Real Free Range Chicken: Pastured Poultry
Last week was crazy-busy. I had family in town as well as juggling recipe development for a client, a presentation for another, a fundraiser cooking class, and a column due to Fine Cooking Magazine. I also wrote a piece about my concerns over Wicked Tuna, a TV show about bluefin tuna fishing on NatGeo for CNN.com, and other work to do in preparation for several other upcoming projects. Then, on Friday afternoon, we drove down to Bluffton, GA and spent the weekend at White Oak Pastures with the Harris family.
One of my future and really exciting projects is writing the story of this amazing family and farm. We were there to work on the proposal. It’s not a cookbook, but rather a food narrative, new for me and a writing challenge I’ve embraced whole-heartedly! My blog deadline came and went last week in all the hub-bub, so I decided it made the most sense to write about and share my weekend at White Oak Pastures.
Will Harris III is a fourth-generation cattleman and the 5th generation, his daughter Jenni, is now working with him, as well. Will’s ancestor founded White Oak Pastures in the late 1800s, after returning home from the Civil War. Will is a cowboy straight out of central casting. He’s tall and rugged with a rich, deep voice—and a legendary drawl that makes the ladies swoon. He is a Deep South cattleman from the top of his Stetson hat to the tip of his well-worn leather boots. We rode all over his 1000 plus acres in his open air Jeep, checking on the cattle, goats, sheep, chickens, the guard dog puppies, the rabbits, and his daily expanding farm buildings.
What’s different about Will and White Oak Pasture products is that the meat is environmentally sustainable, ethically produced, and humanely slaughtered. Will says, “Cows were born to roam and graze. Chickens were born to scratch and peck. These are natural instinctive animal behaviors. Commodity livestock production removes costs from meat production systems by raising animals in mono-cultural confinement systems that do not allow these instinctive behaviors.”
He explained that grain-finished cattle spend most of their lives eating grass in pastures, and then move on to a feedlot where they eat an inexpensive, high-calorie diet for three to six months. Dispensing antibiotics to healthy animals has become routine in these confinement systems that now dominate American agriculture. (Very disturbingly, just this morning I read a piece about mad cow disease and how commodity beef is essentially, still feeding cows to cows.)
Will’s grass fed beef is grass fed. Period. And, now, lucky for us, White Oak Pastures is raising chickens and applying the same principles of humane animal husbandry and land stewardship to poultry.
You say, “Oh, I already buy organic free range chicken. I don’t buy chickens with antibiotics or hormones.”
That doesn’t mean as much as you think it might….
The truth is, all chicken is hormone free. USDA regulations prohibit poultry growers from giving hormones or steroids to their birds. So, this label, while truthful, is also misleading. It would be similar to putting a “cholesterol-free” label on an apple.That sounds great until you realize that all apples are inherently cholesterol free.
What about antibiotics? The use of antibiotics is necessary to control illness in massive chicken houses. Too many animals in an enclosed environment can become sick. Trouble is, some poultry that is labeled antibiotic free only means the chickens themselves haven’t been given antibiotics. It doesn’t mean the chicken feed doesn’t contain antibiotics, or that they were administered to eggs before the chicks hatched.
Ok, so what about free range? To a large extent “free range” is simply a marketing term. Producers of free-range chickens must simply be able to demonstrate that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. This does not necessarily mean the chickens are pecking away in a pasture. They may simply have a very small doggie door in one of these large houses. It’s what’s called “greenwashing” which in my opinion, is a kind way to say that it’s all a big lie.
There’s no greenwashing at White Oak Pastures.
There are about 500 chickens per trailer out in the field, not 25,000 in a massive house. They are fed and watered every day. They are free to roam about the pasture, pecking and eating, but they mostly stay close to their particular house. They are guarded from toothsome predators by majestic Great Pyrenees sheep dogs. Yes, occasionally, Will says a raptor such as a hawk will kill one, but for the most part, Will explains the arrangement is very successful.
It’s real free range chicken that is actually called “pastured poultry.” Increasingly, people want this option in their grocery stores and farmer’s markets.
I’ve been to a commodity chicken house as well as a processing plant. I’ve seen the kill floor. It was one of the most vivid things I have ever witnessed. Frankly, it was gruesome. Chickens in commodity plants can be processed at 140 birds a minute. Read that again. 140 birds a minute. In plants that process 140 birds a minute, one inspector checks about 14,700 chickens daily. Frankly, I question the food safety much less the impact on the animals and workers.
I witnessed the kill floor this past weekend, too. It’s humane, not horrible. The animals aren’t panicked, bruised, and broken when they are slaughtered. The White Oak Pasture abattoir was designed by one of the world’s foremost authorities on animal livestock behavior and humane slaughter, Temple Grandin.
These birds taste different. Will says his animals are athletes. They aren’t sick birds crammed in a cage. They hunt and peck. They have muscle. They have flavor. White Oak Pastures chickens are little dinosaurs. This doesn’t come without cost. Will explains that while his beef is about 25% more expensive, the nature of the chicken production creates a situation in that the chicken is at least 100% more expensive.
