A guide to ancestral foods that will heal, delight and nourish you.
What are Heritage Chickens?
Never heard of a heritage chicken? Think of it the same way as an heirloom tomato; an old-school genetic stock that hasn’t been ameliorated to fit the demands of factory farming. Unlike typical chickens found in your grocery store, heritage breeds are defined by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, as “naturally mating, long lived, and slow growing”- meaning they reach market weight in no less than 16 weeks. These breeds have healthier immune systems that have adapted to life on pasture, including the ability to forage for insects. What’s old is new again happens to be beneficial to our environment, the health of our livestock, and what many cooks and eaters describe as a return to flavor with exceptional nutritional value. It is well documented that pastured livestock produce meat with higher levels of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, beta-carotene and heart friendly omega 3’s. It’s a good idea to adjust your eyes before buying heritage chicken. These birds look a bit different to us Americans that are familiar with overly plumped chicken breasts that have taken over our plates. Instead, you will discover that these birds have longer-bodies with smaller breast-meat portions and darker dark-meat portions. Think less is more because when it comes to these birds they are richer and fulfilling in taste providing the nutrients our bodies crave in every bite.
Where to Buy Them
Luckily, heritage breeds are in the news and yet, it may still be a challenge to find them sold at your local grocery store. That’s ok, because with a little google search you will be able to find them in your area. As a reminder, visit your local farmers market, at the co-op, or visit online the following resources: eatwild.com, localharvest.com or thelivestockconservancy.com for information.
How to Cook Them
When you purchase a heritage breed chicken they deserve special treatment not like any ol’bird. Hello Palate has a few cooking tips to share:
- What’s your age birdie? Little details about selecting a bird for your desired dish can have a delicious impact on your finished presentation. A younger bird will have tender meat compared to a fryer; an older bird, as a roasting or stewing chicken. A good reminder that an older bird can be marinated and cooked with moisture to produce tender results. Coq au vin, a peasant French dish is a good example of using the method of cooking down tougher meat to produce desirable and flavorful meat.
- The alchemist tools: a Dutch oven is an excellent choice to roast a heritage breed chicken. For tender juicy chicken, place breast side down in the Dutch oven with quartered onions, garlic cloves, some herbs and a cup of water and some butter. Roast it for 20 minutes per pound at 325 degrees F. If you are a newly wed or looking for a gift, Dutch ovens make an ideal gift.
- Bone broth worthy: heritage birds are ideal for stews. Visit the hello palate’s pantry list – The Value of Stocks and Broths.
- Low and slow: like any good cook it’s a good idea to experiment using your own recipes to enjoy a heritage breed but remember to always cook it slowly at low temperatures, providing plenty of moisture, and allowing the chicken to rest after cooking so the juiciness is sealed under its crispy skin.
The Value of Biodiversity
Preserving heritage chickens is the same reason that advocates work to preserve heirloom seeds: biodiversity. According to Heritage Foods USA, it is important to be aware that industrial broiler chickens have been bred to grow quickly and efficiently, and therefore do not breed, lay, brood, care for their offspring, forage or grow like chickens that have been domesticated 8000 years ago. Chickens that are being farmed by the poultry industry lack the genetic diversity that would allow them to adapt to a change in their environment. Unlike plants preserved in a seed bank; genes that dictate genetic traits only survive in living birds and the only way to protect their continued existence is for farmers raising them. As the biodiversity of chickens breeds narrows, we loose variations in chicken flavors reducing our cultural history to chemical additives in fast foods altering our palates not to recognize the variations of true flavors. The are many questions to consider other than flavor. Collectively, we have to remain mindful when we purchase our food. Do we only see it as a source of protein for humans or do we consider the quality of life of the animal and its ecosystem. These heritage breeds require increased feed and a longer growing period and farmers either need government incentives or consumers like you to increase the market demand to ensure this practice remains viable.
I have a good feeling that going old school with heritage chickens will make your kitchen a modern day marvel.