We’ve all heard the phrase “tough old bird” – one of the plentiful sayings passed down from our agrarian ancestors. Like most of those sayings, this one is deeply rooted in truth. Any bird older than three or four months is guaranteed to be a jaw and teeth tester unless its subjected to a seriously long roasting time (as in six to twelve hours). The flesh of these birds is hard and rubbery, and attempting to eat one isn’t a culinary experience I’d recommend to anybody.
All of this strife can be avoided with a short aging period. A practice exists of hanging birds for several days with guts in and feathers on, but I’ve never attempted this; seems it’s mostly reserved for wild birds. I find that a plucked and properly cleaned carcass belonging to a healthy chicken has no danger of rotting from a 24-48 hour holding period before roasting. The aging environment must be dry, cool, and free from the destructive buzzing of insects.
Recently we thinned our laying flock for the final time before deep winter. Older birds lay fewer eggs, and the most economical place for them is in our bellies. We caught five in a large dog box and withheld food for 24 hours. Then we proceeded with our home butchering process, which I won’t detail. For a really lovely example of respectful chicken harvest, I recommend this video. Youtube is a great resource for learning how to properly kill and clean a bird, I especially recommend almost anything Joel Salatin has made on the subject.
I lined two trays with empty chicken feed sacks and arranged the birds on these. When preparing only one chicken, I tie a cord to the attached feet and hang it upside down in our cellar, loosely shrouded in a pillow case. I always make sure that the skin of the chicken has dried thoroughly before taking it to the cool atmosphere of the cellar. I dried one side in the sun, then flipped them over to dry the other side. Moisture is the main thing that attracts unsavory microbes to a carcass.
The point of this process is to give the enzymes naturally present in the meat a chance to “digest” the proteins. During these 24 hours, tough muscle fibers are softened by proteases (another one of those magical things I don’t fully understand, but I know they’re effective – I can taste it!). There are similar enzymes in some plants too, pineapple being the most famous. In my opinion, the enzymes that are contained in meat are the ones best suited for the task of tenderizing. I mean, they’re already there! Our aging happens at fairly warm temperatures – from the 50s to the 40s – at lower temperatures (like in a normal refrigerator) it might take longer to get the same tenderizing effect. We don’t have a fridge, so I wouldn’t know.
After the 24 hour aging period (if a rooster is more than a year old, lengthen aging time to more like 36 or even 48 hours) I submerge the chickens in a crock filled with not too terribly salty water and a pint of kraut juice from my live fermented sauerkraut. This inoculates the brining water with friendly microbes and acids, and adds some flavor. A plate keeps them all the way below the brine, and then I place a large tile on top of the crock to keep out insects (a towel would work also). The birds can be held in this solution in a cool/cold place for up to a few weeks, though none of our birds have ever stayed in there that long. Rinse well in fresh water before cooking. If the brine is very strong you’ll probably need to soak the meat in several changes of fresh water or it might be too salty to eat.
I recommend investing in a pot with a lid for roasting chickens (cast iron is fine, a clay pot is better). Surround the bird with apples, parsnips, potatoes, carrots, and/or greens, sprinkle with salt and spices, dot with butter, cover with the lid, and subject the lot to a slow roast for about four hours. You’ll never taste a finer piece of poultry.
Heads, feet, and left over bones all go into a large stainless stock pot which is kept simmering on the corner of my wood cookstove at all times. As I need stock I remove liquid; as the water boils off I refill. Our current pot is something of a fermentation project in itself, it’s been slowly filling with chicken parts for about a month now. This broth is incredibly satisfying, and I consider it to be the best thing we can drink for joint health. It’s important to me to eat the whole animal. Bone stock is a tasty and versatile way to accomplish this.
Chicken feet, kept raw, also make great dog treats. We eat the liver, heart, testes, and a little round red thing I think (?) is the spleen. The best way (for offal lovers such as myself) to eat them is to sautee in chicken fat over extremely high heat for only a few minutes, sprinkle with salt and fresh herbs, and down the hatch they go! If there are members of your household who turn up their nose at innards, chop them into pieces and conceal them in a gravy or a soup. The rest of the guts we feed to our pigs, and they gobble it all down with glee. It’s totally possible to compost these parts of a chicken, just be sure to bury them in a lot of carbon and make sure a dog or varmit can’t access the pile for a few weeks. We keep our compost piles in wire cages to deter curious animals. If it gets smelly, add more carbon (brown, dry stuff).
We’ve decided to start off the new year with something of a cleanse, which can be tricky to pull off in the colder months. Our amazing chicken stock is the basis of the diet, and we plop in a few dallops of cream and a glob of curried kraut for flavor and fiber. It’s all of our super foods in one bowl! (To prove people other than I happily drink chicken foot juice, I give you this). We plan on about five to seven days exclusively consuming this dish.