In an austere situation, or even an economically challenged one, what do you do with those old hens, the ones eating more than laying, and especially, extra males, like all those roosters that hatched or came with the hatchery order? We're not talking here about raising broilers from the hatchery, feeding and sweating over them for the required number of weeks, doing the killing all in one or two days and then packing them into the freezer.
This article is for the person who is facing eating real barnyard birds. It is also for the person whose family is used to the store bought bird. It's hard enough doing without things the family may be used to, but then putting a tough bird on the table is a sure way to make everybody feel deprived.
Cooking the farmyard fowl begins long before the killing cone. It's really important for you and your family to get a 'farmers' mindset' about eating meat you grow yourself. First, don't turn an animal into a pet if there's even a chance that animal is headed for the pot. Some don't even name the birds, but it's hard not to do that, especially if you have a breed where you can tell them apart. Some give names that foretell the destiny - when we first started, we had a chicken called 'Soup' and a turkey called 'Thanksgiving.'
Better would be to begin with the philosophy that this bird is going to help feed us by giving eggs, by breeding, and by eventually having a clean and painless death. We will give them a wonderful life in return. Unlike their wild counterparts, they will always have clean conditions, human companionship, bird companionship, treats (even dandelion leaves are treats if they're penned), good food and clean water, protection from predators and a peaceful end. They will not die at the teeth of a fox or coyote, starve in the woods, freeze to death or be de-feathered while still living by a hawk. They will not have to fight for their place at scarce water or food and be left lamed, an easy target for predators. If a bird is coming to the end in your pen, its end will be painless and easy.
I personally use a killing cone, tie the legs of the bird so it will not struggle (they won't, instinctively), always speaking in a low voice, and tie both the bird and the cone to a tree. I usually pray a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord Jesus Christ and also ask for the skill needed, because even experienced people can slip. I'm an advocate of the 'brain stick', where a specially honed knife is slid through the slit in the upper beak and into the back of the brain, killing the bird instantly. A single squawk and the relaxation of the neck feathers is the sign you hit the right spot. Then the cutting of the side veins and arteries, and bleeding out. Bleeding out causes the bird to jerk, as JWR has warned in his novels about violent ends: the bird is dead and this is a muscle reaction, but to keep blood from flying from the cut neck, I use a can with stones in it and a hook to the lower beak as a weight. This also keeps the neck straight so you can find and slice the arteries cleanly. Pull off feathers if you need to, but if the bird is sliced just below the head it may not be necessary. People I teach this process to are surprised how quickly the bird dies and how simple it is.
Some of the videos online are really silly, chopping off the head and letting the bird run around, or using an axe with no restraints so the bird flops all over, and this is often what people fear. Blood all over. My method is more humane, cleaner and least likely to cause everyone in your family to become vegetarian. Draw and pluck as usual. This is described in all the old cookbooks and innumerable books on raising fowl. You should be able to do a chicken in 45 min when experienced, using a hot water dip. A turkey may take 2 hours, dry pluck, or only dipping wings and stubborn portions.
Don't waste the feet in an austere situation. Cut off the toenails and dip feet for 20 seconds in 160 - 175 degree water. (Don't do this while your teenager is in the house.) The scales should scrape off, and the tough skin. There's a lot of gelatin in this portion of the bird and the old Italian ladies used to add them to tomato sauce to add protein and thickness. They can go into your soup stock, too. Turkey feathers can be made into writing quills (this is a great homeschool project), and the down of a turkey can be collected and put into a tightly woven bag like a pillowcase and washed, dried and used if necessary. Don't throw away any eggs you might find in the oviduct, they make good animal food.
The bird should be chilled for 24 - 48 hours to allow the muscles to relax. At this point, you will have noticed the dark yellow fat that indicates an old chicken, much dark meat in the thighs, or abnormalities. Unless the liver looks bad or there is some obviously wasting disease present, you can use the bird, but you can't pretend you've just pulled one out of the case at the grocery store.
