Cooking Heritage Poultry
Cooking heritage poultry requires a different approach than chicken from the grocery store. Heritage birds are often older than Cornish crosses (grocery store chicken) when they are processed because it takes them longer to reach the size that a Cornish cross reaches in 6 to 8 weeks.
I’m new to this too – but I have lots of chickens in the freezer to experiment with, so I will update this page when I try a new technique or find a new resource. I also hope that you can help verify if these methods work or not. If you try one of these cooking methods and it doesn’t work, or does work, let me know! Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your experience. I’ll label each technique with whether it has been verified as successful or not. If you have a method that you use and would like to share, I would love to add it to the list.
Thanks for you help in bringing back this sustainable way to raise your own food to cook and eat!
Heritage Poultry Cooking Techniques
Mary Lou Shaw raises Dorkings here in Ohio (just like us!) so I’m excited to try these out:
Broilers: Sources differ for the exact age and weights, but that’s probably because heritage breeds vary in size. In general, a broiler is less than two-and-a-half pounds and up to 13 weeks of age. Their meat can be cooked other ways, but because it can be cooked hot and fast and still be tender, they’ve earned the name “broiler.”
A friend of mine cooked one of our birds spatchcocked (split in half down the back and laid flat to cook) hot and fast – didn’t work! Ours are bigger and older than described above.
Fryers: These birds are about 13 to 20 weeks of age and weigh about 2½ pounds. The meat is still tender and is beginning to get some fat, but using high heat and fat for cooking is best. Voila—fried chicken! Take care that you choose the right cooking oil for high heats. Refined safflower, sesame or sunflower oils are best.
Roasters: This should be my specialty, but there are many options for how to successfully roast a bird. These birds are about three-and-a-half pounds and are five to 10 months old. At this age, the meat has developed wonderful flavor, but has lost tenderness because the muscles are developed and firm. Rather than brining the meat, it can be cooked in moist heat at 325 degrees for 25 minutes per pound. If roasted dry, they need basting. I can confirm that cooking them breast-side-down works well. A clay cooker or crock pot also does a good job, and rubbing oil all over the bird before cooking helps.
I have been roasting our birds low and slow as described above, and this method works for me and our birds. A little different every time – next I’m going to try to spatchcock the bird before roasting to see if I can get everything (read: breast and legs) done at the same time.
Stewers: “Stewers” may not be a word, but there’s a category for the older-than-roasters that require stewing. These may be the hens that are too old for egg-laying that we don’t want to feed all winter. It also includes the cockerels that weren’t yet culled. What these older birds require is an even-longer cooking time, and “coq au vin” recipes abound for this category. In the winter, these birds can be found in our well-seasoned cast-iron pot on the wood burner, making the house smell like there’s a real cook present, and promising us a wonderful meal of tender chicken with vegetables from the root cellar.
I stewed a bird to make chicken soup with – took the meat off the bones and made the stock too!
In The Kitchen
When you get a heritage-breed chicken home, don’t cook it like it’s any ol’ bird. Here are five cooking tips:
1. Make sure you’ve selected a bird of the proper age for your desired dish. Get a younger bird, which will have more tender meat, as a fryer; an older bird as a roasting or stewing chicken.
For example, the French dish coq au vin literally translates to cock (rooster) with wine. It’s considered a peasant’s dish, because this method of cooking is designed to break down tougher – and therefore less desirable – meat. An older bird can be marinated and cooked slowly with moisture to produce tender results.
2. A Dutch oven is an excellent tool for roasting a heritage-breed chicken. The large, heavy, lidded pot is designed to retain moisture over long periods of oven cooking. Place the chicken, breast-side down to keep it moist, in the Dutch oven with quartered onions, garlic cloves, a cup of water and some butter. Roast it for 30 minutes per pound at 325 degrees F.
3. Use fat. Coat your chicken in oil or butter — try coconut ghee — to create a crisp skin, and cook it in a rotisserie oven with water in the bottom pan to produce steam to keep the meat moist. Leave it on the rotisserie at a medium to low temperature for 20 to 30 minutes per pound.
4. Stew on it. Heritage birds, particularly older birds, make excellent stewing chickens. Put a whole or cut-up chicken in a pot, add enough water to cover, and simmer on low heat for about one hour per pound. Try this in a slow cooker, too, on low. Do not allow the water to boil. As it cooks, the meat will fall off the bone, ready to be used in soups, casseroles and other recipes. Strain the resulting stock for all manner of use, as well.
5. Low and slow wins the day. Experiment using heritage-breed chicken in your own recipes, but always cook it slowly, at a low temperature, with plenty of moisture. Like you should all meats, don’t cut into it right away; let the heritage chicken rest for 10 or so minutes after cooking so the juiciness is sealed into the tender meat.