Don’t Be Chicken!
If you have been a Meathead for more than a few months, you know that our chicken has a special place in my heart. It was the first animal we raised and harvested as a business. When we first started out, we harvested them right here on the farm. I believe it is the biggest difference between what we do at Victorian Farmstead and the best you can find at your grocery store of choice. So I thought I would spend some time noodling on what makes it different and how to prepare it.
First off, like everything we do, Mother Nature does a lot of the work for us. Our birds get their incredible flavor and texture from being outside in the fresh air and sunshine of Sonoma County. The amount of time they spend outside on pasture depends on the time of year. We raise Cornish Cross chickens, same breed as the corporate farms. We just raise ‘em better!
One thing most folks notice about our birds is the texture. We get a lot of new customers that say they love the flavor (‘cause they actually have flavor!) but find them a bit tough. I contend, in the nicest way possible, that they have the texture chicken is supposed to have. The problem is that factory farmed chicken is so soft, almost mushy, that when you compare it to a well-raised, pastured bird, our birds may seem tougher than you are used to. The other reason can be how they are cooked, and we will get to that in a bit.
Another difference is the size of our birds. This is actually a two part topic; overall size and meat-to-bone ratio. First, let’s talk about the overall size of our birds. Commercially, chicken is broken into categories by size. The problem is there doesn’t seem to be any consistency in the categories. So for our purposes, we are going with my definitions: Game Hens are .75-1.25lbs, Poussin are 1.25 to 2.5lb, Broilers/Fryers are 2.5-5lbs and Roasters are small turkeys. Total sidebar, but it wasn’t until we started this business that I realized that Game Hens are not some fancy game bird. They are just smaller, younger Cornish-Cross chickens. Almost all of our birds are broiler/fryers and they lean towards the heavy end. This is by design, as you get way more value out of a bigger bird that is RAISED PROPERLLY!
Did you know that commercially raised chickens are harvested by how old they are, not by when the individual bird is ready to be harvested? The factory farms like to get their birds off the feed and into the fridge at 35-42 days old. That’s right…5-6 weeks old. Now don’t get too riled up, this cross-breed of chicken is meant to grow quickly. But what we have found is that by growing them slower and harvesting at 7-8 weeks, we get a perfect 3.5-4.5lb chicken. And because they are much more active than their factory farmed counterparts, the meat-to-bone ration you get from our birds is much higher. That, boys and girls, translates to real, tangible VALUE!
Ok, let’s get into cooking techniques. I have always contended that it is almost impossible to dry out our chicken. Ok, Ok…put it in the oven at 500 for a couple hours and you will get chicken jerky. What I mean is that overcooking our birds in the normal sense may make them tougher, but they will still be moist. I’m not a food scientist but I think it goes back to that large meat to bone ratio.
I always encourage customers to start with a whole chicken. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, it is the best value we offer. Many of you will remember Jayne, she used to do farmers markets for us and contributed some great articles to our serving suggestions page. She wrote a great piece a while back for one of our newsletters about how she takes two of our large birds and gets four meals out of it for a family of four. I will put it in the Serving Suggestions page once I find it. The other great thing about cooking a whole chicken is the flavor is noticeably better. When you cook anything on the bone, you get a more even cook and better flavor. The beauty of a whole chicken is that all that meat and bone and fat is cleverly encased in a perfect, moisture-saving cooking vessel….the skin. And what’s better than crispy skin???
Ok let’s talk about the elephant in the room. I don’t want to insult anyone, but for the love of Pete I will never understand boneless skinless chicken breasts. Oh, don’t get me wrong, we use them from time to time because they are so dang convenient. But there is an inherent problem with this cut of chicken. You are basically taking away all the benefits I outlined above. I know convenience is one reason they are so popular, but I also think it can be a fear of breaking down a chicken effectively. Well, I’m here to put those fears to rest.
First of all, there are very few parts to a chicken. Basically, you have 2 wings, one breast typically split into two halves (be honest, you thought chickens had two breasts, didn’t you?), and two legs that can be split into drumsticks and thighs. I did a video just before Thanksgiving called Turkey Breakdown that demonstrated how to properly part a turkey. It obviously works the same way for a chicken. But too prove how easy it is I am going to describe it here….you really don’t need a video. Get a sharp paring knife and let’s get to work. Yes, all you need is a sharp paring knife!
OK, grab a wing and lift. Let the weight of the bird pull against the wing. Take your knife and cut through the joint between the wing and the body. Err towards the back side, that way when your digging around the first time you can shred the lesser desired back meat and not the coveted breast meat. Repeat on the other side and move on.
Now, breast side up, cut the skin between the thighs and body. Here is gets a bit mid-evil for some of you…grab thigh in each hand and bend backwards until the legs pop out of the joint. Now just take your knife and run it right along the backbone, through the just separated joint until the leg is separated. Repeat on the other side.
Ok, if you look at the broadside of the bird you will see a white line that kinda defines the breast. Your sharp knife will cut right through those fine rib bones right down to the joints where the legs used to be. Grab the back in one hand and the breast in the other and do the same thing you did with the legs. Bend it until it pops and finish the separating with your knife if necessary.
You now have a whole bone-in breast. If you lay it on your cutting board skin side down, you will see the keel bone (purplish, shaped like a rounded T). Take you knife and make a slit from the neck area down until you hit the keel bone. Now, with your thumbs on either side of the keel bone and fingers underneath, again bend until the ribs separate from the keel bone. You can lide your thumbs down as you go to help. Grab the keel bone and pop it out, and now you can easily separate the breast into two halves. You have now six-parted your bird, Congrats!
Next week will dedicate ourselves to cooking. For today I leave you with this… If you are one of those that has always been afraid of the whole chicken, take a leap and try it out. You will find that it really is as easy as I described above. For those of you that know the joy of using the whole bird, Share, Share, Share! The more knowledge we share the happier we will all be. See you next week!