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Raising Heritage Breed Chickens for Meat

Rachel FalcoRaising heritage breed chickens for meat is difficult for a farmer to gauge timing of harvest. Currently the industry harvests birds at about 6 through 8 weeks of age. These super-sized industrial breeds grow very, very, very quickly. The industrial breeds such as the Cornish Cross are a hybrid that has been bred to build lots of muscle structure, super fast. These birds are big. These birds are flavorless. And I do mean flavorless.

Once you have tried a heritage breed chicken you will never go back to the Cornish Cross. There is a significant difference between the two options. Which would you choose; flavorful, rich, unctuous chicken meat or big-breasted, marshmallow-y, spongy chicken meat? Hardly a choice … Oh, glorious true chicken flavor! You will find yourself snitching the chicken skin and discussing how to render chicken fat into a perfect schmaltz (clarified chicken fat) with friends.

Heritage Breed Chickens
Australorps, Brahmas and Wyandottes, oh, my!

Unless you have had a heritage breed chicken, you have yet to taste real chicken. Flavor takes time. This, at first, seems to be a disadvantage. It is not. You will know what I mean when you taste it. Heritage breed chickens are leaner than their industrial counterpart.

In order to fully extract every ounce of flavor from your heritage breed meat bird, we have to go back in time when we had traditional country skills. There were four classes of chickens: broiler, fryer, roaster and stewing chicken. These classes spoke to how the woman of the house would cook and prepare the bird. If you decided to fry a stewing hen, it would be as tough as rubber. If you opted for using a broiler for a soup, well, where’s the flavor?

A broiler is for, well, broiling. This cooking process is a fast and hot heat; therefore the chicken should be young and tender. If you want to broil (or grilling for that matter) than you should harvest your heritage breed birds when they are 12 weeks old and will have a live weight of about 4 pounds and a dressed weight of 2 through 2 1/2 pounds. They will have much more flavor than their grocery store counterparts and, if you free range your chicken (as was the tradition), they will have had plenty of exercise and a diverse diet. This yields a healthier, more nutritious, flavorful bird.

A fryer is for frying. This will be the fate for the majority of your cockerels (young males). You may harvest your heritage breed birds when they are 20 weeks old (just before sexual maturity) and they will have a live weight of 7 to 8 pounds and a dressed weight of 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 pounds. Of course, you do not need to fry every fryer. Fryers can take heat up to 325 degrees Fahrenheit and therefore can be roasted. It is best to not keep a fryer whole. I would suggest cutting up a fryer into its various pieces and roasting in liquid.

A roaster is for roasting. You may harvest your heritage breed birds when they are 6 months through 9 months old, and they will have a live weight of 9 to 10 pounds and a dressed weight of 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 pounds. Your roaster at this age will have incredible flavor. Roast your bird at 325 F for 30 minutes per pound. I would recommend basting throughout the cooking period to ensure a moist bird and cover the breast half way through the cooking process. Just like roasting your turkey at Thanksgiving, the light breast meat cooks faster than the dark thigh meat.

The last, but certainly not least, is the stewing chicken. Coq au Vin … That is all I have to say about that ... OK, I will add to that thought. A stewing chicken is any chicken over the age of 9 months and has a live weight of 8 pounds through 18 pounds and a dressed weight of 6 1/2 pounds to 12 pounds. A stewing chicken should be cooked slowly and submerged in liquid. A heritage breed stewing chicken makes the most incredible chicken and dumplings you have ever tasted. You may also shred the meat for chicken enchiladas or tacos or chicken salad sandwich.

Try a heritage breed chicken for meat today. You will not regret it!