If you are on the local food beat, you can now purchase native, grass fed, organic chickens from area farmers. I get mine from Ray Williams of Back Beyond Farm in Tunbridge, but there are many others who also raise meat birds, so check out your farmers’ markets to find sources.
We haven’t had a supermarket chicken at our house for quite a while. The last one was produced by Vermont’s own naturally-raised chicken company, Misty Knolls Farm over in New Haven, Vermont. Misty Knolls isn’t certified as “organic” and doesn’t raise their chickens on pasture, but they do raise them in a low stress environment without antibiotics or hormones. These are referred to today as “natural” chicken.
The birds I get from Ray are pasture raised, organic chickens. His birds are raised outdoors on grass in specially constructed portable cages. Chickens like to hunt and peck, scratching up grubs and bugs of all sort. They’ll eat young grasses, but have to be moved daily or their droppings, which are rich in nitrogen, will burn the grasses and their pecking will destroy the grasses’ root system. This daily moving of their pens, where they may only be on a single patch of pasture once or twice during their lives, allows the soil to benefit from their manure, but also the grasses to grow back again during the time that chickens are on fresh ground.
If you read Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma he tells the story of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia. Polyface Farm is an integrated, sustainable grass farm where Joel raises chickens, beef, pork and turkeys, rotating one animal after another in a way that benefits all. I loved the part where he tells of the cattle being rotated off a section of pasture after one day of grazing, to be followed three days later by the laying hens, which eat the larvae in the cattle’s manure which mature in four days. So the laying hens get the protein of the maggots while spreading the manure around with their scratching, which benefits the soil and its grass cover. They also cut down on the fly population. Nature’s way, it seems to me.
Unfortunately, most supermarket chicken comes from the intensive farming community where thousands of birds, with their upper beak removed to help prevent cannibalism, are crowded into single story barns, often on wire mesh floorings so their droppings can be flushed away into outdoor lagoons. The barns are equipped with 24 hour a day feed and watering systems and the lights burn 24/7. These birds are in a high stress environment for the 6 weeks they live, eating feeds that are corn based with who-knows-what animal waste byproducts mixed in besides the ubiquitous antibiotics that are required to prevent outbreaks of disease amongst the flock and hormones to stimulate growth. These animals never go outdoors, never touch dirt, never eat bugs, or even scratch about, as is their nature. I’ve read that up to 30% of these flocks may expire in a single growth cycle, but these losses are still within the range of economic acceptability to the poultry industry. While these chickens are cheap, they have bland flavor, yellow skin and little chicken taste. They are best avoided.
When I was a child growing up in Bradford, roast chicken was a Sunday supper treat. The birds were raised by our neighbor, Ed Peters (known affectionately at our house as” Grandpa Peters”) outside in a large pen behind his house. Grandpa would chop off their heads, pluck and eviscerate a bird before presenting it to Mom, who would roast it to a turn, often with a savory stuffing, and make gravy from the drippings. We loved those Sunday meals and the chicken tasted like chicken.
But over the years and with the advent of greater and greater food regulation from the FDA, ostensibly in the name of food safety (but don’t think politics wasn’t involved), local poultry production died out, and out-of-state agribusiness took over, introducing what is now the intensive farming system, which I call an abomination. This system violates one of the most basic elements of the farming contract…animal husbandry. In exchange for basic care, feeding and shelter, provided in a humane manner, our farm animals provide us with wholesome meat for our table. Animals raised naturally without the need for artificial supplements produce a product that tastes better than one raised in the bizarro-world of today’s major agricultural producers. If you are ever near a confinement animal production facility, you will know it, if not from the proliferation of flies, surely from the smell. And they want you to eat the results. Ugh!
Fortunately, if you’re tuned in to the local food scene, you can avoid those mass produced chickens (or beef, lamb or turkey), and get yourself some tasty birds from real farmers who practice responsible husbandry. We love the white-fleshed chickens Ray produces, and I know you will too. They do cost a little more, but knowing where your food comes from and how it is produced more than makes up for the added cost.
Now that we know where to find a good bird, a few words on proper storage and handling of chicken. Like all perishable proteins, one must observe basic food safety to prevent sickness. Frozen chicken should be thawed in only one of two ways: either in the refrigerator, which will take a couple of days, or under cold running water, which will take a number of hours. I guess you can thaw chicken in the microwave, but I don’t do that, so I won’t comment on the merits of that approach. Never leave a frozen chicken on the counter at room temperature to thaw out. This is a potential recipe for disaster as raw chicken can include a number of bacteria including the dreaded salmonella bacteria, which may not only make you very sick, it can kill you. Undercooked chicken can also harbor salmonella, so do cook it to at least 160 degrees, although the FDA favors 170 degrees.
Chicken and all meats should have minimum time in the “danger zone”, temperature between 40 degrees and 140 degrees. In this temperature zone, bacteria multiply rapidly and even cooking the meat well done may not destroy all of the bacteria. Besides being conscious of the danger zone, I always cut up my poultry on a plastic cutting board while wearing vinyl gloves. Don’t use a wooden cutting board as bacteria are apt to find a home in microscopic abrasions in the wood, and can cross contaminate other foods place thereon. After having dismembered my bird, I remove my gloves and only use tongs to touch the meat thereafter. Everything the chicken touches should be carefully sanitized with antibacterial soup and/or a bleach solution.
Chicken benefits from being brined before it is cooked. Brining pre-seasons the chicken, and allows for the bird to be fully cooked without the breast meat drying out. Everybody likes chicken nice and juicy, so try brining your 3 to 4 lb. chicken for 8 to 12 hours in the following solution:
1 gallon Water
1 cup Kosher salt
½ cup Sugar
1 bunch Fresh tarragon
1 bunch Fresh parsley
2 each Bay leaves
1 head Garlic, sliced horizontally
1 each Onion, sliced
3 tbl Black peppercorns, lightly crushed
2 each Lemons, halved
Place all the ingredients in a stockpot and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar. Allow the brine to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until chilled. Add a fresh or thawed chicken to the brine and weight it down with a plate to keep it submerged. Refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours, then remove the bird, rinse it under cold water, pat it dry and place it uncovered in the refrigerator for 3 hours or more, up to a full day. This allows the skin to become completely dry so it will crisp up nicely when roasted. Due to the sugar in the brine, you may want to cover the chicken with a tent of aluminum foil, if it starts to brown too quickly.