The secret(s) to succulent pastured chicken

It’s snowing today, we’ve got 128 peeps in the brooder–see them in their peeping glory here, we finished our spring cleaning yesterday, and I’m thinking roast chicken for dinner. (Out with the old frozen chicken, make way for the new!)

Around here, we pretty much prepare our chicken one way. And that’s Amir’s way. Why mess with the best? It turns out tender and juicy and delicious every time. Part of that is in the cooking technique, yes. But a lot has to do with our birds and how we raise them, and how we process them and store them.

Perhaps I shouldn’t give away our trade secrets. Because apparently there are some pastured poultry farmers out there who are needlessly selling tough birds, and maybe we could lure their customers over to us with our tender birds. But I don’t want pastured poultry getting a bad rap. I trust that enough of our good citizens appreciate a fine product to keep all of us in business. As President G.W. Bush once said, I believe we can “Make the pie higher!” So, in the interest of knowledge-sharing, and good food for all, I offer a few of the ways we at Glean Acres ensure our chicken is the best chicken ever to grace a dining room table.

1. We keep small, manageable flocks. We’re not going to get rich on our chickens. They’re just one part of a whole bunch of things we grow and sell to keep a roof over our head. If we focused on just chickens, having a thousand or more on our farm on any given day, moving their multiple pens mechanically, slaughtering a few hundred at a time every few days, well, not only does that sound like a non-joyful way to eek out a living, but it would dull our senses to the awesome creature our creator has entrusted to our care. We would deal with mortality on a scale that made it routine. We could shrug off accidental and preventable deaths, not be concerned about stressful conditions or situations. We would catch and hold the birds by their feet in the name of efficiency, let them sit in the rain or the hot sun, waterless, while they awaited their fate on their final day.

What does all that have to do with a tender bird? Well, with small batches, we aim to minimize stress for our birds, and maximize their relaxed, content, care-free moments. They are healthier that way, less prone to injuries and illness. Less stress hormones end up in their meat. Most of the studies done on this are systematically torn apart by those with an interest in industrial chicken farming, but we think a less-stressed bird makes for a better product.

2. Our chickens are free-range AND on pasture. There is a LOT of confusion about just what free-range and pastured means. Your free-range chicken can be an industrial chicken who spends most of its time inside a large, stationary, chicken house with just a few small openings into enclosed yards that it may not ever find its way to. Or it can be what you likely envision as free-range, chickens roaming about in the open fields. But the “free-range” label alone won’t tell you what their actual conditions are. It can vary. Similarly, your pastured chicken may not benefit from all that much exercise. In fact, the original “Salatin-style” pastured poultry system which is still the most popular keeps the chickens confined. Yes, they are on fresh pasture in open-air pens that are moved around, but adherents to this system don’t open up the pens to let the birds roam around. They are still crammed in there, getting up only to eat and drink. Not expressing very much of their chickenness.

We follow a modified version closer to the “day-range” system, which consists of a mobile pen that is kept inside a fenced area. The birds are free to roam within the fenced-area during the day and are closed in the mobile pen at night to keep them safe from predators. We move the pen daily to prevent accumulation of manure and we move the portable electric poultry netting as needed to keep the birds on fresh pasture. Especially in the early morning and evenings, our birds enjoy frolicking around their protected area, chasing and scratching after bugs and grubs, munching on clover, alfalfa, and other verdant treats in our pasture.

Glean Acres Freedom Rangers in the day-range system

3. We raise Freedom Rangers, not industrial chickens. Many pastured poultry producers, in the interest of keeping costs down and maximizing profit, choose to raise the same kind of chicken you find in the supermarket, the ubiquitous Cornish Cross. It is a white chicken that has been bred to grow very very quickly, and to yield a tremendous, disproportionate amount of breast meat, the kind American consumers seem to prefer. Their breasts are so large, their legs can’t grow fast enough to support them, so many of them end up crippled, and unable to walk. They reach their market weights at a shocking 6-7 weeks. This bird also has seemingly had its wits bred out of it. It’s a depressing chicken, which many producers will testify will die of thirst rather than exert more than a modicum of effort to get water. They are not particularly good foragers. They are the chicken equivalent of couch potatoes who watch reality TV all day and wait for someone else to get up so they can say “pass the cheetos.” I’ve worked with these birds on another farm, slaughtering them feels like a mercy killing.

We raise a type of bird derived from heritage birds in Europe and the U.S. They are categorized as “slow-growers,” reaching their market weights at a relatively mature 10-12 weeks. They have retained their normal chicken proportions, which means their legs are strong and meaty, but they still have ample breast meat.  They also are more active and interested in foraging than their industrial-type counterparts. All in all, Freedom Rangers make for a life-affirming choice of meat bird, if you can follow the logic in that.

