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How to Handle and Cook Heritage Chicken

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

So, you've bought one of our pricey fancy chickens... Now what? The chickens we raise here at Flight Path Farm are totally different from what you get at the store -- from their genetics to their feed to their environment to how they are butchered. It would be a shame if you didn't get the full experience of savoring our American Bresse Chicken because you used cooking techniques developed for the Frankenchickens of the 21st Century!

Chicken Then Versus Now

When our parents and grandparents were growing up (or maybe great-grandparents, I don't know how old you are; I'm talking about up to the 1950's), even supermarket chicken would have been raised to 3 or 4 months of age -- it would have been tougher meat, but tastier. Nowadays, a hybrid chicken known as the Cornish Cross dominates the chicken market, because you can grow a lot of them, FAST. Most chicken in supermarkets today is butchered at 6-8 weeks of age, which means that the meat is soft and tender -- and also bland! The Cornish Cross is particularly notable for its massive breast. Just look at this picture of how chicken has changed over the years:

Not surprisingly, a different type of chicken calls for a different type of handling and cooking! Most of the following suggestions were written up by Mandelyn Royal of Arcadian Orchards, one of the most dedicated breeders of the American Bresse Chicken.

Before You Cook -- Resting and Brining

If you want a nice, tender pasture raised heritage chicken, there are two ways to get it: either cook it immediately after it has been butchered (like within 30-60 minutes of being killed), or let it rest for a couple of days after it's butchered. Why? Because of rigor mortis -- the stiffening of muscles that happens once the ATP in the muscle cells runs out. Once that happens, the muscles contract and tighten up, and if you cook it in this state your chicken will come out rubbery and chewy. Not sure if your critter has rigor? You can test for rigor by pulling on a leg or wing. If it moves freely and without stiffness, rigor is not present (you might have to massage it a bit to get it moving). If it’s tight and stubbornly resists movement even if you try and move the limbs, rigor is active. Rigor mortis in chickens starts to resolve after about 6.5 hours, but may not fully disappear until 24-48 hours.

If you are buying a frozen chicken from us, we have allowed the meat to rest for 48 hours before freezing, so you are ready to cook as soon as your chicken is thawed. If you are buying a freshly processed chicken, please allow for adequate resting time before cooking! You should let the chicken rest for a bare minimum of 8 hours, but longer is better. We regularly rest our chicken in the refrigerator in its plastic bag for up to a week before eating without any problems -- it does not get stinky or slimy! (I think that because our chickens are raised in such a clean and healthy environment, without antibiotics, that they have a lower bacterial load and thus are less prone to spoilage.) The fresh chicken you buy at the grocery store is at least 2 days out from processing, and may be up to 7 days, so you have actually been eating rested chicken this whole time without realizing it.

If you are going to rest the chicken you might as well put that time to use by brining it. Brining refers to salting the chicken (or whatever meat you are cooking) for several hours or days ahead of cooking, which deeply seasons the chicken through the muscle. The salt also denatures some of the proteins in the muscle, so that when you cook it the heat does not cause the muscle fibers to contract as much (when they contract, the natural juices squeeze out, resulting in dry meat). Lots of cooks love a buttermilk brine for chicken, but brining can be much simpler. I personally prefer to "dry brine" a chicken, which means just rubbing salt all over the bird and letting it sit overnight or longer; it's easier, takes up less space, and means that the skin doesn't get waterlogged and soggy. If you want to take your dry brine up a level, try using our salt-baking soda-koji brine from our heritage turkey recipe (just make less of the mix). Much of the commercially produced chicken available in grocery stores has already been injected with brine solution, known as “plumping”. This is done to maintain juiciness, add shelf life and coincidentally, adds up to 15% of added weight.

Let's Get Cooking!

Cooking temperature is the most important factor in whether your chicken comes out juicy and tender, or dry and rubbery. The older the bird, the lower and slower the cooking method needs to be (this is most important in cockerels over 22 weeks old). Our Bresse fryer chicken is processed between 16 and 20 weeks old, so you will have to modify your cooking temperatures from recipes developed for supermarket chicken. You should only use cooking temperatures of 400 degrees F or more for birds less than 12 weeks of age (or for a brief final stage of cooking to color/crisp the skin). Our Bresse broiler chickens are processed between 7 and 12 weeks old, and their meat is tender enough for these hotter, dryer cooking methods. If you are cooking a Bresse broiler, you can generally use an unmodified recipe since they are similar in age to supermarket chicken when butchered; if you are unsure, a lower and slower cooking method never hurts!

To cook our Bresse fryers, we recommend oven baking, braising, or slow cooking. The average Bresse chicken, oven roasted, should be done at 325F degrees for about 30 minutes per pound. However, the best guide is not time, but the temperature and texture of the meat. The internal temperature should be no less than 160F degrees (although some prefer an internal temp of 180F degrees, especially for the leg meat). Another good indication of doneness for leg meat is when the skin/meat is peeling back from the bottom of the leg. I usually like to cook Bresse or other heritage chicken until the point when the leg starts to be able to separate at the hip joint when giving a good tug -- that means the collagen has broken down and is starting to form gelatin.

The biggest pitfall in cooking older, active chickens is letting the meat dry out. This can happen due to over cooking, using too hot and fast cooking, poor fat content on the carcass (not likely with a Bresse, which are famous in part for their more abundant fat) or not enough added moisture for the cooking process used. An old fashioned lidded roasting pot like grandma used to use helps trap steam and keep chicken moist; many of us have a cast iron dutch oven, and these work a treat for roasting heritage chicken. Braising with flavorful liquids is an ideal cooking method for birds that have lived an active and exciting life before landing on your plate.

