Why Would You Want a Heritage Chicken?

They're delicious, but misunderstood.

Emmer & Co. Heritage Chickens
Photo: Courtesy of Emmer & Co.

At $9 a pound, you'd expect a heritage chicken to taste good. Like, really good. But a casual glance at Amazon reviews of heritage chickens shows that some customers — a surprising 27 percent, in fact — don't think they've gotten the deliciousness they paid for.

"These chickens are the toughest, stringiest chickens I have ever cooked," one wrote. "They are advertised as lean, but that is an understatement. They could win a fitness contest. [I'm] extremely disappointed ... and also concerned the chickens may have been malnourished."

But here's the thing: heritage chickens are not the plump birds you find at the grocery store. They can be equally (and many say radically more) delicious, but they're different in so many ways.

Heritage chickens are different genetically

They're bred to be. While industrial or commercial chickens are meant to grow in cages quickly and efficiently — in as few as 42 days — heritage birds are born from industry-regulated eggs and raised for at least 16 weeks in a natural outdoor environment where they reproduce as nature intended, says Sun Basket chef Justine Kelly.

Or, as Chopped champion Silvia Baldini explains, "a heritage chicken must have the genetic ability to live a long, vigorous life and thrive in the rigors of pasture-based systems."

Heritage chickens also have sleeker bodies — they're the runway model version of chickens, so to speak, with small breasts and deeper, dark complexions. They're the OG of chickens, as "Americans' obsession with huge chicken breasts is a recent phenomenon," Baldini says.

Heritage chickens have totally different flavors

What's more, a heritage chicken's flavor is unlike that of a commercial bird. After all, they're not eating processed meal or feed like their less lucky cousins — they're foraging for bugs and grass, which makes the flavor of their meat "inconsistent in the same way that the taste of a tomato varies season to season depending on where and how it's grown," says Kelly.

While a commercial chicken might be bland, "the flavor of [a heritage chicken's] meat is intense," Baldini says, "and the fibers in the meat are very strong and difficult to break down."

Heritage chickens need to be cooked differently

You can't expect a heritage chicken to taste the same as any ol' bird you buy at the grocery store — and you can't cook them the same way, either.

You can order a heritage chicken online, or find one at your local farmers market, where "you can often talk to the person who grew your bird, which is pretty cool," says Kelly, who suggests buying "a younger bird for frying, sautéing, or grilling, and a more mature hen if you're planning on braising or making a stew."

No matter how you prepare it, Baldini recommends cooking heritage chickens "very low and very slow" for the best taste. No cheating. "These birds have had much more exercise — and over a period longer time — than the supermarket chickens," says Baldini. "That produces flavor, but also increases the cooking time needed for those exercising muscles."

Without cooking heritage chickens low and slow, "the birds will be tough," Baldini warns. It's also best to fry, roast, or stew a heritage bird, she says.

In fact, here's a simple way to make sure you love your heritage chicken: Roast the bird in a Dutch oven at a low temperature, smothered with a quality butter for a golden, crispy skin. Then, "let the heritage chicken rest for 10 minutes so the juiciness is sealed into the tender meat," Baldini recommends. If you can't put time into cooking a heritage bird — or you want to throw a breast on the grill this Memorial Day — reach for the commercial kind instead.

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