I like hens. I like them for their friendly, inquisitive nature and their eggs and the way they taste. I suspect you do too, but a hen isn’t just a homogenous lump of meat. It, like pork and beef and lamb, has its prime cuts and its sub-prime cuts and it’s important to know what is what if you’re to get the best out of your bird.
Here’s everything you need to know about the humble hen.
The different cuts
There are two main cuts: the breast and the leg.
The breast meat is pale, tender and a dream to cook quickly, while the legs – commonly divided into the upper thigh and the lower drumstick – are darker in colour and tougher, so take longer to cook.
(The wings are the chef’s bonus, being the payment for stripping the carcass as everyone else is enjoying a post-meal sit-down.)
Try one of these seven chicken breast recipes
Cooking the different cuts
The tender breast meat can be cooked very quickly, and as long as it isn’t still pink in the middle it will be perfect.
It isn’t, however, the most flavoursome cut. That honour goes to the leg, which is packed with a meaty punch the breast simply doesn’t have. The legs are also half the price of the breasts, so we chose them whenever we can and just cook them low ‘n’ slow for a couple of hours to make them ultra-tender.
Visit our chicken recipe section for lots of chicken recipes
Roasting a whole chicken
Conventional wisdom has it that you must tie the bird into a neat parcel before packing it tightly with stuffing and throwing it in the oven for a couple of hours until it is dry and unappetizing.
Conventional wisdom is, as usual, wrong. What you should do is untie the bird and let the legs flop down away from the body, which lets the hot air circulate around the chicken. This cooks the deep meat between the thigh and the body much more quickly, which helps keep the bird tender and moist. You could slide a hand between the skin and the meat and then insert some butter into the gap if you like, but I’ve never bothered.
I also cook my stuffing in a shallow tray rather than inside the bird because I’m not a huge fan of listeria. You can test whether it is properly cooked by using a temperature probe to see what temperature you have reached in the thickest parts of the chicken: 75°C is the number you’re looking for. Or you can just pull the leg gently; if it comes away from the body of the bird easily then the meat is cooked. In either case, you then need to take the chicken out of the oven and cover it with foil for 20 minutes or so to rest before carving it up.
Roast chicken recipes
Low salt roast chicken
Roast lemon-infused chicken
Chinese -style roast chicken
Roasted lemon chicken
Chicken with dill and leeks
A sharp knife makes a huge difference but the simplest way to carve a chicken is to slice the whole breast off in one go and then cut it into slices across the grain.
I then pull the legs off, dividing them into the upper thigh and lower drumstick. That makes sure that all four members of my family get a bit of everything.
Read our tips for sharpening a kitchen knife
The chicken carcass
Don’t neglect the chicken carcass that’s left over, either. If you have had a roast chicken just pop the leftover bones and carcass into a large saucepan of boiling water with a couple of carrots, a quartered onion and a few bay leaves. Boil for a couple of hours and then strain the chicken stock off.
I then pull all the little flecks of meat off the bones and use them with the stock to make a wonderful risotto. Both the stock and the meat freezes very well, if you want to stockpile it until you have a reasonable quantity for a larger meal.
We get free chicken carcasses from our local butcher who is only too pleased to have someone taken them off his hands. There is rarely much meat on them, unless the apprentice has been practicing again...
Find out how to make chicken soup from scratch
If you have the self-discipline to save up your homemade chicken stock until you have four or five litres of it, you can boil it down over the course of a day until you are just left with a gravy boat’s worth of the best chicken gravy you’ll ever taste.
I do this at Christmas, reducing it down a couple of days in advance. I store it in the fridge until I need it, when it only takes a couple of minutes to warm through in the microwave.
I keep chickens for their eggs, and they live a free-ranging life foraging far and wide to supplement their ration of layers’ pellets with insects, vegetables, and the odd seedling until they eventually fall off their perch when old age claims them.
That wasn’t the original plan. The original plan was for me to cull them for meat after a year or so, the point at which their laying capacity starts to diminish. However, I found myself beguiled by their charm and sociability and I discovered that I simply couldn’t kill them for food.
I do like chicken though, so I compromise and only eat free-range birds in the knowledge that they’ve lived the best life they possibly can. I would plead with you to do the same because battery conditions are even worse than you imagine. and no, barn-reared and the like is not the same thing at all.
Find out how to get started keeping chickens
Subscribe today for just £12 for 12 issues...