Chickens are on my mind at the moment as we are butchering the excess roosters from the chicks we bought last fall. My husband believes that there are few finer meals than fried chicken dinner (preferably with corn on the cob and mashed potatoes). He’s also partial to roasted chicken, chicken and noodles, chicken and dumplings and chicken soup. Since we prefer to raise our own chicken and since I am not enamored of the Cornish Cross, I thought I might talk a bit about how to cook a heritage breed chicken.
First, a bit of background. At one time, “egg” chickens were the breeds that didn’t go broody and that didn’t need as much food to produce eggs. They were otherwise not really much different from what we now call dual-purpose or even meat birds. For example, Delawares are supposedly a meat bird and Australorps are supposedly an egg bird (although you’ll often see both breeds called dual-purpose). Yet both produce about the same number of eggs per year. Delawares grow a little faster and at maturity will weigh more. Modern Leghorns, on the other hand, will produce at least half again as many eggs, have not the slightest interest in setting or raising chicks and eat less food. However, any meat, egg or dual purpose breed can be used for frying, broiling or even roasting – if you prepare and cook them correctly. I like Delawares because of their fast growth, but Australorps are also good dual purpose birds, as are the various Rocks, Sussex, Javas and Orpingtons.
Chickens are classified as broilers, fryers, roasters or fowl. Back in the day, the first three were more likely to be the surplus roosters, although hens could also be used. Since about half the chicks in each season’s batch were roosters, they held an important place in the food supply chain, unlike today when hatchery roosters are usually killed within a day of hatching. Fowl could be the hens past their laying prime or an older rooster. The classifications take both age and weight into account:
Broilers: 7 to 12 weeks in age and about 1 to 1 ½ pounds in weight; squabs are a sub-classification, traditionally Leghorn cockerels about the same age but ¾ to 1 pound in weight.
Fryers: 14 to 20 weeks of age and 2 ½ to 4 pounds in weight (similar to the typical supermarket chicken in terms of weight, but those chickens are butchered at about 9 weeks of age, well before they’ve developed any flavor). The other way to assess whether this age group should be fried or roasted is to check the tip of the breastbone – if it’s still soft and flexible, the bird can be fried; once it becomes hard, it’s better to roast.
Roasters: 5 to 12 months of age and 4 to 8 pounds. This was the classic, old-fashioned Sunday dinner chicken.
Fowl: any chicken over the age of 12 months. Mature roosters would probably go about 8 ½ to 9 pounds and hens about 6 ½ to 7 pounds.
When cooking heritage breeds, it’s important to recognize that these birds are older when butchered – no way could you butcher a heritage bird at 9 weeks as you can the modern Cornish Cross meat bird. It’s the extra time that promotes real flavor, but it also means the bird has been well-exercised and is more muscular. In similar fashion, a two- or three-year old grass-fed steer has great flavor, but improperly cooked, it can also be tough. In both beef and chickens, proper aging increases the tenderness of the meat. Heritage chicken needs at least 24 hours of aging in the refrigerator and older chickens can/should be aged up to 5 days.
Next is the cooking method. Broilers should be split and grilled or broiled. A little butter basted on them as they cook adds to the flavor. Traditional fried chicken is soaked overnight in buttermilk before frying (and was always fried in lard). Cooking gets little trickier with roasters. Because of the difference in time requirements for breast and leg meat, the best method is an open roasting pan with the breast side up. If you cook this way, you MUST baste about every 15 minutes. Alternatively, cook the chicken in a tightly covered granite ware roaster (that’s what they were originally designed for). This supplies moist heat but also allows the skin to crisp. For roasters over 10 months, add about a cup of water to the pan. Roast at 325 degrees, 30 minutes to the pound. Fowl is simmered at about 180 degrees – do NOT boil it or it will become tough. Allow about 45 minutes to one hour of simmering per pound. I prefer to boil fowl cut up as more calcium leaches from the bones, but it’s not a requirement. Fowl boiled this way will produce excellent broth – add about ¾ to 1 cup per pound of chicken if you’re stewing a hen, and about 1 ½ cups per pound for a rooster, as roosters make stronger broth. You can also steam-bake fowl at 300 to 325 degrees for three hours for a three- to four-pound chicken, with one to two cups of water added to the covered roasting pan.
There you have it – heritage chicken, properly cooked, healthy and absolutely delicious.