When a customer buys a farm fresh, pasture-raised Lasher Meadows chicken for the first time, we always explain that farm fresh poultry requires different cooking methods. The truth is, all the things making those grocery store birds bad for you (the chemicals, the additives, the injections) also make the cooking process much different. So while it is true that organic or farm fresh chicken is healthier for you and can taste delicious, it can’t be treated the same way as your basic grocery store bird.
Our Cornish Cross meat birds were first bred in the 1940’s as an alternative to families only having access to fresh chicken for dinner if their old hen or rooster had lived out it’s usefulness. This breed has been perfected over time, and every hatchery has their own special “secret” mix of heavy, dual-purpose (good for egg-laying and eating) birds that are bred to produce the Cornish Cross. Our little nuggets arrive at Lasher Meadows at 3 days old, and from there they feast on grass, bugs, vegetables, and local grain until around 9 weeks old, when they go to the butcher to be prepared for your table. This balanced diet produces birds that have very little fat or bone weight, which means more meat! The key to a juicy whole roaster is your oven temperature. With less fat, farm fresh poultry can easily dry out, but by roasting your bird low and slow, the result will be incredible. You can also use some or all of the methods below, all of which will enhance the flavor and texture of your bird.
Brine Your Bird
The first thing you need to understand about an organic or farm-raised bird is they have not been injected with any type of water, broth, salt, or chemical additive. Great right? YES, except all of those things add flavor to the meat and help break down the muscle tissue to make your cooked bird more tender. To get the same result with an organic or farm-raised chicken, you can do one very important thing before your chicken ever comes close to a flame.
Brining your chicken will do all the things those chemicals and additives do to create a tender, juicy chicken, without the negative side effects of chemicals and additives. What is a brine? A brine is basically a solution created to soak your meat in. There are two main types of brine – a milk brine or a water brine. Both have their uses, can make blah chicken mouthwateringly delicious, and have their roots in old-style cooking techniques passed down from generations.
Ever heard of buttermilk fried chicken? That old southern staple is rooted in the very problem we are talking about here. The cooks of old had no chemicals or additives in their chickens, but they still wanted a tasty meal. A buttermilk brine was their answer and buttermilk fried chicken was born.
You can use any milk for brining with the exception of lactose-free milk. The lactic acid in milk is what breaks down the chicken and makes it tender. No lactose, no lactic acid. No lactic acid, no tender juicy chicken. I think you get the idea. Buttermilk is a popular choice for brining because it is higher in lactic acid than non-fermented milk. No matter which one you choose, a milk brine will go a long way in creating a yummy piece of chicken. I also like using plain yogurt.
Saltwater brines are great for soaking a whole bird or chicken pieces. I even use a saltwater brine for my Thanksgiving turkey. A basic saltwater brine is water, salt, and sugar, after that, you are free to add whatever herbs and spices your family likes. If you want to add a bit of spice, add some cayenne to your brine. Like a bit of a smoky flavor try cumin or smoked paprika (or both!) It is really hard to do a saltwater brine wrong, so try a few different recipes to find your favorite.
Low and Slow
After you have brined your chicken, you want to cook the bird low and slow. I find that a 4 pound bird takes a little over an hour in a 325 degree oven. The most important thing is to make sure the internal temperature of the bird is 165 degrees.
You can even cook a whole chicken in a crock pot and it will literally fall off the bone. Crockpot chicken is great if you have a recipe that calls for shredded chicken. It’s also pretty good when you throw some veggies in and eat it as is.
Pound it Out
If you are cooking chicken breasts, it’s a good idea to tenderize them by pounding them out flat. Not only does this tenderize the meat in evens out the breast so it cooks more evenly. No more raw on one end and dry on the other.
To pound out a breast you can use one of those fancy tenderizing hammers, or you can be like me and use a small frying pan. This is a fun way to get your aggression out, it does tend to scare the animals though. The best way to do this is to lay your chicken breast in between two sheets of wax or parchment paper. Take your tenderizing hammer or small frying pan and whack away. In the end, you want the chicken to be even on both sides.
I know, I know, this seems so bad for you, but boy, does it taste good! When cooking a whole bird, add butter under the skin. Take softened pieces of butter and slide it up under the skin in as many places as you can. You can also inject the bird with a melted butter liquid. If you are going this route, I suggest adding some broth and salt to the butter. Again, you are adding fat, moisture, and taste to the bird.