UPDATE: 6/14/13: Tonight, we had our first taste of old laying hen...and it was GREAT. Really! I pressure cooked it and it was very moist and extremely flavorful. The white meat tasted like Kentucky Fried Chicken (!) - much more "chickeny" than grocery store chicken. The dark meat had an almost turkey-like flavor - almost, but not quite, the flavor of really good game.
There are several important things to know right up front:
* Meat chickens, which are the type of chickens you buy in grocery stores, are bigger than the hens you have for eggs. They are also butchered at a very young age. Therefore, meat chickens are larger - and much more tender - than laying hens butchered due to "old age" or inability to lay well. Backyard roosters are also smaller and more tough than store bought chickens.
* The older the hen, the more tough her meat is. Roosters, from what I've read, also tend to be more stringy.
* Old chickens can certainly be eaten - it's just a matter of knowing how to handle them properly.
The first rule is to never butcher a bird and eat it right away. You should let it sit in the refrigerator for 48
hours, making sure it's on a rack so it's not sitting in blood. But with old hens or roosters, let it "age" even longer in the fridge: 4 - 7 days is idea. (Cooking or eating the bird right away makes it especially tough; it is still in rigor mortis.)
For the best tasting food, it's also wise to let the bird age in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days before eating or freezing it. Don't make the mistake of freezing the birds right away, then trying to age them as they defrost in the fridge. (If you don't have room in your refrigerator for all the birds, use ice chests to age them.)
There are four tried-and-true ways to cook old hens and roosters:
1. Stew them (or put them in soups). In fact, some famous dishes were originally designed for using up roosters or old hens, including the famous Scottish soup cock-a-leekie ("rooster and leeks" - a recipe found in my A Vegetable for Every Season Cookbook) and the well known French coq au vin ("rooster in wine"). The key here is to cook the bird for a long time (8 hours is generally recommended) and with plenty of moisture. Here's a recipe that looks worth trying. Do not try to substitute a crock pot or slow cooker; neither is typically adequate to get old birds tender.
|Traditional Cock-a-Leekie soup.|
3. Can them. But taking apart an older hen, with it's tight joints, isn't quite as easy as taking apart a tender grocery-store bird. You'll probably want to cook the bird before canning it.
4. Turn them into sausage. Click here for more information on this method.
In addition, soaking the bird in brine for a day or two before using it can make it more tender yet.
And don't forget the carcass and innards (gizzard, heart, neck, and kidneys)! Save them all for making stock.