Baking: We suggest baking your heritage chicken in a covered pot with a tight-fitting lid (a dutch oven is perfect for this) at about 325 F for 30-40 minutes per pound, preferably after dry brining overnight. Add 1 cup of liquid to the bottom of the pot, and elevate the chicken above by placing it on a trivet or a bed of rough chopped onions, carrots, and celery. Don't remove the cover during the cooking process; the lid helps trap moisture to keep the meat from drying out. Once cooked, remove the chicken from the pot and place it under the broiler on a baking sheet for a few minutes to brown the skin. If you really want to guarantee juicy, fall-off-the-bones deliciousness, bake at 180 F for 8-12 hours. You can use the liquid in the bottom of the pan to make a gravy, if desired. My grandmother's Arroz Con Pollo involves baking the chicken and liquid with rice that absorbs the flavorful juices that are released.

Slow Cooking and Braising: If your slow cooker has a setting that is below 200 F, it will work for stewing your heritage chicken; the temperatures of the high and low settings of different brands of cookers can vary a lot, so make sure to check the documentation or use a thermometer to check. Follow whatever slow cooker recipe you have, so long as it keeps the temperature under 200 F (although 180 F is even better). You should allow it to cook for at least 6-8 hours -- this is a great option to set it up in the morning before you leave for the day, and then have a hot meal waiting when you return home. You can also get this kind of low-and-slow cooking by putting your bird in a cast iron or other oven-safe pot and putting it in your oven at 200 degrees for several hours. A heritage breed chicken raised to 4-6 months of age is ideal for slow cooked, braised recipes like this "real deal" Coq Au Vin, or my favorite veggie-heavy chicken and dumplings.

Broth: Heritage chicken makes the BEST broth and soups. We recommend using necks or bones and skin, but you can use the whole chicken too. You can freeze the bones, skin and onions from when you cook a chicken dinner, saving the "soup parts" until there is enough to do a larger batch. You can add 1 quart of water to 1 pound of bones/spare chicken bits. You may want to add 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar, 1 large onion, two pounds carrots, and 2 pounds celery stalks, and some bay leaves and whole peppercorns to add depth and richness to the broth. For best results, simmer gently for 6-8 hours (or more).

Grilling or Smoking: These cooking methods can be a little more challenging since they tend be hot and dry, which can dry out the chicken. The most foolproof approach is to treat them like ribs -- do a crock pot or pre-bake for 1-2 hours, followed by a final grilling for flavor for 10-15 minutes. To cook entirely on the grill, we recommend spatchcocking (or removing the legs and starting them first) and grilling covered for 60-90 minutes at about 250 degrees F, after a wet brine overnight -- or try using your favorite recipe with our Bresse broilers, whose younger age makes them less challenging to cook. For smoking, low and slow is the name of the game: try smoking at 200-225 degrees F until the meat has an internal temperature of 155 degrees, then turn the smoker temperature up to 390 until the internal temperature of the meat is 165, pull from smoker, wrap, and rest for 15-30 minutes. (Another alternative is to use a standard recipe on our younger (10-12 week old) Bresse broilers, and just do more of them!)

Frying: Take a similar approach as with grilling/broiling -- do a pre-bake or light poaching to soften the collagen, then dredge and fry in order to get a crispy crust. Pre-cooked chicken might fall apart during this process; you can try refrigerating the pre-cooked chicken so that the collagen-turned-gelatin can firm up to hold the pieces together during dredging and frying.

Here are some more cooking tips from Mandelyn Royal, and some others from Flight Path Farm:

  • If your chicken came out chewy or rubbery, it can still be salvaged! This usually means that it did not cook long enough for the tougher connective tissue to break down from collagen into gelatin. Just put the tougher rubbery parts (usually the legs, since these chickens run around outside a lot) back into the pot with some liquid and continue stewing or baking, low and slow, until they submit.

  • We hold our Bresse fryers in confinement for 2 weeks before processing, so they are not getting as much exercise -- this helps make the leg muscles less tough. However, these were still active birds throughout their lives, and their leg meat can be a lot firmer than the breast. One good trick to make sure breast and leg meat comes out the same is to remove the legs and then start cooking them for 10-30 minutes before adding breast and wing meat. This way, it is much easier to get the legs up to 175-180 degrees internal temperature, while keeping the breast meat at 160-165 degrees.

  • Using a crockpot, Instant Pot, or pressure cooker is a great way to cook for shredded chicken that you can use in several dishes, such as chicken stew, chicken & rice, tacos, etc. These sorts of stewing methods are more forgiving than dry baking, grilling, or frying.

  • Seek out recipes from the 1950's or earlier, before the Frankenchickens of today were developed. Back then, it was normal for a chicken from the grocer to be 4 months old or older. When you read these old cookbooks, you will often find that they don't give specific times, but rather refer to changes in texture -- this allows a recipe to be adapted for older and younger birds. You can use modern recipes if you remember to change your cooking temperature and times to reflect the age of bird.

  • The younger the bird, the more flavor you may want to add. The older the bird, the more of its own flavor the bird will have. Chicken doesn’t begin to get its own really robust flavor until after 12 weeks of age; before that point it’s fairly mild. We try to process our Bresse broilers right at 12 weeks old, when they've been on pasture for at least a month, so that the flavor is enhanced.

  • If you are making the switch from store bought chicken to home grown heritage type chicken, the differences in flavor and texture will at first be significant. In particular, the thigh/leg may be much more firm and dark than what you’re used to. We recommend starting with stewed or braised dishes to get a feel for how to cook them, before you start experimenting with other methods. Think Coq Au Vin, Chicken Paprikash, Chicken and Dumplings...

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