Poultry

Poultry

By
Adrian Richardson
Contains
18 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740668064
Photographer
Dean Cambray

Roast chicken was the very first meat that I ate, so it has a special place in my heart. In the early years of my childhood my father was a vegetarian and he insisted that my brother and I be brought up as vegos too. Family legend has it that for dinner one evening my nonna roasted a chook, and I, clearly not satisfied with the non-meat offerings, grabbed a drumstick from her plate.

Now I’ve always secretly suspected that Nonna might have edged that plate within my reach. She knew I wouldn’t be able to resist, and true enough, that drumstick was gnawed and sucked clean. Shortly afterwards my dad gave up being a vegetarian. It seems that he, too, was seduced by the lure of a roast chicken. From then on my mother always had to cook two chickens for dinner to stop us boys and my dad fighting over it! To this day, a roast chook is one of my favourite meals, and the meal I love to cook most for the family. Nowadays it’s my own three little boys who fight over it.

Technically speaking, any domesticated bird that is reared for the table comes under the heading of poultry. So as well as chicken and turkey, waterfowl such as duck and geese are poultry, while other birds, such as quail and pheasant are a little harder to categorise. I’ve decided to discuss them as game birds, because although they are raised commercially, it is on a much smaller scale, and as such, more likely to be in conditions that mimic the wild.

We know that as early as the second millennium BC the Chinese were raising a wide variety of birds for consumption, and they gradually spread through Asia to the West. The Egyptians and Romans bred geese, ducks and chickens, while the Aztecs had domesticated the wild turkey centuries before the arrival of European explorers. There are many obvious reasons for the appeal of these birds: they are small (compared with beef cattle, say), easy to handle, have quick breeding cycles, and produce a vitally important by-product, the egg!

In the past, it was pretty common for most households (even in large cities) to have a few chickens fluttering around the backyard, but they were prized more for their regular supply of eggs, than as meat for the table. The bird itself was too valuable to be sacrificed for the cooking pot, unless a very special occasion required it.

Today things are very different. Over the last 50 years, demand for poultry – chicken in particular – has escalated dramatically, and to meet this demand most poultry birds are intensively farmed, the world over. The birds themselves look very different from their ancestors, and have been bred to put on weight rapidly, with minimum input from the farmer. What this means in many countries is that birds are raised in horrifically cramped conditions (to prevent them moving), and are fed high-protein diets and dosed with antibiotics. Millions of these miserable birds are slaughtered every year for the fast-food chains, the processed food industry and supermarkets, all of which exert continued and relentless pressure on the farmers to supply cheaper and cheaper birds.

In Australia the best that can be said for the broiler chicken (and turkey and duck, on a smaller scale) is that, at least it doesn’t endure quite the same odious conditions as battery egg hens – these industries are quite separate and the poultry industry takes great pains to point out that it has strict regulations in place to safeguard the birds’ welfare.

But although the large poultry producers would like to paint a rosy picture for us, insisting that chickens (and turkeys) are not raised in cages or fed hormones, and that they are free of antibiotics by the time they are slaughtered, these intensively reared birds still have lived horrible lives. It’s worst of all for broiler chickens, which are raised indoors with up to 60,000 other birds (even free-range birds only have access to a limited amount of outdoor space), and although they are free to roam, by the time they are fully grown the available space for each bird is about the size of a book.

Selective breeding for accelerated weight gain means that by the time today’s chooks reach slaughter weight (at around six to seven weeks of age) they cannot support the weight of their own bodies. As a result, they live in constant pain caused by kneeling in their own accumulated waste (which is generally not cleaned out over their lifespan), and suffer abnormally twisted limbs, hock burns on their knees and blisters on their breasts. Many die prematurely, while the rest endure considerable stress on the way to the slaughterhouse.

And if all that hasn’t been enough to put you off your roast chicken, then think about what it actually tastes like. I’m fairly certain that many of our grandparents and parents will have a dim and distant memory of the days when chicken was actually tasty. But most of the younger generation have never experienced chicken as anything other than a pallid, bland and even tasteless meat, suited for little more than nuggets or chicken-in-a-bucket.

We do have a choice

Thankfully, many consumers these days are demanding birds that have been raised under more humane conditions. We just need to know what to look for.

