Have you ever wondered what to do with that too-old-to-even-lay-eggs-much-anymore chicken that still pecks around in your flock? Or did one of your hens get injured and there is no saving her? Many people have asked if it’s possible to cook this spent hen and how to cook a stewing hen.
Just like some of their human counterparts, spent hens grow cranky and surly in their old age, and some even pick up nasty habits like pecking at eggs and people who come to collect the eggs. Granny Miller.com says, “One…hen was so quarrelsome and aggressive with me that I gave up trying to be nice or reasonable with her. To collect her eggs I would unceremoniously lift her up by the neck and off her nest; and then throw her out the open door. It never fazed her a bit—next day it was the same routine.”1
Just like their outward behavior, these stewing hens are tough and stringy, and have compact, scrawny breasts and long and muscular legs. You can’t roast a stewing hen successfully, but once you know how to cook the hen correctly, a stewing hen yields delicious meat and rich, flavorful chicken stock. Many cooks will use nothing for chicken stews, soup, and stock, and others say that because they enjoyed an active lifestyle and a balanced natural diet they have a distinct chicken taste that is impossible to duplicate.
If you don’t raise your own free-range chickens, you might be so lucky to see stewing hens at your local farmers market. If so, be sure to grab it up in a hurry because the flavor of a stewing hen is incredible. Remember, meat chickens have been bred for muscle meat, whereas pastured laying chickens are bred for egg production. This lighter and leaner chicken requires a little more extra care in cooking — remember long and low!
So let’s adopt the policy of Great-Grandma—let’s waste not, want not—and discover how to maximize the usefulness and taste of those old, better-with-age, stewing hens we will all encounter in the process of raising pastured, free range chickens. We’ll look at three steps in the process:
- What is my old stewing hen good for?
- What’s the best way to cook my stewing hen?
- What are some sample recipes I could use?
1. What is my old stewing hen good for?
I’ve already mentioned that stewing hens make the best chicken stew, chicken soup, and chicken broth. But their usefulness in your menu planning doesn’t stop there. The possibilities are endless—chicken tacos, enchiladas, stir fries, pasta sauce, chicken and dumplings, and BBQ pulled chicken sandwiches, just to name a few. (Note: You may also have experienced the tirades of that aggressive, mean-spirited, old rooster who attacks your other barnyard animals and even your kids. He can be prepared in just the same way that an old stewing hen is cooked, and will give you the same depth of flavor to your stews and stocks.) The hen’s age brings a wonderfully rich flavor and the grass they eat yields a delightful yellow fat (which you will be able to use!).
It can be hard to decide when to cull your older laying hens. Some keep their hens for a few years before culling, and others choose to cull at the onset of the hen’s first molt. Your chickens will produce larger eggs in their second year, and each year after, but there will be fewer eggs farther between each molt. They may be 8-10 years old before they cease to produce any eggs.
I’ve heard of some people who refuse to cull their own laying hen of many, many years and drive their spent chickens to a forest or woods and let them loose – letting nature decide how their life will end. However, this wonderful bird has given them hundreds upon hundreds of delicious eggs, why not continue to allow this bird to nourish you even more by providing you, yet another, delicious meal with her meat and then nearly 4 quarts of stock with her bones and organs? Waste not, want not!
2. What’s the best way to cook a stewing hen?
Your stewing hen has lots of rich flavor if you know how to extract it. The only way to cook them is over low heat with lots of liquid—to stew them. As muscles get older, they develop lots of connective tissue, and a long slow cooking time is needed to bread that tissue down, which in turn flavors the broth around it tremendously. This is the same principle behind all braised dishes, which makes use of cheaper tough cuts—while they are not suited for fast preparations like grilling, they are the more flavorful parts of meat. Some of the traditionally most flavorful restaurant menu entrees, like Coq au Vin, traditionally prepared from a younger rooster, can be prepared with your old rooster and hen—just as long as you remember that your tough old bird won’t be fork tender for several hours.
You will cull your stewing hen and prepare it for cooking just as you would any chicken. But once you start the cooking process, everything is different. There are several slow cooking methods you can use, including stewing in a low temp oven or in a dutch oven on the stove top for several hours (see how to cook your hen on the stove top here), using a pressure cooker (see Granny Miller’s recipe for cooking in a pressure cooker here), or putting your stewing hen in your crock pot. I prefer the crock pot method (I use this crockpot ) because it is so much easier.
One of the first things you will notice about your stewing hen is the amount of yellow fat around her vent area, which is fairly typical in an older hen. With any method, you will want to skim off the fat once the cooking is complete. Don’t throw that fat away—it makes a very good shortening for dumplings and pie crusts for any type of meat pie.
3. What are some sample recipes I could use?
You will soon become an expert at cooking and using the delicious broth and meat from your stewing chickens. However, here are a few sample recipes to get you started.
I’ve blogged about the healing benefits of good bone broth before. An old proverb says: “Good broth will resurrect the dead.” That’s an exaggeration, but it speaks of the great value of this wholesome food. You can read my blog on Bone Broth here, and find my recipe for preparing your broth. Remember that slow cooking is required for your stewing hen, so you will want to leave your hen cooking longer than 2 hours before you try to separate the meat from the bones, and put the carcass back in the crock pot to simmer another 12-24 hours.
When cooler temperatures are in the air, it’s time to make soups and stews. Most cooks agree that the best chicken stew begins with a pastured stewing hen. It’s the magic ingredient to give you flavor, texture, and color you will never get from a hen who lived its life in a cage, or even from a young hen raised in the pasture. You will find a great Chicken Stew recipe here. If you want to make a traditional meal of chicken and dumplings, you might want to try the Paleo Chicken and Dumplings recipe found here.
Paleo Kickin’ BBQ Shredded Chicken
Many of your regular chicken stew, soup, or shredded recipes can be adapted for your stewing hen, as long as you remember that low and slow cooking is the requirement. You may want to use two stewing chickens instead of one because of the smaller amount of meat you will get. But believe me when I say that this chicken meat will be some of the most flavorful chicken you’ve ever eaten. During the hot, grilling and outdoor picnic days of summer, you can make some crock pot shredded stewing chicken BBQ that will taste wonderful. You can find one recipe for it here. This will be a recipe you want to repeat many times.
Paleo Chicken Enchiladas
Your cooked and shredded stewing chicken meat will be great for many Tex-Mex recipes, including tacos and enchiladas. If you are predominantly Paleo, as I am, and many others are also, you have probably missed the chicken enchiladas stuffed with not only chicken, but also cheese and heaped in a corn tortilla. Well, now you have a new recipe you can try for Paleo Chicken Enchiladas that may satisfy that longing you have. You can find the recipe here.
Or you may want to do what my family does most often and just fix a big bowl of Taco Salad, using that delicious stewing chicken meat. Use your own creativity to create a delicious salad, or you may want to try my Green or Red Chile Pork Taco Salad (found here) and substitute your delicious chicken meat for the pork in the recipe.
Whatever cooking process or recipe you decide to use, it’s time to conquer your stewing hen fears and get to making some delicious meals from the cranky old hen or rooster no longer needed in your barnyard.