What that has to do with succulent meat is that their older age means their flavor has had more time to develop, so it tastes more like some of the old-timers remember chicken as tasting. Also, they exercise, so they get muscles. You get tender muscle meat, not the mushy-type soft meat associated with confined young chickens.

4. We put our chickens on ice after slaughtering, not into the freezer. Many producers do not know this, but rigormortis affects chickens, too. Freezing the bird directly after processing means the rigormortis chemicals are frozen right along with the meat. This is why some customers complain that their pastured poultry is tough! But it’s expensive keeping birds on ice for a day or two, not to mention inconvenient if you have to run to the store for ice. We invested a considerable sum in an ice machine so that we can ensure we never sell a tough bird. So if you buy your bird fresh from the farm on processing day, wait a day or two before freezing it! Keep it nicely chilled but not frozen so it can “rest,” and the rigormortis chemicals can break down a bit. No need to brine!

5. “Sear” your whole chicken in a hot oven for the first few minutes of cooking. Whether it’s a 3.5lb bird, or a big 6lb roaster, you can seal in the juices by slathering a good-quality oil or butter all around, along with some herbs and maybe lemon, and sticking it into a HOT oven for 15-25 minutes or so, depending on the size of the chicken. Then, cut the heat down to moderate for the remainder of cooking time. Finally, just like other roasts, LET THE CHICKEN REST for 10 minutes before carving it up. This lets the hot juices absorb back into the meat.

Need a recipe? By popular request, we’ve decided to go public with Amir’s favorite way to prepare our chicken. We eat a whole leg apiece the first night, make chicken salad (serves at least 4 with generous portions!) or a stir-fry or pasta dish out of the breasts the next night, and cook down the carcass for stock or soup base.  So no more excuses about why you “don’t have time” to prepare a whole broiler chicken. With about 30 minutes total “active time,” you’ve got the basis of three good meals.

Our very first Chicken, June 2011.

Recipe: Amir’s famous, buttery, lemony, garlicky, herby, roasted, free-range, pastured, whole chicken

1 whole Glean Acres (or other local) free-range, pastured chicken, approx. 4.5 lbs

1 stick (4 oz) good quality butter

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 lemon

1 tsp EACH dried thyme, tarragon, and sage

1/4 tsp cayenne powder

A few sprigs fresh thyme

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 450°F. Bring butter to room temperature. Put chicken in large roasting pan. Mix half the garlic and all the dried herbs with the butter. Smear the herbed butter with your hands all over the chicken. Season to taste with salt and pepper (be generous) and squeeze the lemon over it all. Put the remaining garlic, sprigs of thyme, and squeezed out lemon halves inside the cavity.

Roast the chicken in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until skin is crisp and golden. Then, turn oven temperature down to 375°F and continue cooking, basting occasionally, 35-50 additional minutes, or until thermometer inserted into thigh reads 165°. Let chicken rest 15 minutesbefore carving.

Dinner is served. Look at those thighs!

This entry was posted in Free range chicken, pastured poultry, Small Farms, Virginia Farms and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The secret(s) to succulent pastured chicken

  1. herbgirl2 says:

    Always enjoy your postings, love the way you raise your chickens…and they look so yummy!

  2. ga pastured chicken man says:

    well done, the largest producer here in GA is cultivating a reputation for tough chicken….there is an art to it, hone it!

  3. This is great info since we just got our first bunch of baby’s this week. We did get broilers, but I will keep in mind the Freedom Rangers. I do enjoy seeing my egg layers out in the pasture. I think we use a set-up similar to yours. Thanks for sharing. (btw, we are in Mississippi so no competition from us)

  4. Renee says:

    Great post! I order pastured chickens in Ontario, I found them tough and did not think it was part of the butchering process to blame. I though it was just denser meat.

    • Renee says:

      Let me fix my last post!!! They are not tough but they are not the same at all from grocery super market chickens. We love them, but they are firmer.

  5. Amy says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve just about given up on pastured chicken! I’ve tried several from different local farmers (NC) and different breeds and they have ALL been tough and/or dry….and I know how to roast a chicken! :/ Unfortunately, all the farmers I have found pastured chicken from sell them already frozen. What does one do if the pastured chicken is already frozen? Also, I like to sometimes just buy parts (my son loves legs and thighs) and like to bake them…but the dark meat on all the pastured chickens have been the toughest and just down right inedible! 😦 Can I follow your methods above for cooking separate parts as well. I’m going to give your recipe a try, but if I don’t succeed…I think I’m throwing in the towel! 😦

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