How to Cook a Tough Bird

There are many reasons to pay the extra dime for chickens that have lived some semblance of a life. But paradoxically, the more naturally a bird is raised, the tougher the meat. Here's how to prepare the happy chicken from your backyard or farmers market.

Ari LeVaux

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A bird that’s run around the yard, dug for bugs, had chicken fights, and made chicken love will have a lot more texture to its flesh than a bird raised in something like a packed subway train. That factory-farmed chicken meat is so tender you can basically heat-and-serve, and cut it with a spoon. But the flesh of many a happy chicken has been far less cooperative. Rubber, climbing rope, and a variety of titanium alloys have been used to describe the texture of a truly free-range chicken.

There are ways around the toughness, and when that toughness is conquered it becomes an asset, because there is flavor in those muscles.

So here are two general rules for cooking properly raised—a.k.a. tough as hell—chicken, followed by a less general recipe for coq au vin, which is French for “cook the old bastard in wine.”

Don’t cook a freshly killed chicken on the day of death, especially if you killed it yourself. And if you are going to kill it yourself, take away its food 24 hours before slaughter, so its bowels are empty.

You want to wait this period so the meat can relax, and let the rigor mortis fade away. If you are the killer, you will want to give yourself a little time as well, to clean up the blood and feathers at the slaughter area and get the smell of chicken death out of your fingers and hair. Waiting a day allows both chicken and eater to come to the table recovered. I like to include an overnight soak in brine in that process. Then drain, rinse, pat dry, and let rest in the fridge for a few hours.

Don’t stop cooking the coq until the meat falls off the bone. It’s really that simple. And always stay mindful of liquid level during long cooks like this, replenishing the jus with wine or water as soon as the liquid drops below an inch deep.

And that, in a nutshell, is my coq au vin recipe. It’s about 30 steps simpler than Julia’s, and thinner, without flour and butter. We both use bacon, although if you don’t have bacon don’t sweat it.

Julia’s recipe, which she gave to ABC’s Good Morning America in 1995, instructs to “simmer [the chicken] slowly 20 minutes, or until the chicken is tender when pressed.” For reference, the last rooster I simmered slowly like that took about two hours. Julia’s audience was a pre-foodie crowd that rarely wondered why the chicken was so soft.

Coq au vin, a.k.a. rooster in wine, doesn’t require a bonafide male chicken in order to be authentic. In my book, if I had a book, I would at least require a tough chicken. But in truth it’s probably a bit more satisfying if it is a real rooster, and not a hen—especially if was a mean rooster. The hen is that loving maternal nester that gives us her eggs and raises the baby chicks. You don’t want to kill the hens.

This recipe is best made the day before you’ll need it, for the simple fact that you don’t know how long it’s going to take for the bird to get tender. And it benefits from a night in the fridge.

Rub the formerly happy bird with olive oil and herbs, like thyme, oregano, or de provence, and sprinkle with garlic powder and salt. Bake uncovered at 350 for about 45 minutes. It will be nice and brown and crispy on the outside, even if the inside is still tougher than a $2 steak.

While it bakes, gather and prepare the following: chunks of carrot, parsnip, and potato; whole garlic cloves; chopped onions; whole or sliced mushrooms; thyme; chopped pork fat (or bacon, or not). Toss the assembled items together with olive oil.

When the chicken is browned, remove it from its pan, leaving the grease behind, and put the chicken on a plate to cool. Add the assembled items to the now empty, greasy pan, stir it all together, and put the pan back in the oven.

When the chicken is cool enough, cut or tear it into at least five-10 pieces. Add the torn up chicken—skin, bones, and all—to a baking dish with a tight-fitting lid, covered with an equal mix of water and red wine—ideally burgundy—and a few bay leaves. Put the chicken in the oven to braise, covered, alongside the other baking pan.

Frequently stir the pan with the bacon and onions until the onions are fully caramelized and just starting to brown. At that point remove that pan from the oven and set it aside. Keep testing the chicken, and cook until it’s truly tender, adding more water and wine as necessary. When the chicken’s tender, add it to the other pan, wine and all, and stir it all together. Add more water/wine to cover the whole business.  Put the pan back into the oven and keep baking. As it cooks, season with salt and pepper, and maintain the liquid level with additional water and wine as necessary. The longer you cook it, the thicker the sauce gets, as everything merges together.

Coaxed by the wine, fatty flavors leech from the cartilage and bone. Everything, especially the potatoes, begins to disintegrate, which thickens the sauce in lieu of flour. When in doubt, just add more wine and keep cooking. Take your time; you’re not serving it until tomorrow anyway. Pick out the bones and skin when it’s done. Let the pot cool to room temp, and then place in the fridge.

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