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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Cooking with Heritage Breed Chickens

I have mentioned before our experiment with heritage breed chickens this year.  For the previous 2 years we raised Cornish Cross, the meat was good, well basically it tasted like the meat at the grocery store we were used to growing, and they were large and ranged in size from 4-6 pounds by 8 weeks.  The problem for me is they just don’t act like real chickens.  They won’t forage, or eat scraps, they don’t scratch around, the pick at each other, they kept dying off for no reason, (we started with 50 and ended with 35), they have a hard time walking around with their bulk, and just don’t look or act like real chickens.  

Well that is a long story of why we decided that we weren’t going to do the crosses again.  After research we decided to go with heritage breed chickens.  The argument against is that they grow too slowly, they aren’t very big, and the cost of growing them is higher than the quickly growing Frankenchicken chickens. The argument for is that they act like REAL chickens, and have wonderful rich flavor.  My goal is to get back to how we used to eat, and if American farm families used eat these smaller heritage breed chickens, well certainly we can too.  This is an experiment, we haven’t tried this before, nor do we know anyone else who has either.  Our first hatching is 11 weeks old and our second hatching is 8 weeks old.  We have Barred Rock, Australorp, buff orphington, Amerucana (not heritage), our rooster, Chuck, is Barred Rock, all of the chicks look just like him, so we can’t really tell which mama they had now.  

Now that they are getting older, I started doing some research on when we should butcher them.  What part of the problem, I discovered is that we’ve lost our knowledge of how to cook the heritage breed chickens.  In an article from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, it talks about the 4 traditional meat classes of chicken.  A broiler is butchered at 7-12 weeks and is 1-2.5#, it’s small, tender carcass can be cooked whole or split and cooked by dry heat methods such as broiling or grilling.  The fryer is butchered at 14-20 weeks and is 2.5-4#, at this age it should still be tender enough to grill but will need to be jointed, and of course fried.  The Roaster is butchered at 5-12 months (most butchered between 6-9 months) and is 4-8#, best roasted with a cover to retain moisture.  Over 12 months is a stewing chicken, cooked best with slow moist methods, at a low temperature, below 180 degrees or the protein fibers will toughen.  This meat can be used for anything that uses chicken meat, sandwiches, casseroles, chicken salad.  I cannot cover all of the information in the article, but I have included the link below and I highly recommend it if you are interested in raising heritage breeds for meat.  The article briefly discussed aging the meat for 24 hours to 3 days in the fridge before freezing to improve the texture.  It also talks about cooking time differences.  The modern bird being a large amount of white meat compared to dark, cooks pretty equally.  The Heritage bird that has more dark meat and has had more exercise and time to grow does not cook evenly, the dark meat taking longer which the article says starts in the fryer age.  

Cookbooks used to have recipes that specified which class of chicken needed for the recipe.  We used to know how to cook with these chickens.  The frankenchicken is butchered at too young of an age to even fit into this classification, it is you and tender even with it’s very large size, so now we just use the one type of chicken for all of our cooking.  I’m told that the meat is much richer and tastier than the modern commercial chicken that is butchered too young for the flavor to really develop.  The article also lists a few older cookbooks that may provide some recipes, and information on cooking heritage breeds.  

I’m still not sure how this experiment will turn out, I did learn that I cannot just raise heritage chickens and then just treat them like the chickens I’ve been cooking my whole life.  If I do that, the experiment will be sure to fail.  Based on my current use, I think the 14-20 week range will be best, but I’ll be limited by winter coming, by late September/ early October they will need indoor shelter we can’t provide, and some of the males are starting to fight,  so they may become broilers instead.  We will be replacing some older layers, so I will surely have some stewers about 15 months old. I’ll keep you posted on how this all turns out!

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  1. Love, Love, Love this post! I raised heritage breeds last year and yes, and we butchered between 14-16 weeks. They were about 4lb birds some a bit smaller, but my goodness.. the flavor in those birds have been AMAZING! Their fat so deep and yellow... beautiful!

  2. We were doing heritage chickens for meat but it got to be too expensive. This last batch cost us over $9/lb. We just can't sustain that. I used to think very poorly of the Cornish X but I know a couple that raised some that seemed rather normal. They foraged some and for the most part were OK. They seemed happy even if they didn't act 100% like chickens. So we're going to give them a try.

    If we decided to go back to heritage breeds we'll probably go with White Rocks. Of the breeds we've raised, they grew the fastest.

  3. I bought heritage chickens for the first time this past spring. They were VERY flavorful.

    I roasted the first one. There wasn't much white breast meat, and the legs in particular were tough and stringy, on veeeery long bones. It was tasty, but my picky eater son didn't like any of the dark meat. He did eat leftovers presented as Mexican food, but not without complaining.

    The second one I stewed all day in the crockpot (I really need a bigger crockpot for these birds!) and all of the meat came out tender.

