Posts Tagged ‘meat chickens’

Chicken Skin Genius


When I learn something new at the stove, I get absurdly excited. And I am especially excited about a good way to crisp chicken skin.  I feed my meat birds very carefully with a lot of greens to produce the highest possible level of caratinoids and omega-3 fatty acids, and many of those nutrients are in the skin.  So of course I want to make the skin as enticing as possible. Besides, it is the best tasting part of the chicken.  A simple tip that I learned in the Genius Recipes section on the wonderful Food 52 website involves seasoning chicken, preferably thighs and legs, and frying the chicken slowly skin side down in nothing more than its own fat or a small amount of olive oil.   I have not tried it with white meat, and wings might be too irregular to cook well this way.  In brief, I season drumsticks and thighs with salt and pepper, refrigerate them overnight, and when ready to cook I heat my cast-iron skillet over medium low heat.  I rub the chicken pieces  lightly with olive oil and put them in the skillet skin side down. Then, I do other things and forget about them.  In 15 or 20 minutes, the skin is done to a beautiful deep crispy crunchy brown.  Work a spatula under each piece taking care to keep the skin intact, flip the chicken and continue cooking skin side up until done through.  Simple as that. The skin is quite glorious in its unabashed simplicity.  You do need to be in the kitchen to turn the heat down if necessary  but for the most part you can concentrate on other things.  Serve any reasonable vegetable on the side.  If you want to deglaze the pan with white wine and chicken broth and boil it down and finish with butter to make a pretty wonderful bit of pan juice, offer the juice on the side or set the chicken in a pool of it. Don’t pour it over the skin or  it will lose its crispness. Sometimes it’s fun to pare a meal down to very simple components. Besides, it makes me wish that chickens were all skin.

Chickens for meat


The picture above is courtesy of the wonderful blog site the Self Sufficient Home Acre, about which I will say more later in this post.
There are a number of reasons to grow and process some meat chickens at home, but one reason stands out for me: the conditions under which commercial broilers are raised and butchered are appalling. My home-grown meat birds are healthy eating because of the way that I feed them, but even if they weren’t, I can provide a better life and a better death than happens on a commercial basis.

The question of what type of chicken to raise is an important one. The chickens that are seen everywhere from chain grocery stores to fancy butcher shops are all Cornish crosses. They are extremely fast growing, being ready for harvest in about eight weeks, and have the extremely broad breast that appeals to American consumers. The meat is soft and doesn’t take much chewing. I don’t like them, personally, because they are so fast-growing that all they do is lie on their heavy breasts and eat. They don’t act like real chickens. Also, the meat doesn’t have time to develop deep flavor, and these birds do very poorly at high altitudes like my home area. On the other hand, the males of most laying breeds make a scrawny-looking eating chicken and they start crowing long before they are big enough to eat, a serious problem in my urban area. My personal preference is for Pioneer hybrids, which are relatively large and fast growing but look and act like real chickens. They are pretty to see, and reach edible size in 3-4 months. I butcher the males as soon as I hear crowing, and let the females grow on a bit. I have kept some for laying hens and they are pretty good layers.

The  picture above illustrates something very important to understand about body morphology.  This particular picture is of commercial versus heritage turkeys, but the chickens are quite similar to this. The rounded bird on the right resembles the Cornish Cross which is used commercially, and the long bodied light-breasted bird on the left resembles the Pioneers and heritage breeds. American consumers are used to looking at a fairly spherical bird, and can find the natural configuration of a chicken startling. Some also find the meat a little tougher. I find it utterly delicious in flavor, the way chicken is supposed to taste, and don’t mind using my teeth a little bit. I often choose moist cooking methods such as braising to increase tenderness, but also grill these birds and am very happy with the results. And I really like it that these chickens can run around, forage, and flap up to the perch in normal fashion.

I came across a self-sufficiency blog that has wonderful material about home meat production, The Self Sufficient Home Acre. The author has a great post about the process of butchering chickens, and another about mindset and preparation for butchering. The photos are graphic, so don’t go there out of casual interest. But if you can imagine that a meat animal could be regarded respectfully and even reverently, then you may want to consider raising some of your own and taking responsibility for how it is treated and harvested, and this blog can help.

