Chickens are one of those things that, from a farming perspective, you either hate or you barely tolerate to the best of your ability. Sure, on their best day they can be fun to have around – chickens pecking around the farmyard is about as close to the pastoral ideal as you can get. But on the day-to-day chickens that are allowed to be outside and walking around are a nuisance. They NEVER stay where they’re supposed to be, and they constantly find new and horrible ways to kill themselves. But despite the hassle of raising them free range there is still considerable demand for their meat and eggs, and raising chickens outside – the way they were meant to live – is an important part of agriculture in America.
One of the things that people don’t always realize is that there are in reality two distinct types of chickens in a multi-animal farm. One type, the meat birds, are usually raised on pasture in chicken tractors (made famous by Joel Salatin) that allow the birds to be moved to fresh grass every day where they can peck around and gain muscle relatively quickly and in decently large numbers. The other type are the layers, pampered hens usually raised either in movable coops or right in the farmyard itself. These birds are looked after constantly, with their every need seen to. The reason is simple, eggs from free-range organically fed chickens are big money. I used to sell pastured chicken eggs at a farmer’s market for $8/dozen and they would be the first thing we’d sell out of. I’ve seen well-dressed Manhattanites fight over the last carton of eggs.
So what’s the point here? After all, this isn’t TheEggCase.com (although could you imagine?). Well the thing about laying hens is that they tend to live much longer lives than their meat-bird brethren. A chicken raised for meat, even a slow-growing heritage breed will be ready to “finish” around 10-14 weeks. A laying hen doesn’t even begin to lay in earnest until she’s 30 weeks old, and once she reaches that point she’ll remain constantly productive for 2, in some cases even 3 years. It’s the end of this productive cycle that is of interest here.
Once you’ve gotten all of the delicious eggs you can out of a free-range laying hen (and they are delicious trust me on that) what exactly do you do with it? What many farmers do is take a batch of them to the slaughterhouse and sell them off for pennies to be made into dog food. That seems like an awful waste of a good, well cared for animal to me, and something that isn’t really in keeping with good sustainability practices. That’s why whenever I get the chance I jump at the opportunity to get these birds into our shop so I can pass them along to customers who can make all sorts of delectable dishes out them – ensuring that the farmer’s hard work, and the chickens good life, don’t go to waste.
As you can see from these pictures, a laying hen isn’t the plump, chesty piece of poultry that springs to mind when one thinks of a chicken. Their breasts are much smaller, and their legs are much tougher and muscle-y. They typically won’t be as fatty as a younger bird as they’ve spent most of their life running around and converting worms, grubs, and corn into delicious omelet ingredients. But just because they look anorexic doesn’t mean they aren’t good eating, and it’s certainly not enough reason to consign them to pet food just because they don’t look quite as tasty as meat birds!
The trick with an older chicken as with any older animal is that through heavy use (i.e. running around and being a chicken, not something that happens in a commercial scenario) their muscles become tougher and full of collagen. As we all know, collagen needs to be hydrolyzed to convert the protein into lip-smacking gelatin. This process is best accomplished with the help of our friend low, moist heat. You can’t cook a laying hen like a meat bird – no grilling or pan frying here – but in a smoker or in a simple braise you’ll end up with something with just as much flavor and just as juicy and tender.
So moral of the story here is: Laying hens and older chickens are just as delicious as their younger cousins if you cook them right. Not to mention eating them is a great way to contribute to the sustainability of the farm that raised them.