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Newcomers’ Guide to Pastured Poultry
By Shannon Hayes
New to the world of pastured poultry? Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions….
Spring rains are turning to summer showers, and all your friends are once more waxing poetic about the locally sourced treasures from the farmers’ market: fiddleheads, asparagus, wild ramps, fresh salad greens, snap peas, and garlic scapes. Time and again you’ve listened to the stories of how these vegetables tasted so splendid with the simplest of lemon vinaigrettes, perhaps a hollandaise, especially when served alongside a fresh roasted pastured chicken.
Maybe fiddleheads don’t excite you, and memories of slimy canned asparagus have you convinced that fresh couldn’t be of much interest…but that chicken? That has appeal. You’ve heard enough about Omnivore’s Dilemma and factory farming and bleach dips and food borne illnesses that you are ready to try something different. Now is the season to foray into the world of fresh, pasture-raised chicken. Before you visit your farmers’ market or look up your nearest farm at eatwild.com, here are the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about pastured poultry. If you have further questions, feel free to post them. I’ll do my best to answer!
Why won’t my farmer sell cut-up chicken parts?
In most states, farmers are permitted to raise and process a limited number of chickens that they can sell directly to consumers, without having to build a licensed and inspected processing facility. This “poultry exemption,” as it is often called, is actually pretty generous in the eyes of the small farmer without a lot of resources, because he or she can process and sell up to 1,000 birds without having to invest in a lot of costly infrastructure. The catch, however, is the variety of poultry products the farmer is permitted to sell. They can sell you whole chickens, and that’s about it. If a farmer wants to package the breasts separately, or sell just the legs, or a bag containing just the backs and necks, then he or she generally must build a dedicated facility and acquire a different license. Since many farmers have little interest in raising more than 1,000 birds, the increase in product diversity simply is not a justifiable reason for investing thousands of dollars in a dedicated processing facility, and then working through all the red tape that is required to keep the license up-to-date. It is for this reason that I always write chicken recipes for whole birds, and then for using chicken leftovers. My aim is to help you get out of that grocery store chicken-by-the-piece habit, and help you get comfortable working with the whole bird from beginning to end, making use of it as a main course, as leftovers, and as soup.
BUT, if you want to cut up your own bird, here’s how to do it:
How to cut up a whole bird
1. Hold the bird by the neck. With a boning knife, cut a collar around the muscle that is at the base of the neck, as close to the breast as you can get. Once you’ve cut through to the vertebrae, bend and pinch between the vertebrae to squeeze the neck off.
2. Pick the bird up by one wing. Cut a ring with the boning knife around the muscle that joins the wing and the breast. Use the tip of the knife to probe for the shoulder joint to make the break, taking care not to cut the breast muscle. Work the joint loose, using the tip of the knife to cut the cartilage as you do so. Eventually the wing should become loose enough that you can break it free. Repeat with the other side.
3. Lay the bird on its back. Spread the legs apart. Push one leg away from the center and gently slice where the skin stretches between the leg and the body. The leg should drop away fairly easily. Lay the side of the knife against the leg and slice the muscle where it joins the leg and the body, exposing the ball and socket joint. Use the tip of the knife to cut the cartilage free, then separate the joint. Finish by cutting through the skin and muscle on the back side. Repeat for the other leg.
4. To separate the thigh and drumstick, lay the complete leg skin-side-down on the cutting board. You should see a faint white line between the drumstick and the thigh. Place the knife blade along that line, squeeze the thigh and drumstick together, applying pressure to the knife as you do so. By squeezing those ends, the knife should find its way between the two joints and pass through easily with downward pressure. Repeat for the other side.
5. To remove the back, use a sheers cut across the rib bones, as close to the breast as possible on both sides. Standing the chicken on its neck end, pry the back away from the breast, using a cleaver or butcher knife to cut through any remaining connective tissue and bone.
6. Lay the breast on the cutting board breast-side up. Carefully make an incision along the peak of the breastbone, just down to the cartilage. At the belly end of the breast, behind the keel bone, you should be able to penetrate the knife all the way through to the cutting board. This allows you to spread the breast flat onto the cutting board. Flip the breast over. Anchor the tip of a butcher knife on the cutting board and use downward pressure to split the breast in half.
Chicken is supposed to be a cheap meat. Why are pastured birds so darn pricey?
Cheap chicken is one of the great myths of our modern industrialized food system. Chicken is very expensive to produce. In fact, it is the most expensive meat we raise on the farm. Grocery store chicken only looks cheap because you’ve already paid for it in your tax bill. Through the farm bill, US taxpayers pay approximately $20 billion per year in direct payments to farmers, over one third of which goes for the production of feed grain. Much of this subsidy is paid out to vertically-integrated industrialized meat production companies, who, as a result, are able to grain-feed their livestock for less than the price of growing it. Small-scale farmers are generally not in a position to vertically integrate and therefore cannot gain the same advantage from these grain subsidies.
Furthermore, pasture-raised poultry is extremely labor-intensive compared to raising ruminants, like cattle and sheep. On the farm we can visit the cattle once per day to make sure things are going all right, check the automatic waterers to make sure they are working. Once every few days, we open a gate to allow them to amble into the next pasture. At processing time, one adept butcher in a well-equipped facility can handle the slaughter, and after the dry aging period, he or she can process the animal and turn out about 600-800 pounds of saleable meat with one day’s work.
By contrast, pasture-raised chickens must be fed and watered three times per day. Depending on the shelter, they must be moved to new pasture once per day or once every three days, and the move requires lifting a heavy portable shelter. At processing time at Sap Bush Hollow, we need a team of 4 people one half day, and two people one whole day to process 150 birds, generating about the same amount of saleable meat as one beef carcass.
Chicken was not historically a cheap meat. In fact, cookbook writers of yesteryear were presented with the culinary challenge of writing recipes for veal, which was the cheap meat at the time, to get it to taste like the costly chicken. Cheap chicken is a relatively new and unrealistic phenomenon.
And this is problematic for us farmers. Even though it costs us more to produce, in order to hold onto our customers, we must make it the cheapest meat on the farm. We wince every time a customer bristles at paying $25-$30 for a single chicken, knowing the cost to us in terms of time and labor was even greater than that final price. So, the next time your eyes pop at the price of pastured poultry….try to remember we’re giving you a deal!
Why can’t I get pastured chicken year round?
Okay, okay. I see your point here. Pasture-based farmers typically have a supply of beef, lamb and pork in the freezers all year. But if you show up at the farm in February and ask for a chicken, a lot of us will tell you that you’re out of luck. There are a couple reasons for this.
For starters, broilers are not hearty birds. Those of us in northern climates can only keep them comfortable during the summer months. Laying hens can be moved into the barn for the winter, but the meat birds, which we guarantee are raised on green pastures, need to be processed before the temperatures get too cold and the grass stops growing. If we kept them in the barn all winter, our heating bill would be exorbitant, as would be our grain bill. They can’t subsist on hay and rely on thick winter coats like the cattle and sheep.
For that matter, it isn’t easy to winter-over pigs, either, hence the traditional fall pig harvest. But pork chops store much more efficiently in the freezer than chickens. The awkward shape of the chicken makes it require significantly more freezer room than any of the other meats.
There are farms out there who maintain dedicated storage facilities for frozen poultry so that it can be available year-round, but there are just as many who don’t. Instead, we encourage you to buy throughout the growing season, and store them in your own freezer for the winter months.