What’s old is new again. Traditional foods heal, delight, and nourish you.
The Value of Biodiversity
Preserving heritage chickens is the same reason that advocates work to preserve heirloom seeds: biodiversity. According to Heritage Foods USA, industrial broiler chickens have been bred to grow quickly and efficiently. They, therefore, do not reproduce, lay, brood, care for their offspring, forage or grow like chickens that were domesticated 8,000 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 to raise them. As the biodiversity of chicken breeds narrows, we lose variations in chicken flavors reducing our cultural history to chemical additives in fast foods altering our palates not to recognize the variations of authentic flavors. They 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 animal’s quality of life and its ecosystem? These heritage breeds require increased feed and a longer growing period. Farmers need government incentives or consumers like you to increase the market demand to ensure this practice remains viable.
I feel that going old school with heritage chickens will make your kitchen a modern-day marvel.
What are Heritage Chickens?
Have you ever heard of a heritage chicken? Think of it the same way as an heirloom tomato, an old-school genetic stock that hasn’t been eased 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. 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 from Americans 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 more fulfilling in taste providing the nutrients our bodies crave in every bite.
Where to Buy Them
Luckily, heritage breeds are in the news, yet it may still be a challenge to find them sold at your local grocery store. But 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 see the following resources: eatwild.com, localharvest.com, or thelivestockconservancy.com for information.
How to Cook Them
They deserve special treatment when you purchase a heritage-breed chicken. 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 significantly impact your finished presentation. For example, a younger bird will have tender meat compared to a fryer; an older bird, like 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 French peasant dish, is an excellent example of using the method of cooking down tougher meat to have desirable and flavorful meat.
- The alchemist tools: a Dutch oven is excellent for roasting a heritage-breed chicken. For tender, juicy chicken, place breast side down in the Dutch oven with quartered onions, garlic cloves, herbs and a cup of water, and some butter. Roast it for 20 minutes per pound at 325 degrees F. If you are a newlywed 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 recipes to enjoy a heritage breed but remember always to simmer it at low temperatures, providing plenty of moisture, and allowing the chicken to rest after cooking, so the juiciness is sealed under its crispy skin.