Corn fed: This relates to taste rather than welfare. Corn-fed birds are raised conventionally, but receive a high level of corn in their diet. The corn itself is neither organic nor free of GMOs.

Chemical free: This relates to the way the meat is processed for the table, rather than to the way the bird is raised. It usually means that no chlorine has been used to wash the chickens.

Free-range: This means that once the birds are fully feathered (at around three weeks of age) they are allowed access to an outdoors run. Beak and toe trimming is not allowed. They must be fed ‘natural foods’ only and must not have been fed antibiotics at any stage during their life (unless under vet care). Currently, free-range chicken meat accounts for around 4 per cent of chicken produced in Australia, with roughly half of it also being organic.

Organic: The guidelines for raising organic birds are the most stringent. As well as being fed a diet free of antibiotics or vitamin or mineral supplements, insecticides or pesticides, they are generally allocated a greater area of space per bird than with other methods, and have outdoor access after 10 days of age. Beak and toe trimming is not allowed. Organic birds are slaughtered at 65–80 days of age, compared with 35–55 days for conventional and free-range birds.

Poultry hygiene

Of all the meat we prepare and eat at home, we need to handle poultry especially carefully because it is very perishable. In addition to following the storage instructions above, do bear in mind the following points:

Most food poisoning bacteria (such as salmonella) thrive between 20 and 60ºC, so keep poultry refrigerated at all times and never let it sit out at room temperature for more than 30 minutes.

Store raw poultry in the coldest part of your fridge and don’t let it come into contact with other foods.

Defrost frozen poultry completely before cooking.

Always use clean equipment (such as knives, boards, bowls and so on) when preparing poultry.

Clean all equipment thoroughly after preparing poultry and before using again.

Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling raw poultry.

Refrigerate any leftovers immediately.

How do you know when it’s cooked?

Poultry needs to be thoroughly cooked, which is another reason why you must purchase a digital instant-read meat thermometer. It takes the guesswork out of determining doneness, and you can always be certain that your chicken or turkey will be perfectly cooked. A food thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh should read 72ºC.

If you don’t have a thermometer, there are some other tests to use. If you pierce the thickest part of the thigh with a skewer, the juices should run out clear and golden. If they are pink or red, it is not ready. Once the juices do run clear, wiggle the leg gently away from the body. If you feel it ‘give’, you can be quite sure the bird is cooked through.

Chicken

In Australia one out of three people eats chicken meat at least three times a week, with just about everybody eating it at least once a week. It’s no surprise then that the chicken industry is huge, worth around $1.44 billion to our economy.

All modern breeds of chicken are descended from the wild red jungle fowl. In Australia the main chicken raised commercially for meat is the Cobb 500, which has been selectively bred for maximum weight gain in the shortest possible time. From a retail perspective, breed is not considered important; of more significance is the way the birds are raised and their diet.

The chicken industry in Australia is highly efficient and productive, with over 450 million chickens slaughtered all year round. Chickens are ‘harvested’ between 5 and 10 weeks of age, ranging in weight from around 1.2 kg (size 12) to 2.5 kg (size 25) and even more. At the other end of the scale, the poussin is a young chicken (three to four weeks of age, weighing 400–500 grams).

How to choose, store and cook chicken

Fresh and frozen chickens are widely available in supermarkets, poultry butchers and fresh produce markets. Fresh is always going to be a better option, with frozen mass-produced chickens being the lowest of the low in terms of quality. I’ve already talked about the available types of chicken, from conventional and corn-fed, to free-range and organic, and I strongly urge you to only buy good-quality, humanely reared chickens, wherever possible.

Chickens may be sold whole, or cut in various ways, depending on where you purchase them. In supermarkets you are most likely to find skinless chicken breasts, skinless chicken thighs, chicken wings and drumsticks. Elsewhere you will be able to buy chicken halves, breasts on or off the bone, chicken marylands (the thigh and leg attached), drumettes and wingettes. You will also be more likely to find chicken with the skin on.

Storing chicken

Defrost frozen chicken overnight in the refrigerator. Once thawed, rinse and pat thoroughly dry. Cook within 24 hours.

Unwrap and refrigerate fresh chicken immediately.

Store chicken pieces in a Tupperware container, or sit them on a rack on a plate and cover with a tea towel.

Whole chickens should be eaten within five days.

Chicken pieces should be eaten within three days.

Chicken mince should be eaten within two days.

