inspired to take another look. If you have purchased chickens at your farmer’s market and gotten something you did recognize as chicken, hopefully you will now. Most of all I hope you will appreciate the depth of character a chicken can provide and not always insist on the mass of white meat known as skinless, boneless chicken breast.