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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