Few things are more disappointing than sitting down to a meal of chicken raised on your own homestead only to discover the meat is tough.
It’s a risk that comes with eating any homegrown meat or poultry.
But with a little knowledge of basic biology and good animal husbandry, your homestead chickens will be plump and juicy instead of looking like a rubber chicken from the joke novelty store.
“There are a couple of principles here,” said Colt Knight, livestock expert with University of Cooperative Extension. “It’s basic meat science that is applicable to all livestock.”
One of the primary contributors to tough chicken meat is the age of the bird at the time of slaughter, Knight said.
“As the [bird] gets older the muscle fibers become tough,” he said. “So a 2-year-old hen or 3-year-old farm rooster is going to be tough.”
That’s why the Cornish-cross chickens are popular for both commercial growers and homesteaders. They have been bred to reach maturity in a matter of weeks, virtually guaranteeing tender, juicy meat when slaughtered.
“They will reach full size in about a month in a commercial operation,” Knight said. “We raise them here in Maine on pasture and then it can take six weeks to reach full size.”
Other chickens that produce good quality meat and that can be raised in Maine are Kosher kings and freedom rangers.
These require about nine weeks to reach full size, Knight said. Any longer and the muscle fibers will begin to toughen up.
Knight advised against raising so-called dual chickens for meat. These are breeds that have been bred over time to produce meat and lay eggs. They will be edible, but tough and stringy, and they aren’t great laying hens either, he said.
A chicken’s diet is also important when it comes to the quality of its meat.
“Animals tend to taste like what they eat,” Knight said. “It also affects the tenderness as certain feeds put on fat and others don’t.”
It’s the fat in between the muscle fibers that make meat tender.
It’s also not a good idea to feed your chickens anything with a strong flavor like onions, garlic or fish in their final weeks. Those flavors will transfer to the meat.
When it comes time to slaughter and butcher your chickens, you want to do it on a cool day or in an indoor facility that is air-conditioned. Disease-causing bacteria common on chickens such as salmonella and E. coli can rapidly spread in conditions warmer than 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
As tempting as it might be to do everything in one session, Knight said it is important to let the chicken “rest” after it is slaughtered.
“That meat needs a chance to go through rigor mortis so the muscles start to loosen,” he said. “Clean the bird and get it into your refrigerator or anyplace below 45 degrees and let it sit for a day.”
Some people try to speed up that process by dunking a freshly slaughtered chicken into an ice bath and then putting it directly into a freezer. All that does is leave you with a tough, stringy bird, Knight said.
There are going to be times — whether it’s slaughtering a retired egg laying hen to not waste the meat or a chicken has gotten above the prime age for slaughter — that you are going to end up with a tough bird.
All is not lost.
“How did we used to eat them years ago?” King said. “Cook them low and slow to break down that muscle fiber.”