    On both, even the one that was stewed, when I had taken off all the meat and stored the extra for future meals, I put the bones in the crockpot for a full 24 hours for a really wonderful broth.

  4. We butchered 15 Welsummer roosters on 1/1/11. They were at the "harvest" age of 22 weeks. They averaged 2lbs each. What a waste (imo). I have only been able to use the meat for soups or chicken salad. I would have had to eat them all up at once to have one fried chicken dinner! LOL

  5. Diana, I'm excited to hear from someone who thought it was a positive experience. What breed did you grow? Do you have an idea of the cost per pound to raise them?

    Rachel, thanks for sharing your experience, wow hope it doesn't cost us that much! What breed did you start with?

    Elizabeth, we've had similar experiences with our kids and the meats. My daughter has become vegetarian, my son will pick at it at times. It's hard to change our tastes, I think they will struggle with it the most.

    Paula, Welsummer are slow growers, the Barred Rock is fast, and the rest of ours are medium growth, hopefully this will make a difference, making it worth while. I've heard that if roosters grow past a certain age, they will be tough. I'd like to grow mine larger, but I'm afraid to wait too long. Thanks for sharing your experience, we'll have to see if it is worth it for us.

  6. Very informative post! And you are so right about the hybrids. One thing that I have found is not to put the birds in the freezer right after processing. If you refrigerate for a day before freezing, they are much more tender and tastier.

  7. I have been working with barred rocks for 6 years now. I love them. I like the hens ablity to lay year round and the roosters are normally nice. My kids always eat the meat they aways ask if it is our chicken. they even help witht the butchering now. I love the flavor. I usualy get them in the being of June and butcher in October. I brine the meat over night and then freeze. also I have free range chickens so the only food they get is droppings from feed time for my other animals. and I sprinkle out some grain so they don't help me in the grain bins.

  8. Michaele, that has come up several times as being very important, I'll definitely do that this year.

    Marnita, thanks for sharing, great info on the brine, do you have a certain recipe you use? I'd love to free range my chickens, that is awesome. We finally went to confinement because of foxes, someday maybe I'll be able to do the same. How healthy your meat must be!

  9. fantastic post! I would love to raise heritage birds, but that is a bit of a challenge here. But I can keep trying! Anyway, thanks for sharing and linking up at Simple Lives Thursday!

  10. Great post! We have had 3 years of experience with this very thing!h For the last 2 years, we raised "Freedom Ranger" heritage chickens. The first year, we raised them on lush pasture and just fed them wheat, whey, and scraps. They had lots of bugs from the irrigation ditch, and tons of grass. At 15 weeks, they dressed out 2-3 lbs and were skinny and mostly bone. Disappointing, but flavor was really good.

    Year #2, we raised them on a grower ration (corn and soy based), about 60% of their diet, and the rest whole wheat, scraps, whey, etc. At 15 weeks, they dressed out at 3-4 lbs, an improvement. However, the grower ration is so expensive here (.30/ lb) and we had to feed them for so long, that we, like Rachel, ended up with very expensive meat.

    This year, we raised CornishX. They dressed out at an average of 5 lbs at 7 weeks. They ate a steady diet of grower and nothing else, but because of their short life span and high feed-to-meat conversion, they ended up being much less expensive...that is, until you figured our death loss.

    We started with 100 and butchered 60. They just kicked off, one after another. I think we could mitigate that with better management and cleanliness. They are just fragile, and you cannot manage them the way you do your heritage birds (like letting them drink water from the pond!)

    And, I hated raising them. Everytime I looked a them it was just gross and depressing.

    I think our must successful chicken-raising experience has been, ironically, butchering our spent layers for stewing hens. After 2 years of supplying us with lots of eggs, eating a totally natural diet, and ranging on grass, our stewers are probably the most healthful and sustainable meat we raise. The meat is firm, but not rubber. They are covered with deep yellow fat that makes wonderful "lard" for dumplings, etc., and the flavor, when slow cooked, is unmatched.

    We mostly use chicken for tacos, enchiladas, salads, pizzas, fried rice etc. Occasionally we will stuff and slow-roast a hen (all day @ 220 degrees, after letting it rest in the fridge for 48 hours) I'm over the boneless/skinless thing. Now, I slow cook my stewers, pick all the meat off the bone (my kids call it "chicken picken) and then pressure can the meat. Fabulous, and so convenient. I also pressure can the bone broth and it is out of this world.

    Sorry for the novel. Just wanting to share the experience because as you say, there is not a lot of info out there on the subject.

    Shawna Barr
    Northern CA

  11. Shawna, thanks for sharing your experience, I'm always glad to hear more. I'm looking forward to my stewers, I tried it before, and it was awful and stringy, but now I realized I must have cooked it way to hot. We had the same experience with the die off of the Cornish, right up until we butchered which made it much more expensive. We may focus more on rabbit than chicken, it seems cheaper, but we'll have to figure out the actual cost.