Flash in the Pan 

The lost hens

An unintended side-effect of the backyard chicken craze has been the creation of a generation of homeless hens. A typical layer will produce for three years at most, but may live a decade longer. Not all backyard chicken keepers have the space or money to feed a growing flock of old hens until they die of natural causes.

It doesn't help that elderly hens have a reputation for being Kevlar-tough, and thus culinarily worthless. But in this tangled man-versus-chicken drama, the edibility of old chicken is one problem, at least, that is imminently solvable. More on this in a moment.

Killing an animal that you have gotten to know, perhaps named and grown to love can be a complex emotional process that, until recently, only people who grew up on farms had to deal with. It's hard enough to put an old dog to sleep. But to kill an otherwise healthy pet, pull out her guts, pluck her feathers and chop off her feet and head, takes the pet/owner relationship to new places. And it doesn't always inspire much appetite.

So instead of giving Mrs. Buttercuppy the snuff when she stops laying, some urban chicken keepers are simply abandoning her. Animal shelters from coast to coast are dealing with unprecedented numbers of discarded chickens, often roosters prohibited by city codes. Animal control officers are picking them up off the street. Small flocks are being left in cages at shelter doors under cover of night.

I'm going to leave the question of killing pets for food between you and your therapist. If you can't do it, you're morally stuck with the bird unless you can find a willing adopter. Should you choose the lethal option, I recommend The Small Scale Poultry Flock, by Harvey Ussery, a far better source than me for how to properly kill and butcher a chicken. There are numerous online tutorials to walk you through the process as well.

But I can speak to the myth that old birds are too tough to bother with in the kitchen. Cooked properly they will be tender and delicious, and full of valuable nutrients. Many culinary opportunities will open with this knowledge, which boils down to little more than simmering the bird until it's tender. If you add wine along the way, you will essentially be making coq au vin, which in its bare bucolic essence means cooking the bird in wine and water until edible.

Knowing how to butcher chicken, along with understanding how to cook a tough old bird, should be standard skills for every chicken farmer, and any lover of chicken soup or coq au vin. If you don't keep chickens yourself, maybe your hipster friends will let you kill theirs.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX
  • photo by Ari LeVaux

One place you won't have much luck scoring a chicken for the pot is Chicken Run Rescue, in Minneapolis. "If your interest is anything other than the companionship of a chicken, please stop here," warns the website. In order to adopt a chicken from Chicken Run Rescue, you must promise not to slaughter it or make it fight or use it in ritual sacrifice.

My old hen ritual begins with browning the bird in the oven for an hour or so at 300 degrees. Then I put it in a big pot, either whole or in pieces. For broth with the most marrow and other bony attributes, cut the long bones with pruning shears before simmering. Given how long it can take to cook the meat—two to 10 hours—a countertop Crock-Pot works well.

As the chicken cooks, maintain the fluid level with water and wine. A bottle per chicken is a good rule of thumb. I add red wine, but white wine works well too, resulting in a lighter-colored chicken that tastes almost identical. Add some bay leaves and a whole peeled onion and skim off any scum that floats to the surface.

When the bird is finally tender, turn off the heat and let the pot cool. Then put it in the fridge overnight, covered. Ussery calls this post-cooking period "passive extraction," and says it allows more nutrients to leach from the bones into the broth. In the morning, skim the fat if you wish and remove the chicken. Remove the flesh from the bones and add it back to the pot. You now have a chicken soup kit, which you can reheat in many ways.

Most contemporary recipes call for cooking store-bought chicken for 20 or so minutes to get the chicken to a state of similar chewability. They call for ingredients like bacon, butter, flour and other fatteners and thickeners to make a decadent stew. While I'm adding wine, I'm thinking of this as chicken soup as much as coq au vin, and I like to keep the broth on the thin side.  

Sometimes I will thicken with potatoes, cooked separately until near-falling apart. In addition ushering the dish from soup to stew, potatoes add belly-filling body.

Re-heat the soup with whatever veggies you want, adding water as necessary. For coq, I add a mirepoix-like mix of carrots, celery, parsnip, garlic and onions, along with bay leaves herbs de Provence. Mushrooms are nice. And potatoes if I want it thicker.

As it heats, add salt, and more wine, to taste.

A few bites of spent hen au vin could steer a lot of backyard chicken keepers away from abandonment and into the realm of responsible slaughter, while giving them a new level of appreciation for their beloved birds. Your hens lived immeasurably better lives than the average chicken. It was a good thing. It came to an end. Now eat some coq au vin.

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