Nobody buys just lettuce; it’s Romaine or arugula or Bibb. Beef is Angus, salmon is Sockeye, and a Granny Smith apple is never mistaken for a Honeycrisp. But we buy chicken, just chicken.
Bland, mealy supermarket tomatoes just don’t cut it once you’ve had the juice of a just-picked, perfectly ripe Brandywine running down your chin, and freshly-dug Russian Banana fingerlings are a potato revelation after mass-produced russets. Heirloom fruits and vegetables are old-time varieties grown from seeds that are saved from season to season and handed down through multiple generations of growers. They’ve been saved, sometimes for centuries, because they taste so good .
Modern large-scale agriculture relies on hybrids. Commercial growers have breeding programs that focus on high yields and ship-ability. They need varieties that perform well in the field, can be picked green, travel long distances, and be gas-ripened when they reach their destination. Flavor and nutrition take a backseat to shelf-life and hardiness.
Breed makes an enormous difference to the taste of chicken, just as it does for other foods.
Most of us have yet to discover this difference because we’ve gone our entire lives eating just one chicken: the Cornish X Rock hybrid. The U.S. poultry industry, which cranks out eight billion of them a year, selectively bred the Cornish X Rock to grow quickly while eating as little as possible, and to carry a high ratio of white meat to dark with its giant breasts perched on stubby legs.
Just as tender heads of Little Gems lettuce will ruin you for iceberg, once you eat a heritage chicken, there’s no going back to Perdue.
These birds are more complex, more savory, just plain more chicken-y than what you’ve been eating. Even an organic, free-ranging Cornish X can’t come close. It will always be a flabby prisoner of its genetics, maturing too quickly, and too top-heavy to move. The meat never has a chance to develop any real character.
Each heritage chicken breed has its own ‘personality.’
It’s like apples— there are sweet ones and tart ones, apples for sauce and apples for pie. It’s not the worst thing if you bake with Red Delicious, but Pippins are a better choice. Same with the chickens: a Buff Orpington is a great fryer while the oil would overwhelm the delicate flesh of a Marans, and a meaty Speckled Sussex cries out for a slow braise. There is none of the multi-tasking versatility of Cornish X Rock, but each breed has its own distinctive textural and taste notes and even a sense of terroir.
Heritage recipes for heritage birds.
Dust off the old cookbooks- you need to go all the way back to the 1950’s to find recipes that don’t presume you’re cooking a Cornish X Rock.
Contemporary cooking of old fashioned chickens is alive and well at Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, a pioneering breeder and online seller of heritage chickens. The farm sponsors a heritage chicken recipe competition attracting hundreds of entrants. You can find winning recipes and more at The Heritage Chef.