Fewer families today are familiar with the ‘stewing hen’ of old, but this staple has a lot to recommend itself.
What is a stewing hen, anyway?
“Stewing hens” are how the traditional farmstead managed their laying flock. As egg-laying hens aged and their productive life waned, they served families in a different way. They didn’t go to waste, but neither did they become a fried chicken dinner.
What’s the difference?
You won’t find a stewing hen in a grocery store. The meat you’re familiar with, whether you’ve shopped conventionally or have enjoyed our delicious pastured broilers, is from a young bird, specifically bred to put weight on quickly and in quantity. Those are usually less than two months old at processing, and as in all meat animals, youngness equals tenderness. Retired hens are (in a pastured model) many, many times as old. They are not so tender, so not suitable for roasting or frying like young ‘meat birds’ are. Also, they are a different breed of chicken entirely, so their dressed carcass looks quite scrawny compared to a Cornish cross broiler. Laying hens are intended for egg production, and as such require far less fuel for growth and maintenance of their bodies; the bulk of their fuel intake goes to produce eggs, not bulk up their mass.
So why would I want a skinnier, tougher chicken for dinner?
Well, in the first place, it’s good stewardship. We promote “nose to tail” use of all our animals, and spent hens are no exception. But really, these are hidden gems, unavailable to many people due to current industrialized practices. An older bird, raised the way we raise them, has a rich, unmatched flavor, with all the benefits of our pastured poultry. The nourishing broth produced by its carcass is unparalleled. The favored ‘chicken and dumplings’ often made use of this particular creature.
But how do I cook it?
A great option is to slow-cook or pressure cook it. This helps tenderize the meat, and the bones can be left in the pot to make broth. One of my favorite methods is to put three or four of them in an electric roaster on 325º for about 4 hours, or until the meat starts falling off the bones. The meat can be easily removed – use it to top salads or freeze for a quick addition to casseroles, soups and pot pies. The bones, again, should be turned into fantastically rich broth, perfect for dumplings, soups, recipes, even as a healthy, warming beverage (here’s an interesting recipe).
Stewing hens are a lovely, versatile option that can offer both nutritional benefits and incomparable flavor. Available seasonally, so keep an eye on our shop.