Will says, “Our way is not the cheapest way to produce meat, but’s the right thing to do.”
Lucky you, once again! I arrived at White Oak Pastures to discover that Whole Foods Market will have White Oak Pastures Chicken on sale this upcoming Friday, May 4. Click here to find a store near you. (Or, you can order directly online for all their humanely raised meats.)
Lastly, I want to encourage you to do what you can when you can. So, you may not be able to eat pastured poultry or humanely raised meat or grass fed beef all the time. Think “kaizen”. Do what you can when you can – it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Daily improvements are as simple as one small movement forward at a time.
Check out my recipe below for roast chicken — and tips on making multiple meals out of your premium-priced, pastured poultry. Good honest food that’s good for you, good for the land, and good for your pocketbook. Go get yourself one and taste the difference. You’ll be glad you did.
Bon Appétit, Y’all’
There's no doubt that $12 -$15 for a chicken is expensive. In this economy that's a lot of money for one meal. Here are some tips on making the most of your pastured poultry.
Meal One - Roast the chicken. Serves 4.
Meal Two - Remove all the meat from any remaining bones. Save for soup, use in a stir fry or a casserole. Serves 4. (See Garden Pasta Salad recipe below.)
Meal Three - Save the bones for stock. (Heck, in France we saved the eaten bones off people's plates and made stock. You don't have to do that, but certainly save the deboned carcass.)
- Heat the oven to 350°. Season inside the cavity of the chicken with salt and pepper. Carefully slide your fingers between the skin and the breast meat; Place 2 bay leaves and a pat of butter between the skin and the breast meat. Place the chicken in a cast iron skillet. Season all over with salt and pepper. Place the chicken in the oven with the cavity facing the rear of the oven. Roast until the juices run clear when pierced in the thigh with a knife, about 1 hour. Let rest for 15 minutes. Carve and serve immediately.
How to Carve a Chicken
- When carving a chicken, let the bird guide the way. This may sound funny, but the parts should separate at the joints with little or no effort. I often tell my students that if the bird is fighting you, the knife is not in the right place.
- Set the bird breast side up on a cutting board. If the bird is hot, I use a clean kitchen towel instead of a carving fork to protect my hand, but you can use a fork. I prefer to use the towel because it doesn’t tear the skin, and I have those asbestos fingers chefs often have. Do what feels comfortable to you.
- Pull the leg and thigh back to expose the joint that attaches it to the body. Somewhat forcefully bend a leg away from the body until the joint pops apart. Use a sharp knife to sever the leg from the body, cutting through the separated joint. As you separate the leg, using the tip of the knife, be sure to get the “oyster,” a yummy nugget of delicious dark meat toward the back of the chicken just above the thigh. Repeat the process with the other leg and thigh.
- Place each leg quarter on the cutting board, skin side down. Use a chef’s knife to cut through the joint that connects the leg to the thigh. (It should be fairly easy to cut through the joint.) Look for a line of fat, and if the knife meets resistance, your knife is hitting bone and is not placed at the joint, which is easy to carve through. So, reposition the blade slightly and try again.
- Place the bird, breast side up, on the cutting board. Feel for the breastbone, which runs along the top center of the chicken carcass. Begin separating one side of the breast from the body by cutting immediately alongside the breastbone with the tip of your knife. Work from the tail end of the bird toward the neck end.
- When you hit the wishbone, angle the knife and cut down along the wishbone toward the wing, then make a cut between the breast and the wing. Finish separating the breast by simultaneously pulling back on the meat and using little short strokes of the knife tip to cut the meat away from the carcass. Do the same to remove the breast meat on the other side.
- Find the joint where the wings connect to the body and bend until the joint pops apart. Use a sharp knife to sever the wing from the body, cutting through the separated joint.
- Using a chef’s knife or your hands, remove whatever meat remains on the carcass. (Reserve the carcass for stock.) Arrange the legs, thighs, wings, and meat on a platter, pour over any accumulated juices to moisten the meat, or use in pan sauce, and serve.
GARDEN PASTA SALAD WITH CHICKEN
Serves 4 to 6
Here’s a new take on pasta salad that combines the leftover chicken, corkscrew noodles, kid-friendly veggies, such as edamame, and a light dressing flavored with a hint of Dijon mustard.
4 cups whole wheat rotini
2 cups broccoli florets
2 cups pulled chicken
1/4 cup mayonnaise, or to taste
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 cup frozen edamame, thawed
1 cup matchstick carrots
1 cup baby spinach, chopped
Cook the rotini according to the package instructions, adding the broccoli to the pot for the last 2 minutes. Drain, reserving 6 tablespoons of the water. Transfer the rotini and broccoli to a large bowl. Add the pasta water and toss to coat the ingredients. Add the pulled chicken.
In a small bowl, stir together the mayonnaise and mustard until well blended. Add the mixture, along with the remaining ingredients, to the bowl and toss well. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, if desired.
Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.
This post was not sponsored by Whole Foods Market or White Oak Pastures.
photos by Sally Ekus