For many reasons, I have long been interested in raising chickens for meat, but until recently, the only meat (as opposed to egg-laying) breed I knew of was the Cornish Cross. This is the white chicken raised by commercial growers, but I was reluctant to raise them myself as they have many health problems due to their extremely rapid growth. Cornish crosses tend to have weak legs, heart attacks, congestive heart failure. They don't forage well or tolerate heat, because they tend to just sit around the feed trough and won't cross a yard to get water. Not the bird for me to include in my free-ranging backyard flock!
This spring, I learned about the availability of chicks derived from American and European heritage breeds that were developed to meet the standards of the French Label Rouge Free Range program. The "Le Poulet" breed retains the chicken's natural instinct for foraging outdoors and because they are slower growing, do not have the health problems associated with the Cornish Cross. I knew I had found my bird.
So, in late April, we picked up five Le Poulet chicks and three layer chicks and kept them inside under a warming light. A few weeks later, we moved them outside and by the 4th of July, the broilers, now pullets, were nearly the same size as our hens and twice as big as the layer pullets that had hatched the same week. Independence Day morning, Mike, the kids, and I loaded our meat birds into our car and took them to a friends for butchering. Her family had raised 35 of the same chickens and had rented equipment to ease slaughtering and feather removal. Another family, along with a couple other women who were interested in learning about the butchering process, were already working when we arrived.
The gendered division of labor reminded me of when I helped butcher on my uncle's farm as a girl: the men dispatched the animals, while the women took care of most of the remaining details. Honestly, I preferred my jobs to theirs, though I watched Mike put a chicken in the killing cone and slit its throat. If I didn't have him around for such a task, I'm sure I'd find the mettle to do it myself, but I was glad not to.
When I arrived, Tiffany, who has been helping raise and butcher chickens for three years now, showed me how to remove a chicken's oil gland, feet, head, neck, and organs. The work was fascinating and gruesome at the same time. We worked outside, shaded from the hot summer sun by a canopy set up on the deck over an old kitchen counter top. Doing productive work in convivial, supportive company made the morning go by quickly. (I don't have pictures, but Matron of Husbandry, one of my favorite bloggers, has a post about butchering chickens that depicts a process much like the one we used, though we were working on a much smaller scale.)
Our kids wandered in and out of the house, occasionally asking the moms questions about chicken entrails or watching the dads do their work. My kids (3 and 6) had known from when we first got the chicks that some were going to become meat for us, and while both of them had expressed some sadness that morning about butchering them, in the end, they were excited about the opportunity to complete the circle and eat meat from these animals they had helped raise.
A few nights ago, we finally did just that. I love fried chicken in the summer, and especially like cold leftovers, so I thawed the two smallest birds, both just over two pounds (the others had been between 3.8 and 4.0 pounds), and cut them into pieces, which I soaked in buttermilk for 24 hours, dredged in seasoned breadcrumbs, then fried in beef tallow. Frying chicken is messy work--the stovetop was covered with grease afterward--but this was well worth the clean up required. Crisp skin enveloped tender, moist meat. After giving thanks to the chickens whose meat we were about to eat, we enjoyed our first bites in silence puntuated by an occasional, "Mmmm..." That was the best ever. Thanks again, chickens.
Southern Potato Salad with Sunchoke Relish is the perfect accompaniment.
Maryland Fried Chicken (adapted from Alton Brown's Fried Chicken)
Old Bay is a classic spice combination that Marylanders like myself usually associate with eating Chesapeake Bay blue crab in the summer. You can find Old Bay at some retailers or make your own blend. Beef tallow is an excellent frying fat, with its high smoking point and savory flavor, but sunflower seed oil is a good substitute. Maintaining the correct temperature is key when frying. Too high, and the skin will burn before the meat is cooked. Too low, and the chicken will be greasy. If you don't have a thermometer, monitor the chicken closely. You want it to develop a crisp skin quickly, but brown slowly: note that it must cook on each side for 10-12 minutes. With practice, you'll learn what setting on your stove gives you the correct temperature.
2 2-3 pound fryer chickens, cut into eight pieces
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup fine breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning or similar homemade blend
about 1 cup beef tallow or sunflower seed oil
Place chicken pieces in a non-reactive bowl or pan and cover with buttermilk. Cover and refrigerate 12 to 24 hours.
Melt enough beef tallow (over low heat) to come just 1/8-inch up the side of a 12-inch cast iron skillet or heavy fry pan. Once the fat liquefies raise heat to 325 degrees F. Do not allow fat or oil to go over 325 degrees F.
Drain chicken in a colander. Combine bread crumbs, flour, and Old Bay in a shallow bowl. Dredge chicken in the bread crumbs and shake off excess.
Place chicken skin side down into the pan. Put thighs in the center, and breast and legs around the edge of the pan. Cook chicken until golden brown on each side, approximately 10 to 12 minutes per side. The internal temperature should be right around 170 degrees. (Be careful to monitor fat/oil temperature every few minutes.)
Drain chicken on a cooling rack set over a sheet pan, which drains better than paper towels or bags.