This week we began selling “Traditional” (Cornish Cross) chickens. For the past two years we have only raised and sold Heritage “Poulet Rouge” chickens, so it was with a great deal of thought and consideration we decided to begin raising traditional birds.
Traditional Cornish Cross chickens are the standard white bird which the chicken industry has raised since the 1940’s when they were developed. We veered away from this bird for years in large part due to our understanding of how these birds are raised in the modern industrial poultry complexes. Up to 75,000 birds packed into a house where they never see the light of day and never get to live the life of a chicken – we didn’t want any part of it, so we focused instead on old-world breeds of chicken. However, after much soul-searching, and feedback from our customers and restaurants we made the decision this Winter to begin raising Cornish Cross chickens as well. I want to explain the decision process and in doing so describe the histories and differences between these two chickens.
THE HERITAGE CHICKEN
Prior to the 1940’s all chickens were grown on small to medium farms like ours. The chicken business was in large part a local endeavor, and the birds which were produced were hearty farm breeds, such as Delaware and Rhode Island Reds – those which could lay eggs decently but also made a great meal. In fact, John Tyson started his early career as a farm-to-farm purchasing agent traveling around negotiating chicken contracts with small farms. Back then chickens were mostly a secondary or supplemental line of income for farmers.
These farm birds were strong and active and fit well in a farm setting. Their slow growth allowed them to develop rich and complex flavor and their active farm life oxygenated and built muscle texture. They were the birds old-timers speak of when they say, “chickens just don’t taste the same as they did when I was a kid.” And they don’t!
THE TRADITIONAL CHICKEN
In the late 1930’s and 1940’s breeders discovered the 4-way cross; a particular set of four heritage breeds “crossed” as grandparents, to produce a hybrid set of parents, then “crossed” as parents to produce the (f2) Cornish Cross. This chicken was a marvel in that it grew 2-3 times faster than the typical heritage breeds and had a greater proportion of its body dedicated to white breast meat – the cut more Americans preferred. In addition, this bird was LAZY, absolutely content to lay around and only get up to eat and drink. as such, they burned fewer calories and didn’t develop muscle texture resulting in a very tender bird.
Fast forward 75 years and this bird is now churned out by the billions (that’s not a typo) each year in the United States. Nine billion to be exact, and the vast majority of them are controlled by just four massive companies. The whole system is ugly; the treatment of the workers and the treatment of the growers, the verticalization and contractual control…not to mention the treatment of the chickens. One of our biggest issues was that these birds were no longer raised on farms, but rather in automated, climate-controlled industrial buildings. No grass. No sun. No bugs. No dirt, no life for a chicken. We wanted better.
As we began raising our heritage Poulet Rouge birds we found ourselves selling into more and more restaurants. The sort of open, experimental and highly talented chefs we work with were able to transform our birds into some amazing dishes. In doing so they were able to work around some of the challenges heritage chickens bring, namely their denser muscle texture. Trough slower cooking techniques, or sous vide, or whatever the heck kinda magic Matt McAllister does at FT33, they were able to capture the richer flavors of our heritage chickens and create stunning plates.
Still, one by one our chefs began telling us they needed the Cornish as well, for faster cooking applications; grilling, frying, stir-frying, etc. Additionally, the larger breast of the Cornish lends itself to stuffing, tenderizing and so on. Where the bird lacks in depth of flavor, it wins in tenderness and culinary flexibility. And, it’s simply what people are used to, a fact that does not go unnoticed to a discerning chef.
We had similar feedback from retail customers; folks cooking our heritage drumsticks, and wings, or breasts too quickly and finding them tough. They wanted something they could throw on the backyard grill or drop in a deep fryer.
Therefore, we decided to raise Cornish in addition to our heritage birds. However, we were not going to give up our ideals of how to properly raise a quality chicken; on pasture with lower densities, access to fresh air, sunlight, grass and insects, and soil in which to scratch around. We still feed them non-GMO, all natural feed and we move them daily around the pasture so they constantly have new forage and don’t have to bed down in their own manure. I once heard a farmer say, “We want every day of our animal’s lives to be the best they can possibly be… except the last.” Unfortunately the last day is unavoidable, but all the others should be utter chicken bliss!
Happy, stress-free, healthy chickens simply produce a better product for our family and our customers. Like a home-grown tomato – the quality speaks for itself.
So, as an overly simplified summary:
Heritage Chicken is full of deep, rich flavor with a golden fat that some describe as self-basting. They have more dark meat with highly developed legs and thighs. They lend themselves to slow cooking applications and are unparalleled as slow roasted whole birds. They are excellent sous vide or in soups or any other culinary application which allows the muscle texture to be slowly broken down. Think of a beef brisket – terrible grilled as steaks, but has no equal when slowly smoked – it just needs the time to reach its full potential.
Traditional chickens are plump and tender and offer close to 18% of their weight in breast meat. A more mellow flavor and whiter fat, but typically very moist and supple. They can be cooked very quickly and won’t tighten up, so they are more flexible from a culinary perspective. Additionally, since these birds grow to weight faster they are cheaper to raise for the farm and therefore they are less expensive for the consumer.