There are 3 kinds of barnyard fowl in the world…
- the kind you buy at the store
- the kind you get from your local chicken farmer/chicken-raising friend/neighbor up the road
- and the kind you raise yourself
Chicken From The Store
This first kind of chicken did not lead a natural, happy life before she arrived to your grocer's cooler, wrapped in plastic and injected with water (or worse!).
We won't talk about just how sad the lives of these poor hens are. But after watching the documentary Food, Inc., I refuse to support big agri-businesses that raise their chickens in such unhealthy conditions.
(I don't buy my chicken from the company sponsoring this funny video, but it's a good one to watch if you're unfamiliar with what's in your chicken.)
These unhappy hens led miserable lives, but are generally pretty easy to cook. Thanks to their diet, living conditions, and all that injected saltwater, they yield a moist, flavorful end result. It doesn't matter whether they're baked, stewed, roasted, grilled, or smoked.
Pastured Chickens, Bought Locally Or Raised Yourself
Today let's talk about how to cook those latter 2 kinds of chicken — either from your friendly local chicken farmer/neighbor/friend, or from your own backyard.
These pastured hens and roosters lead full, happy lives. They roam free through open spaces, eat their fill of worms and bugs, pick at wild grasses and weeds. In essence, they cluck and cocka-doodle-doo their days away…
Until they are respectfully laid to rest — on the dining room table. 🙂
And yet, since you and your neighbor don't “engineer” your chickens to be plump and juicy, you may notice tough or dry meat after cooking. Older birds (especially roosters) are less meaty and fatty, so they dry out easily when baked in the oven or on the grill. And heritage birds weigh less and have smaller breasts, so the white meat may dry out when roasting.
No one wants to eat dry chicken, especially if it took years to raise, or lots of money to buy!
So, what's the best way to cook pastured chicken so it's tender and juicy?
Tenderizing Pastured Chicken
Before cooking, take the time to tenderize your chicken. Once cleaned and plucked, place the bird in a tray or dish to catch any liquids that may leak.
Cover it loosely with plastic wrap. Let it sit in your refrigerator for 2 to 5 days. The muscles will relax so the meat becomes tender after butchering.
If thawing a frozen pastured chicken, give it at least 2 to 3 days in the fridge to thaw before cooking.
How To Cook Pastured Chicken
There are 2 overall methods for cooking pastured chicken:
Regardless of which method you choose, in the instructions below I assume that you'll be saving both the carcass and feet of the cooked chicken for bone broth. This is hands-down the best way to get your money's worth out of your pastured chicken!
#1 — Stewing & Crock Pot (Wet Heat)
Stewing is your best option for a tough, old bird. Simply immerse bird in a stockpot or crock pot* filled with water. Bring to a boil and skim off any foam that rises to the top. Then lower heat and barely simmer for 3 to 5 hours.
The water ensures a juicy bird, and any herbs or vegetable scraps you add will result in a lovely broth, too.
Basically, this method of cooking pastured chicken won't result in a crown jewel to place on your table for a special dinner. If a beautifully roasted chicken is your goal, don't use skinny, old birds. 😉
*The water probably won't boil if using a crock pot, but that's okay. Just set the temperature to low for 3 to 5 hours.
#2 — Pressure Cooking (Wet Heat)
Do you consistently have dry, tough meat when using other methods? It's time to try the pressure cooker!
In addition to locking in flavor and moisture, pressure cooking also significantly reduces cooking time. As in, instead of 3 to 4 hours, the pressure cooker may take less than an hour to cook your bird!
#3 — Braising (Wet Heat)
Long, low, and slow braising can remedy your dry chicken days. Does it seem daunting? It's really quite simple. 🙂
Sear meat on all sides until golden brown, then remove meat and set aside. Keep drippings in the Dutch oven, and add any herbs, garlic, or vegetables you desire. Think rosemary, thyme, onions, leeks, or celery — yum!
Make sure to scrape all the crisp or burnt pieces off the bottom of the Dutch oven, too, because they add amazing flavor. Then, add broth and simmer.
Add meat back to the pot. Don't let the liquid cover the meat or you'll end up with a watered-down sauce. This is braising, not boiling! 😉
Cover Dutch oven with lid, and place in a preheated 325-degree Fahrenheit oven for 1 to 2 hours.
Once meat is cooked, remove chicken and reduce sauce by simmering on the stove until thickened and reduced by 1/2. Serve chicken with this gravy generously spooned over top. Mmmmmm!
#4 — Roasting (Dry Heat)
I love cooking young, plump, whole birds this way! The skin gets crispy while the meat underneath stays soooo juicy.
What's the secret? Creating a fat barrier between the bird and the heat so the meat doesn't dry out.
This Herb-Roasted Chicken recipe is the perfect roasted chicken — tender, moist meat on the inside, crispy, flavorful skin on the outside!
#5 — Grilling (Dry Heat)
First, cut the chicken up and marinate the meat for 12 to 24 hours to lock in both flavor and moisture. It's very easy to dry out chicken on the grill, so this is important!
Check out these marinade ideas to get you started –> Summer Shish Kabob Marinades.
Grill bone-in cuts first, as these take the longest. Think long and slow instead of hot and fast. Also, avoid constantly flipping the meat. Just leave your grill lid closed and keep an eye on the temperature. You should only have to flip your meat once.
What about “beer can chicken”? This type of chicken is cooked over indirect heat on a grill by placing the bird cavity over a half-full can of beer. The chicken is essentially slowly roasted with the grill lid closed. I have never made this type of chicken, but I have had it at BBQs. While it is tasty, I'm not recommending it here because I don't like the idea of heating an aluminum can inside of my food. It's the same reason why I don't cook with aluminum foil.
What is your experience with cooking pastured or heritage chickens?
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