Coming Home to Roost: Chicken Aficionados Find That The Old Ways Produce The Best Birds

When I was a kid living on the West Side of Buffalo, NY, there was a poultry shop right next to my elementary school. When Mom picked out a chicken for dinner, it was still cackling. And when Mom cooked that bird, it had a real down home flavor with lots of character. Today, though, most chickens are pretty boring because they are churned out, assembly line fashion—the consumer doesn’t see them until they’ve been cut up (only 10 percent of chicken produced is sold whole) and wrapped in plastic.

In recent years, however, more chickens are being raised the way they used to be. Instead of being crammed into poultry factories, they are allowed to move about. Their feed doesn’t include animal byproducts and is sometimes organic. Antibiotics are verboten. And the cost of these artisanal birds is chicken feed.

“Our old-fashioned chicken is at the opposite end of the spectrum from commercial chicken,” says Robert Rosenthal, owner of Stone Church Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley. Stone Church Farm’s chickens, which are used at Daniel, Alain Ducasse, and Jean-Georges restaurants in New York, are an old breed called Rhode Island Red. “It needs to be outside,” Rosenthal says. “It’s always moving, looking for food.”

Rosenthal says that his chickens get about 75 or 80 percent of their food on their own in the form of grass, worms and “every conceivable type of bug.” Their diet is supplemented with corn and soybeans. Stone Church chickens grow more slowly than conventional chickens, which gives them more flavor, though Rosenthal acknowledges, “some people think they’re too strongly flavored.”

Not Bryce Whittlesey, chef at Wheatleigh Hotel in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. “His chickens are as close to Bresse chickens (the famed French birds) as any I’ve had in the United States,” says Whittlesey, who worked in France for five years. “They’re plump and moist, with a firm texture. Other chickens have no structure or substance.”

chicken from wfiu public radioThe Giannone family in Quebec, Canada doesn’t think old-fashioned chickens and modern technology are mutually exclusive. While the Hubbard-Ross variety the company raises roams freely and feeds on a diet of corn, soy and wheat, it is in the processing that Giannone has broken new ground. Unlike virtually all other chickens in North America, which are submerged in an ice bath to cool down below 40° F after slaughter, Giannone air chills its chickens the way many European poultry processors do, with a sophisticated system that took three years to develop.

“With the water immersion system, chickens stay two hours in water. With our air chilling system, we bring the temperature down to 33 or 34° F in 16 minutes,” says Tony Giannone, director of sales and marketing. “If you cook a bird that has absorbed water, it shrinks more when you cook it, and in doing so natural juices are drawn out.”

A few years ago, the United States Department of Agriculture required that poultry labels must show how much water chickens retain after processing. According to Dr. Robert Post of the USDA, water absorption can be as high as eight percent of total weight. The USDA designation of “all natural” can appear on a label if the bird was “minimally processed.” This generally means not injected with a basting solution like those commonly used in turkeys. Chickens given antibiotics can still be called all natural, although growth hormones have been banned for decades. A “free-range” chicken must “have access to the outdoors for the majority of the chicken’s life,” Post says.

I taste tested eight fryer chickens, each roasted whole. The USDA says fryers or broilers are usually under 13 weeks of age, though pending regulations will lower that to 10 weeks to reflect common industry practices. In fact, says Richard Lobb, communications director for the National Chicken Council, the typical supermarket chicken is closer to seven weeks old. Fryers generally weigh 3 to about 5 pounds.

The Stone Church chicken, whose age ranges from 12 to 16 weeks, looked more like an old-fashioned chicken than any of the others. It was long and lean—rather bony, in fact. Its meat had the most character of all the chickens. Unfortunately, it was unremittingly tough, which might make it a good candidate for braised dishes like coq au vin.

For flavor and tenderness, my favorite was the Giannone. While not as intense as Stone Church, it was meaty and firm, with good chicken flavor. The breast was extremely juicy. Next came an Empire Kosher chicken, which had the best-tasting breast meat. Empire birds are slaughtered humanely by rabbis, then are coated with kosher salt for an hour.

This acts like brining, a popular technique in recent years for imparting flavor and juiciness. A Bell & Evans chicken came in third thanks to its rich leg meat, though the breast was a bit cardboardy. These birds are fed a special soybean meal that is not processed with chemicals. Birds are not allowed outside but they are given more room inside than larger operations, according to Tom Stone, company marketing director.

chicken by mary.w.e on flickrChickens from Murray’s, D’Artagnan, and Perdue were all unremarkable. Murray’s, used by restaurants such as Nobu in New York, is the only chicken allowed to be labeled as “low-fat,” because of its all-vegetable feed and the room chickens are given to roam. D’Artagnan chickens, which are a minimum of 80 days old when slaughtered, are organic birds raised by Eberly Poultry in Pennsylvania. Perdue is a well-known mass-produced chicken. Rosie, a brand of chicken produced by Petaluma Farms in California, was the biggest disappointment; used by such high profile restaurants as Spago, this organically raised bird tasted watery.

Roasting is my favorite way of cooking chicken. Season the bird inside and out with kosher salt, freshly cracked pepper and some olive oil. Then truss tightly and cook at 475° F for 20 minutes, then 375° F for 40 minutes or until the thigh temperature reaches 170 degrees. Even better is to use the Spanek roaster. The bird sits upright on this steel frame, which looks like a mini Eiffel Tower. The metal conducts heat inside the bird, enabling it to cook faster. Carving is also easier. For more flavor, smear softened herbed butter between the skin and flesh. To prevent grease from splattering in the oven, I put rock salt at the bottom of the roasting pan. Let the chicken rest for at least 10 minutes before carving to retain more juices.

Dan Silverman, chef of the Lever House restaurant in New York, likes to cook his chickens al mattone—Italian for “under a brick.” Silverman’s take on this Italian method involves marinating a split and flattened chicken in olive oil, lemon juice, rosemary and hot pepper. Then the chicken is put skin side down in a nonstick pan and weighted down with a cast iron skillet and cooked over medium heat until done. (Unlike Silverman, I turn the chicken over halfway through. You could also finish cooking in the oven.)

Full-flavored chickens can tolerate more robust wines. I’ve always been partial to Pinot Noir with roast chicken, and the Monterey Pinot I tried didn’t disappoint. A Côtes du Rhone and Beaujolais Villages were also good choices. Whites, of course, aren’t out of the question. I very much liked a California Rhône blend of Roussanne and Viognier. Lots of snap and spice, with good body. A sturdy Alsatian Riesling was a fine match as well.

A tasty bird and good wines, now that’s something to cluck about.

How To Get It

Here are resources to order these chickens by mail:

  • D’Artagnan, Newark, NJ, 800-327-8246, www.dartagnan.com (Giannone and Eberly)
  • Bell & Evans, Fredericksburg, PA, 717-865-6626, info@bellandevans (For retail locations. No mail order.)
  • Empire Kosher Poultry, Mifflintown, PA, 800-367-4734,
  • Murray’s, S. Fallsburg, NY, 800-770-6347, (For retail locations.)
  • Petaluma Poultry (Rosie and Rocky chickens), Petaluma, CA, 800-556-6789, (For retail locations. No mail order.)
  • Stone Church Farm, Rifton, NY, 845-658-3243 (For mail order and retail locations in the New York metropolitan area.)

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