Although I think there are few things to beat a roast chicken, one of the attractions of the meat is that it lends itself to so many different flavours and so many different ways of cooking. In fact every country and cuisine has its classic chicken dishes, from Indian curries, to French coq au vin, to Vietnamese salads. The breast and thigh meat are somewhat different, so as always you need to pick the appropriate cut for each dish.

Whole birds are ideal for roasting, pot-roasting and poaching. They can also be broken down into pieces for a casserole. Small whole chickens – especially poussins – may be split down the back and grilled or barbecued. One of my very favourite things to do with any whole bird – although it requires some good knife skills – is to bone it out completely, stuff it, roll and tie it before roasting. It makes a wonderfully economical dish, and everyone gets an equal share of meat and stuffing.

Chicken breast meat is pale and tender, as long as it isn’t overcooked, when it can become dry and stringy. It lends itself brilliantly to poaching or baking in a foil package in the oven with herbs and a splash of wine. Cut into strips chicken breast meat makes terrific stir-fries, or can be skewered for grilled or barbecued kebabs.

Chicken thigh and leg meat is darker and more intensely flavoured than breast meat. These cuts can be roasted and grilled – and are especially good if marinated or rubbed with spice pastes and rubs before cooking. These cuts are also ideally suited to casseroles and braises, and are usually lightly browned first, before covering with an aromatic liquid and simmering until tender.

Things that love chicken

Butter, chilli, coriander, cream, garlic, ginger, leeks, lemon, lentils, lime, olive oil, onions, parsley, pepper, red peppers, red wine, rosemary, saffron, salt, smoked paprika, soy sauce, stuffings, tarragon, thyme, tomatoes, white wine.

Turkey

When the Spanish first landed in Mexico in the 16th century, they were greatly amused by a large, waddling, heavily plumaged bird with a curious gobbling call. This was the turkey, and it had been domesticated by the Aztecs for meat and eggs and for its gorgeous feathers. The Spanish introduced the turkey to Europe where it became very popular because of the generous amount of meat on its large body. But it was in North America that the turkey really came into its own. According to legend, the early Pilgrims ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s been an annual tradition ever since. Today in the United States around 260 million turkeys are processed every year, and many of them go for the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Americans eat nearly 10 kg of turkey annually, compared with Australians, who eat a tiny 1 kg. Here in Australia it seems that we associate turkey firmly with Christmas and most of us don’t really know what else to do with it. This is partly to do with the bird’s reputation for being tricky to cook. The breast meat of our Christmas turkeys is renowned for being dry and flavourless, despite the processors’ efforts to keep it moist with various ‘self-basting’ or ‘pre-basted’ techniques (which involve injecting the meat with water, fat and flavourings).

How to choose, store and cook turkey

In the weeks running up to Christmas the supermarkets begin stocking up on turkeys. You’ll easily find whole turkeys (fresh and frozen) of various sizes, turkey ‘buffets’ (a whole breast for roasting), and stuffed turkeys rolls. But producers are making determined efforts to increase the appeal of turkey all year round, by making a wider range of cuts available to the consumer. So in many supermarkets you’ll find cuts such as boned legs and whole breasts for roasting, thigh chops and strips, turkey mince, breast fillets, schnitzels and rolled breasts, and even turkey smoked ham.

Most of these birds come from the two large companies that control every aspect of Australia’s small turkey industry – from breeding, to rearing and then processing the birds. The turkeys are intensively raised in sheds under similar conditions to conventional broiler chickens. These operations are similarly focused on economic production measures, aiming for quick-growing turkeys that can be pushed through to slaughter in the shortest possible time. These monster birds will be processed at anything from 9 weeks of age up to 18 weeks, depending on size demands.

Thankfully there is a growing number of enthusiastic small-scale turkey farmers in Australia. Their birds take up to 25 weeks to reach table weight and are reared in free-range and sometimes organic conditions. At this premium end of the market, producers also aim to get consumers interested in eating turkey all year round, and you should ask your butcher to try to source the cuts that you want.

Turkeys for roasting come in a range of sizes and you need to pick the appropriate size for the number of mouths you want to feed. Whole turkeys can weigh anything from 4 to 15 kilograms while turkey buffets range from 2.5 to 8 kilograms. In general, the larger the bird, the harder it is to cook satisfactorily – the breast will be overcooked and dry, the legs undercooked. As a rule of thumb, I would allow 250 grams per person for a buffet or rolled, stuffed turkey. Allow 300–350 grams per person from a whole bird.