I also strongly recommend the book Mini Farming by Brett Markham. He has an excellent discussion of meat chickens and a great set of instructions for butchering. My set-up is based on his. His book is also a wonderful source of information about serious vegetable gardening and home-business laying flocks.

I feed the chicks a starter mix that’s 20% protein until they’re about 10 weeks old. They get grit right from the beginning, and at age three weeks when they have had time to eat some grit, I start giving them greens from the garden finely chopped, starting with small amounts and increasing over time. After the ten-week point I change their ration to the flaxseed-spiked layer pellet that my hens get, continue greens, and add additional protein with goat milk, table scraps, eggs that weren’t used up in a timely way, or whatever is handy. My goal is to produce maximum omega-3s without using too much flaxseed, which can give an off taste.

I have only one more thing to add, and that is that I incorporate every by-product of butchering back into the growth cycle. To me, that is part of taking the animal’s life seriously.  Each year I choose a spot where I want to grow trees or berries later, choosing a fenced-off area that my dogs can’t get to, and dig a series of deep holes in a large circle six feet or more across. After each butchering, the feathers, entrails, etc. are buried and covered with a couple of feet of soil. Then I set a straw bale or something similar on top to keep the fence-leaping coyotes out. Early the following spring I plant my chosen fruit tree or berry bush in the middle of the circle. They thrive. Five years after growing my first batch of meat chickens, the plum tree planted in that circle yields bushels of plums.

Ultimately, the proof is in the eating:

The Meaty Issue

This year I decided to raise some meat chickens. I had several reasons for doing so, including that I had some ideas for how to feed chickens to maximize their omega-3 content and how to fit them into a very small operation. But the real and primary reason is that I felt that, if I planned to continue eating meat (and I do,) it was time to take direct responsibility for where meat comes from. In short, and not to put too fine a point on it, I needed to kill some of my meat myself to continue eating it with a clear conscience.
I was already aware that this decision would get a lot of negative reactions. Back 25 years ago when I had a sheep farm, I had plenty of opportunity to observe peoples’ discomfort with where their food comes from. Visitors would ask me in righteous horror “how I could bear to eat them” and would assure me that they themselves were “far too sensitive” to do such a thing. I should add that they were not, for the most part, vegetarians. These were people who ate meat, often on a daily basis, but never associated the elegant and expensive legs of lamb they got at Manhattan’s premium butchers with the animals cavorting around my barnyard. I developed the habit of shrugging and saying “The meat that you eat doesn’t come from volunteers.” It made no impression whatsoever.
I’ve had a chance to see this again with my meat chickens. I know now that there isn’t much point in talking to visitors about where the meat in all grocery stores, even the best, comes from. My only wish is that I could lead each of these people by the hand into a commercial broiler raising operation, and into the “processing plant” where such chickens are turned into neatly wrapped packages. I visited an operation like that once, and to this day I still won’t eat commercial chicken if I have any choice about it.
If I could be granted one wish with regard to the national diet and character, it would be that every single person who eats meat from the standard confined animal feeding operations comes to understand clearly what that means, and the appalling costs to the animals, the environment, and our own ability to comprehend clearly where our food comes from. The late Carla Emory quoted her then-husband as saying “If more people butchered their own meat, there would be a lot less war, because more citizens would understand what killing really means.” Amen to that. Pretending that it doesn’t happen because it happens somewhere else simply won’t work forever, with food or war or anything else. And that’s why it was so important to me to participate in every aspect of putting meat on our table. And when I did? Well, I was filled with gratitude for the roles that animals play in our lives, and for the opportunity to understand clearly where the meat on my table comes from. There’s nothing special about my circumstances; anyone with a little bit of yard can have the same experience. If you’re willing to leave a comment with your own thoughts and/or experiences with producing meat, I’d love to hear about it.
P.S. It was delicious, and every bit will be used. It’s too precious to waste.