“Spring chickens.” Although industrial chickens are not a seasonal product, this expression has remained in our communal memory. A spring chicken is one that is hatched in the spring, not one that is harvested in the spring. In fact even that observation has a further cause: eggs have become symbolic of Easter because right around Easter is when natural egg production peaks. Chickens are hormonally sensitive not only to the number of daylight hours, but also to the rate of change of the number of daylight hours. When the days are long and rapidly increasing, like now, egg production increases because the hen’s body knows that now is a good time to start a family.
So in the days before confinement feedlotting, chickens for meat were generally started in the spring. In 1935, a meat chicken took 16 weeks to reach full maturity, at which point the dressed-out carcass had an average weight of 2.5 pounds. With selective breeding, antibiotics, and hybridization, in the industrial sector a chicken now reaches a dressed-out weight of five pounds in only 45 days (5.5 weeks). Puberty for a chicken occurs at about 18 weeks of age. Forgive the human analogy, but this is rather like a kindergarten child (1/3rd the puberty age) weighing twice the normal, healthy adult weight! In 1935, a spring chicken was one that was started in the spring and ready some four months later, in mid-summer, when the chicken had had the full benefit of several months of lush pasture to eat. In other words, chickens harvested in July and August are the best spring chickens!
Through WWII, chicken was the most expensive meat on the table. They took a long time to raise and required more careful guarding from predators than larger animals. After WWII, with the development of artificial light, artificial environment control, and artificial vitamin D, a 40-year series of “production improvements” gradually led to much lower-priced chicken produced on a massive scale. Most recently these include disturbing practices such as keeping the lights on 24 hours a day and giving the chickens caffeine, so that they almost never sleep and just eat all the time, gaining weight much more quickly!
When you buy pasture-raised chickens direct from a small farmer, you are in general getting a product that is different from its industrial counterpart in every conceivable way. At every step of the industrial process that reduces cost, your local small farm is likely doing things closer to the methods of 100 years ago, with vastly superior quality and commensurately higher cost. Generally you can expect to pay $5 to $6 a pound for pasture-raised chicken that has received 100% certified organic feed. The question really is not why does this chicken cost so much: it’s how can industrially-raised chicken cost so little?
The eggs of industrially-raised meat chickens are injected with a long-acting antibiotic the day before the chick hatches; this antibiotic causes the animals to retain water. This is why “regular” chicken exudes so much water when you cook it. Our chickens do not get antibiotics and do not retain water, so that water is not available during cooking. Also industrially-raised chickens are killed at only 45 days old (5.5 weeks old) while ours are killed at nine weeks old. This is still a very young chicken: chickens reach puberty at about 18 weeks old. But the slower growth means that the chickens are far healthier; in general chickens raised on small farms have far fewer heart attacks and leg defects compared to industrially raised chickens.
Chickens that are truly free-ranged on pasture get the health benefits of far more exercise than industrial chickens. The extra 3.5 weeks of outdoor exercise means they have more muscle development compared to industrially raised chickens.
The sum of these better husbandry practices results in a meat that actually tastes like chicken, with a depth and richness of flavor that industrially-raised chickens cannot even approach.
Because the meat is qualitatively so different start to finish, perhaps it’s not surprising to hear that the meat performs much differently in the kitchen as well, and that different cooking methods are needed to bring out the tenderness. These are the same cooking methods our grandmothers used; it’s only since the 1980′s that boneless skinless breasts were available and we started using quick cooking methods for chicken! Pasture-raised chickens must be cooked more slowly: at a lower temperature for a longer time; or else they can become very tough. When roasting a chicken, turn the oven down to 275 and expect it to take 50% longer. When grilling, turn the heat down to low. When cooking on the stovetop, turn the heat down to braise rather than quickly fry. If simmering in a Quorma sauce for example, turn the heat down to a simmer and let it simmer longer. Also moist cooking methods (covered roasting, simmering, or braising) are better than dry cooking methods (searing, grilling, or uncovered roasting) because again all that extra water is NOT present in unmedicated animals.
Pasture-raised chickens have far more flavor and nutrition compared to their industrially-raised counterparts, as well as being better for the chicken, and better for the environment. It’s a seasonal product, and farmers are just beginning to start their baby chicks now for the season. Use www.localharvest.org, and www.eatwild.com, to find a farmer near you!