Storing turkey

Other than at Christmas time, whole turkeys are usually sold frozen.

Defrost turkey overnight in the refrigerator. Once thawed, rinse and pat thoroughly dry. Cook within 24 hours.

Store turkey cuts in a Tupperware container, or sit it on a rack on a plate and cover with a tea towel.

Larger cuts of turkey should be eaten within five days.

Small cuts should be eaten within three days.

Turkey mince should be eaten within two days.

When roasting a turkey you will probably want to stuff one or both of the cavities (the main body or neck). Trussing the turkey holds the legs close to the body as it roasts and helps the bird cook evenly.

Turkeys are famously prone to drying out during roasting. There are several things you can do to prevent this: either stuff the breasts under the skin with butter or a moist stuffing, rub the breasts with liberal amounts of butter or drape them with slices of bacon, pancetta or even pork back fat.

Things that love turkey

Bacon, bread sauce, butter, cherry sauce, chestnuts, cornbread, cranberries, gravy, olive oil, onion, pepper, pumpkin, sage, salt, sausage meat, sweet potatoes.

Duck

The best duck cooks in the world, in my view, are the Chinese (with the French coming a very close second) and if you want to be converted to this delicious bird, then I urge you to visit Chinatown. Many Asian restaurants will even have a selection of cooked ducks hanging in the window and you can buy them to take away for eating at home.

For most Australians, duck does tend to be something they prefer to eat in restaurants. It has a reputation for being very fatty and expensive – with one duck only providing enough meat to feed two people. But although it is something of a luxury item, duck can be a brilliantly rewarding bird to cook.

How to choose, store and cook duck

In different countries around the world there are many breeds of duck raised for the table. Some of the best known are famous English Aylesbury and Gessingham ducks, in France they prize the Nantais, Barbary and Rouennais breeds while in the USA they love their Long Island ducks. But for the most part, you’ll have to go overseas to taste these beauties.

In Australia the most commonly bred eating duck is a cross between the Chinese Peking duck and the Aylesbury, with most going to the food service industry, rather than into shops. Nevertheless, farmed ducks are available, fresh and frozen, all year round. Some suppliers also provide muscovy ducks (which originally came from South America). These are bigger ducks, with a stronger flavour, but they do have a reputation for being a bit chewy.

There is a small number of free-range duck growers in some areas of Australia, which are often cross-bred from different varieties. These can be very exciting to try, if you have the opportunity, offering both tenderness and intense flavour.

Storing duck

Defrost frozen duck overnight in the refrigerator. Once thawed, rinse and pat thoroughly dry. Cook within 24 hours.

Unwrap and refrigerate fresh duck immediately.

Store duck pieces in a Tupperware container, or sit them on a rack on a plate and cover with a tea towel.

Whole ducks should be eaten within five days.

Duck pieces should be eaten within three days.

Whole ducks are available (head on or off ), and are great for roasting. The benefit of this high dry-heat method is that a lot of the fat that covers the breast renders down and keeps the meat moist.

Other readily available portions are duck breasts and whole duck legs. They each benefit from slightly different cooking methods and times. Duck breasts are best served when still a little pink; they are ideal for pan-frying, grilling and roasting. Duck legs need longer cooking as their dark meat tends to be tougher; they are wonderful for braising or turning into confit.

Things that love duck

Cherries, garlic, hoisin sauce, honey, orange, pepper, pomegranate, quince, red cabbage, salt, soy sauce, star anise, turnips, vinegar.

How do you know when it’s cooked?

Because duck meat is darker than chicken or poultry, it lends itself more to cooking like beef or lamb. Different parts of the bird are suited to different types of cooking. The leg meat is tougher (because the leg muscles do more work), so it is ideal for longer, slowing cooking methods, such as braising.

Duck breasts can be treated more like beef or lamb steaks. In fact many people like to eat duck breasts very rare indeed. I recommend using a digital instant-read thermometer and following the cooking temperatures in the chart below, until the duck breast is cooked to your liking.

Remember that the reading will rise by about 5ºC as the meat rests, so begin checking the temperature about 5 minutes before the end of the recommended cooking time.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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