How To Cook Old Birds For Flavor And Texture
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Sometimes we don’t get a chicken processed at the right age for the best tenderness, texture, and taste. You’ve put the time and money into caring for and feeding the flock, so you don’t want to waste any meat. Perhaps your hens aren’t laying well, and you need to cull some. Not everyone can keep a flock forever and pay for the feed. Each life has value. Allow it to nourish you and your family. Here are some ways to use older birds to help get the best flavor, tenderness, and texture from them.
Slow Cook with Liquid
In general, use moist cooking methods, lower temperature, and longer cooking times, like slow cooking in a crockery slow cooker. Soups and stews are the obvious go-to’s. When I use an older bird, I will saute some onion, garlic, and maybe mushrooms, depending on who will be eating. I add these to the slow cooker with salt, pepper, and other seasonings on hand at the time, often lemon thyme, sage, and parsley because they are growing right outside the kitchen door. Add enough water or broth to cover the meat and leave it on the low setting all day, about 6-8 hours. I might turn it on high for the final hour or two so that the temperature is higher while I debone the meat. This helps to cook the vegetables I’ll add later. The internal temperature of the meat should reach 165 degrees F.
When I’m using a whole chicken or cut-up parts, I’ll remove the chicken or pieces from the slow cooker and allow them to cool enough to be deboned. After removing the meat, I add finely chopped carrots, potatoes, corn, green beans, noodles, or rice to let these cook while I debone the meat. I’ll also add any additional seasoning I may need after a quick taste. If the meat is tender, I simply pull it off the bone and add it back into the pot.
If the chicken isn’t as tender as you hoped, use a food processor to shred it. If you don’t have a food processor, you can shred it with two forks, pulling them apart from each other. Or use a sharp knife to cut the long muscle fibers crosswise into very small pieces. Shredding or cutting meat into smaller pieces, especially across the long-grain muscle fibers, shortens those fibers and makes it easier to chew. You can use shredded chicken for stew, a creamy chicken paprikash, chicken tacos, empanada, chicken pot pie, Buffalo chicken, or chili.
For faster yet still tender cooking, I recommend pressure cooking. Make sure to stay within the minimum and maximum suggested fill levels by the manufacturer. The boiling point of water increases as pressure increases. When a pressure cooker is properly sealed, as temperature within the pressure cooker increases, steam becomes trapped inside helping to cook the meat and keep it moist while breaking up some of the connective tissue to tenderize.
Overcooking can leave the meat dry, so be careful not to overdo it. Allowing for the natural release of pressure over 10-20 minutes will help to keep the moisture in your meat and not allow it to evaporate out the steam vent, drying the meat as it cools too quickly. For tough cuts of meat or older birds, I cover the entire piece of meat, ensuring to stay within the filling guidelines of the manufacturer.
Pressure Canning, Different Than Pressure Cooking
Pressure canning is another way to use older birds. Pressure canning is NOT something that you can do in an electric pressure cooker like an Instant Pot. A pressure canner is different. The process of pressure canning, like pressure cooking, will tenderize the meat. Having canned meat on hand makes for quick, easy meal prep and can be a big help in the event of a power outage. Pressure-canned chicken is great for any of the suggested dishes listed above. Be sure to use USDA-approved pressure canning methods.
Marinating, brining, or smoking are other ways to prepare an older bird. These methods help keep meat tender and moist, but they are different. Marinades use enzymes or acids and have the main goal of providing flavor. The enzymes help to tenderize by breaking down connective tissue, while acids help keep moisture in the meat. Brines involve soaking the meat in salt water plus other ingredients, depending on your recipe. Brining keeps the meat moist and adds flavor depending upon the recipe. The smoke, over time, works to break down collagen which is tough and therefore tenderizes the meat.
We recently smoked an 18-month-old Bourbon Red turkey with apple, cherry, and pecan wood. This imparted a lovely flavor to the turkey. While we ate some of it with no additional prep, I cut some up into small pieces to make chili. The smoke gave a wonderful undertone to the chili, which was delicious. I sauteed some onion, then added 2 quarts of cut-up frozen tomatoes. I tossed in drained baked beans, black beans, chopped carrots, corn, salt, pepper, and chili powder. It was quick and easy but may have been the best chili I’ve ever made due to the additional smokey flavors.
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