First, let's notice the differences between the chicken and turkey you're used to eating and the bird sitting on your counter. Store birds are injected with water (sometimes broth that contains salt) to make them plumper and more tender. This can be up to 10% of the weight of the bird - check the labels next time you go into the store and you'll get a surprise. The degree of treatment varies with the brand. Also, if you're looking to rotisserie your bird and expect it to come out like the deli birds, beware. Those birds have been soaked in brine (I've watched them take the birds out of it myself, on an early trip to the grocery) and it wouldn't surprise me if a teaspoon of Tenderquick wasn't added, or something like it. Do not believe recipes that claim short, high heat cooking will make any tough meat tender.
If the fowl before you has mostly run around the barnyard, what you have is essentially a stringy, tough, well-exercised bird with a lot of dark meat. It probably only has fat in the cavity. If this is the case, only slow cooking will make this fowl tender, and you'll use it for soup, stew, chicken and dumplings, or the broth for soup and the meat for croquettes. Do not try to roast this bird.
Use a dutch oven with a tightly sealed lid or a crockpot with a lid sealed with aluminum foil. Cut up the bird and sear the pieces in hot fat just to get some of the skin browned, a few pieces at a time. Transfer these to the pot. You may use a base of carrots and celery and onion, or add those later, cooked separately. Put no more than 2 cups of water into the hot pan you just seared the meat in (caution, it will steam up) and scrape off all the pieces of flavor from the cooking. Add this to the dutch oven/crockpot, put it on the lowest setting, make sure no steam can escape, and let it simmer. There should be no large bubbles, just a gentle simmer, so if your stove doesn't go that low, consider a trivet. This is a good thing to do on the woodstove, too, choosing a spot of the right temperature and/or trivet. You'll have to check from time to time to be sure it's not boiling, but a clear lid will help you keep from losing the moisture inside. I've never had to add water, but if you do, you lost it by evaporation somewhere so be more careful with the covering next time, but don't let it burn. When it's done you'll find much more than the 2 Cups you started with because of the juice that came out of the meat.
After several hours a fork should pass through the meat easily. Cool the meat (but don't let it dry out!) and separate the fat in the broth from the broth itself. Choose your cooking goal from the list below:
Very simple. Skim off any extra fat to use in another recipe, but do leave some fat, both for the nutrients it contains and because this is the part that is the decongestant famous in Jewish circles. Yes, it really works. Cut up the meat, or the best parts into bit sized portions. If too tough, just leave it out. Saute onion, carrots and whatever else you might have on hand in the chicken fat or butter and add it. Add soup noodles, cook for the required length of time, and eat.
Dumplings make it a more substantial meal and these can be used for stew, as well.
Cut 4 Tablespoons cold fat into 2 cups flour, 3 teaspoons baking power, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 Tablespoon of minced parsley. Some of the fat can be butter or hardened chicken fat. Use a pastry cutter, two knives or a granny fork and work it until it is like coarse corn meal. Add 3/4 Cup of milk and stir. If the dough won't hold together, add a little more milk. Broth can also be used if milk is not available. Stir only enough to hold it together. Bring the soup/stew to a bubbling boil and drop by Tablespoons full, trying to leave space between them. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
Separate the fat from the broth. Cut up the best pieces of meat into bite sizes, usually the breast. Cut up any vegetables you might have cooked with the bird or begin to saute onions, carrots and celery and boil some potatoes. Take the fat and melt it in a large pot. Add flour until the mixture is bubbly but not grainy. Stir and cook a few minutes to cook the carbohydrates, all on low heat. Now add broth, beginning with two cups, stir well. A whisk helps with this. Continue to add broth, cooking and stirring until it is thick but spoonable. Add the meat and vegetables. Add more broth if it is too thick. Follow the recipe for dumplings if desired. Milk can also be added in place of some of the broth. I don't use exact measures because each bird will produce a different amount of fat and broth, but know that if you add too much water you won't get a flavorful meal. It's better to cook down the broth, in this case than to try to make watery broth taste good. I also use powdered chicken bouillon instead of salt for the extra flavor. Other vegetables can be added in season, such as spinach, kale or dandelion greens. Precook the ones that are tougher or need changes of water.
CHICKEN POT PIE
Follow the above recipe until you have a thick sauce with the meat and vegetables. Put it in a pie shell, just like an apple pie, slash the top seal it well with cold water and a fork, and bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes then lower the heat to 375 until it bubbles through the slashes you put on the top. It's a good idea to put a pan under the pie tin to catch any drips.
By far this is the way to make a bird feed the most people, the toughest bird will do, and it's delicious. What it lacks in tenderness is more than made up for by the flavor.
Take pieces of meat you didn't use for soup or stew, or all the meat off an old bird. Chop this finely (don't food process it - you don't want paste). Saute some onion, use cooked carrot or any leftover vegetables that aren't watery, such as peas, carrots, celery, sauteed mushrooms, chop them fine. Measure. Next, make enough FRESH breadcrumbs to match the amount of meat mixture you have plus one or two cups to roll the croquettes in. Your old, homemade bread will do and can be grated on a cheese grater if you don't have a food processor or don't have electricity. Set aside.
Make a White or Bechamel Sauce. This recipe will make about 2 cups, double as needed. Remember you will need at least a cup to spoon over the top of the finished croquettes. Melt 4 Tablespoons Butter or part butter and part chicken fat, add 4 Tablespoons flour. Stir until this paste begins to bubble, being careful not to burn it. You do want to see a 'cooked' or dry appearance to the flour, then you'll know the carbohydrates have cooked. This is important for the flavor. Slowly add 2 Cups of Milk, or part milk and broth,stir on low heat until it thickens. A whisk is useful for this. You want a very thick sauce, which won't be apparent until it starts to bubble. Add salt and pepper as you like.
Now take your meat crumb mixture. Add any spices you might want at this point (paprika, parsley), and one Cup of the sauce for each 2 cups of meat. Mix. At this point some recipes advise to chill the mixture, but if it's stiff enough you can go on to the frying right away.
Form into balls (cones are much harder, although traditional, and smaller is easier to fry, one good tablespoonful each). Dip each one into lightly beaten egg to which a small amount of water has been added to break up the cohesion of the egg. Then roll in the remaining crumbs. If you run out or didn't have enough fresh crumbs, dried crumbs can be used at this point, only. Fry the croquettes quickly in a small, high saucepan of oil only half full. They're already cooked, so you are just browning them. It takes longer to use a small, tall pan but uses less oil and is less expensive. If refrigerated, the oil can be used again within a few weeks if you strain it. Drain. Serve, two or three per person, with White Sauce poured over. Mashed potatoes are traditional, but any side dish works. These freeze very well and can be quickly heated and served. One chicken can make easily 40 croquettes and they're filling.
BACK TO THE CHICKEN PEN
Should the bird you're wanting to cook be one of the old-fashioned dual-purpose birds, they don't lay as well but have more meat on them. It might be a good idea to put two of these in a pen by themselves and let their muscles become a bit atrophied, as yours would if you didn't exercise for a period of time, feed them extra bits of bread and so on. Never put one bird alone, because they're flock creatures. If you don't have two you want to cook, borrow one from the flock for a companion. Two males should be separated by wire so they can see, but not fight with each other.
A bird of this type could be roasted, but don't just throw it in the oven. Use the recipe below for turkey.
Cooking the farmyard turkey
I personally raise turkeys for eggs, meat and to breed the next generation. We chose the Midget White Breed because the bird is extremely tasty, gentle, doesn't have to be artificially inseminated, the females set and the males don't usually get to be more than 16 or 17 lbs. Wrestling a bird larger than that would be more than I want to handle. Turkeys take an extra large killing cone - it's worth the money. You don't want a bird that size flopping around and the confinement upside down seems to calm them. Still tie the feet and proceed as above, but all the tools must be bigger and I use a metal saw with a scalded clean (not painted) blade to cut off the head and neck. If you can't buy an unpainted blade, use steel wool to clean off the paint.
Our turkeys have a more oval body than store turkeys. Whatever the type, you'll need to obtain a covered roaster - I like the black, spatterware kind - again with a tight-fitting lid. Most don't fit tightly, so be prepared to use foil to keep the steam in. Put 2 cups of hot water in the bottom of the pan. A rack will probably not fit - you don't need it. The bird will brown and there will be liquid in the bottom for gravy. Oil the top of the roaster so it doesn't stick to a large bird.
A homegrown Midget White of 12 lbs. will be done in 2 hours and 45 min., three hours, max. This is a major difference between the store and homegrown bird, and my time is for stuffed fowl with the hot bread-onion-sage stuffing ladled in just before cooking. Always be sure to use a meat thermometer to determine that it is fully cooked, but the reason for this is that slaughterhouse conditions are so mechanized and so dirty that parts of guts are left inside, birds are handled in bulk, and so on. Also, people who stuff a bird with hot stuffing the night before cooking are taking a chance. Keep hot food hot and cold food cold! If you do a good job of cleaning your bird and keeping it properly chilled and/or frozen and thawed, stuffing it just before cooking, you shouldn't have to worry. But it's better to be safe and cook to 165 degrees. Put the thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh and be careful not to push it through into the cavity - you don't want the temperature of the stuffing.
The method for cooking the homegrown bird depends on the result you want. You can just cook it, as is, but because the bird has more dark meat and is tougher, and the white meat has less fat and more grain, it will not be like a store bird. This article keeps in mind a transition from store bird expectations to your own, home grown and home cooked fowl. So, for the 'Cadillac' result, I suggest all of the following:
CADILLAC ROAST TURKEY
---Obtain a syringe-type flavor injector. This looks like a giant hypodermic needle from the 1940s. You can get them from Butterball. They're not expensive. Buy a metal, not plastic one, so you can scald it between uses, and get two of the same type (two is one and one is none, and you can use the parts if one breaks). Each time you cook a bird, save 1-3/4 to 2 cups of your own broth, either canning or freezing it. You may add some melted butter when ready to use. This mixture must be kept cold. Inject the broth into the breast, thighs, legs and the 'drummette' part of the wing, 10 oz for a 12 lb bird, using as few punctures as possible. Instead of piercing the skin, move the needle inside the meat to a different location. This takes less time than thoroughly cleaning the injector. If the liquid spurts out you pulled out the needle too fast, but just put a finger on it for a minute and the broth will spread into the meat. Chill immediately for 24 hours.
When ready to cook, remove the bird for 2 hours and allow it to warm so the broth, especially if it contains butter, can soften.
Take the fat from the cavity, flatten it and tie it on to the top of the drumsticks with kitchen twine. It will baste the leg and also add fat for your gravy, and believe me, it's the best, with a deep-roasted turkey taste.
If you want to guild the lily (and especially if you didn't use butter in the broth), slip your hand under the skin of the breast. It will come loose. Slide in slabs of butter from a stick you've cut into 5 pieces the long way, and if there are some left over, slip those toward the leg and thigh. Roast at 325 degrees for 2 hours and 45 minutes to three hours. Baste if you like, but try to keep the lid on. If guests are late, or family is busy in the farm and doesn't get in on time for dinner, you can put towels over the covered pan on the protected counter and it will hold for an hour. In any case, it should rest for 1/2 hour to keep the juices in the meat before cutting.
Make gravy the usual way and don't forget to save some broth for the next turkey.
A bird cooked the 'Cadillac' method will be one of the best turkeys you've ever put in your mouth, regardless of the age, and no one will compare it unfavorably to the store bird. I recently tried this on friends who are definitely not farm eaters and they were amazed. 'It's like a whole different kind of turkey,' they said, slowing down to savor each bite.
This method is for dark meat parts of a turkey or a whole chicken.
Cut the dark parts and wings up and fry in fat until brown. Add some flour to the fat, to make a paste as above, and add hot water until it thickens. Return the turkey to the pan and simmer, very gently, until the meat is very tender. Serve over rice with the gravy. The secret is long, slow cooking, so be sure the pan is tightly covered and never boils, only simmers gently. Any leftovers can be made into croquettes.