The humble chicken - the meat you eat the most, and probably spend the least time contemplating. As animal domestication became predominant in our food history, chicken has been highlighted in almost every continent, culture and country. Who in this world can say they have never eaten one or disliked it? Exactly.
So why has this modest and noble animal not been given reverence in today’s culture? Maybe with more information and background, we can bring back the esteem of these hardcore, tasty ace (you now what I mean) birds.
Chickens are members of the pheasant family (Phasianidae), and were originally found around Eurasia, colonizing in open forests, fields, and woods, like all other pheasants. They seem to have been domesticated around Thailand before 7500 BCE and arrived in the Mediterranean by 500 BCE. Originally large, aggressive and red jungle fowl, Gallus gallus (its Latin name) quickly became farmyard scavengers - grown for their meat and kept for their eggs. Once they became too old to fulfil their egg laying capabilities, it was off to soup camp for them! By the 20th century much of the genetic diversity was bred out in way of fast-growing cross breeds of Cornish (developed in Britain from Asian fighting stock) and U.S White Plymouth Rocks.
*Barred Plymouth Rock Hen *Cornish Hen
In today’s world, chickens are bred as fast as possible for as little food as possible. The advantage to the farmer is less cost to produce the same weighted value of meat as other and larger types of domesticated animals. For every two pounds of food you feed a chicken, you roughly create a pound of meat in as little as six weeks (Cows are roughly 7-10 pounds of pasture for one pound of meat in about 14-18 months- you see the advantage). This ratio is known as the feed conversion ratio, and chickens are some of the best at it.
In general, when you go to your local butcher shop (or grocery store, if you must), you are going to have a few options. No need to freak out, I have done all the hard work for you.
All you need to know in general terms is (USDA Regulations):
- Certified implies that the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Agriculture Marketing Service have officially evaluated a meat product for class, grade, or other quality characteristics.
- The term free-roaming/range only certifies that the animal has had access to the outside.
- Fresh means whole poultry and cuts have never been below 26 °F (the temperature at which poultry freezes). This is consistent with consumer expectations of "fresh" poultry, i.e., not hard to the touch or frozen solid.
- Halal products are prepared by federally inspected meat packing plants identified with labels bearing references to "Halal" or "Zabiah Halal" must be handled according to Islamic law and under Islamic authority.
- Kosher may be used only on the labels of meat and poultry products prepared under rabbinical supervision.
- The term "no antibiotics added" may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the USDA, demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics.
- Natural is a term used if a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as "no artificial ingredients; minimally processed")
In terms of “classes” of chicken there are only a few options (USDA Regulations):
- Broiler/Fryers: Young chickens that are usually 6 to 10 weeks of age with a dressed weight of 1.13 Kg. (2.50 Lbs.) or more.
- Roasters: Chickens that are usually 7 to 12 weeks of age with a dressed weight of 2.27 Kg. (5 Lbs.) or more
- Capons: Neutered male chickens that are usually less than 4 months of age.
- Cornish Game Hen: Young chickens that are usually less than 5 weeks of age with a dressed weight of 0.91 Kg. (2 Lbs.) or less
From there, chickens are usually graded on an A to C grade level depending on the processing standards and defects or final carcass characteristics.
There, now you know.
If you feel the need to get the most out of this new-found knowledge, learn how to break a chicken down, and cook it to perfection, then please consider The Chopping Block's Chicken101 hands-on cooking class or a new class we're offering in April called Spring Chicken.
-Harold Mcgee: On Food and Cooking (page 139-140)
-United States Department of Agriculture