Poultry is an excellent source of lean, low fat protein. Whether you’re barbecuing chicken on the grill, preparing that holiday turkey, or preparing fried chicken for a picnic there are a lot of choices for adding more poultry to your diet. The USDA identifies six categories of poultry (Rock Cornish game hens are a form of chicken). Here they are:
Chicken – The domestication of poultry took place between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago. This may have originally been as a result of people hatching and rearing young birds from eggs collected from the wild, but later involved keeping the birds permanently in captivity. Domesticated chickens may have been used for cockfighting at first and quail kept for their songs, but soon it was realized how useful it was having a captive-bred source of food.
Today, chicken is the most popular poultry in the world. It is available fresh or frozen in many forms. Although the sex of the bird doesn’t matter, older male birds are generally tough and stringy and are not as flavorful as female birds. The French poulet de Bresse is considered the world’s finest, and is a blue-legged variety raised on a diet of milk products plus sweet corn and other grains near the village of Bresse in southeastern Burgundy. They are only available in the US from specialty food importers at a premium price.
Rock Cornish Game Hen – The Rock Cornish game hen is a cross between the Cornish Game and White Plymouth Rock chicken breeds and is described by the USDA as a “young immature chicken (less than five weeks of age), weighing not more than two pounds ready-to-cook weight.” Thus, it is not a true game bird. A Cornish hen typically commands a higher price per pound than typically sold chickens, despite a shorter growing span of 28 to 30 days, as opposed to 42 or more for regular chicken.
Duck – Duck contains only dark meat and is available whole or as duck breasts, usually frozen. Duck has a high percentage of fat and it is important to render as much fat as possible. Ducks were not mentioned in agricultural texts in Western Europe until about 810 AD, when they began to be mentioned alongside geese and chickens as being used for rental payments made by tenants to landowners. Ducks are farmed mainly for their meat, eggs, and down.
In some countries, geese and ducks are force-fed to produce livers with an exceptionally high fat content for the production of foie gras. Over 75% of world production of this product occurs in France, with lesser industries in Hungary and Bulgaria and a growing production in China. Foie gras is considered a luxury in many parts of the world, but the process of feeding the birds in this way is banned in many countries on animal welfare grounds
Goose – Geese also contains only dark meat and has very fatty skin. It is usually roasted at high temperatures to render or burn off the fat. Domestic geese are larger than their wild counterparts.
Guinea Hen – the domesticated descendant of a game bird with both light and dark meat and a flavor similar to that of a pheasant, it contains very little fat. It must be “barded” or have fat added to it (inserted in cuts in the skin or overlapped with bacon) to make it juicy and tender. Guinea hens eat mainly insects, but also consume grasses and seeds. They will even eat the ticks that carry Lyme disease. They happily roost in trees and give a loud vocal warning of the approach of predators.
Squab (Pigeon) – No, this isn’t the same pigeon you see in the park! Commercially raised, the pigeon has dark, tender meat and very little fat. It is best broiled, sautéed or roasted and also benefits from barding.
Turkey – Pre-Aztec tribes in south-central Mexico first domesticated the turkey around 800 BC. It is the second most popular bird eating in the US and has both light and dark meat. It is generally available year round as frozen whole birds, or fresh as turkey parts, ground or as sausage and bacon. Turkeys are reasonably priced and yield a lot of meat. However, fresh organic, free-range turkeys available during the Thanksgiving season can cost up to $300.
Ratites (Ostrich, Emu and Rhea) – these are flightless birds with small wings and flat breastbones. Their meat is red, even though they are classified as poultry. They generally contain very little fat and are best prepared by broiling, grilling, roasting and pan frying and are served medium rare to medium.
Partridge, pheasant and quail are widely raised on game preserves and farms. Partridge has a stronger flavor than pheasant and the meat tends to be tougher. Pheasant is the most popular game gird and has a mild flavor and tender meat. Quail are very small and are often served whole and stuffed. Quail were depicted in hieroglyphs from 2575 BC.
Chickens are raised indoors in huge windowless chicken houses that may contain as many as 20,000 birds. They are primarily fed corn and soybean meal, but animal protein, vitamins, minerals and antibiotics are often added to produce quick-growing birds. Consumers are becoming concerned about the residual effects of the added nutrients and chemicals and are opting for organic, free-range chickens which are allowed outside the chicken houses, without antibiotics and fed only a vegetarian diet. Free-range chickens are superior in flavor and quality.
Poultry is graded by the USDA according to overall quality with the grade (USDA A, B or C) on a shield on the product packaging. Nearly all poultry sold in retail outlets is Grade A. Grade B and C are used primarily for processed poultry products.
With the exception of duck breasts and squab, which are often left pink, poultry is always cooked well done. To determine doneness:
- When the bird is done, it will have a firm texture, resist pressure and spring back when pressed with a finger.
- Temperature – Use an instant-read thermometer. It should read 165o-170oF at the coolest point.
- Looseness of joints – When bone-in poultry is done, the leg will begin to move freely in its socket.
- Color of the juices – Poultry is done when its juices run clear.
Poultry is highly perishable and susceptible to contamination by salmonella. Fresh chickens and other small birds should be stored on ice or at 32o-34oF for up to two days. Larger birds can be refrigerated at these temperatures for up to four days. Rinse it under cold running water and then try and clean with disposable paper towels to remove any collected juices prior to cooking.
Labensky, Sarah R., and Hause, Alan M. On Cooking.