Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Cooking heritage chickens

Steve Pope is a chef who specializes in cooking heritage poultry. He cooked lunch for the Sustainable Poultry Network clinic in San Luis Obispo last week. Heritage chickens are older than industrial chickens, 16 weeks or more compared to six or seven weeks. They develop more flavor, but the meat also looks different and is tougher, unless it is cooked properly. In this picture, he fixes Chicken Vesuvio, a chicken and vegetables dish, adding mushrooms for the final stage.

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. Here, Mr. Pope demonstrates how to arrange the carcass so that it looks more like a supermarket chicken. Presentation is important to catching the customer's eye and making sales.

He then ties the legs and tail together with a figure eight loop to hold the legs in place.

“When you have a healthy, strong, able bodied bird, its muscles are strong, dark and well lubricated,” Mr. Pope 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.

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.

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 web site,, and welcomes additional recipes sent to him at

No comments: