Updated: Sep 5, 2021
They say mature roosters are tough as an old boot, and old laying hens are good for nothing but stewing chickens. But what if I told you a homesteading secret? With a little bit more work, you can get some tender vittles out of those tough, fibrous old birds.
As chickens age, they take on more minerals and calcium that develop into silver skin. Silverskin on a chicken is a nearly transparent membrane, often disregarded as over-scalding on a freshly processed bird. The membrane lays beneath the skin covering the flesh. It looks milky white in some areas and can appear slightly cooked. Most of the time, this silverskin is virtually invisible to the human eye, but chewing it will let you know it is there, and this is why you can muck off something edible and swallowable but are left with a mouth full of chewy beyond beef jerky "chaw."
There are two ways to prepare these aged birds to make them soft and supple removing jaw workout. One requires skinning, and the other does not. Eating skin isn't everyone's thing, but there is a lot of nutrients in it, including cancer-fighting selenium and wrinkle repairing and preventing collagen. Our bodies consist of 30% collagen. It is important to replenish this as our bodies age because we don't make it; we get it by consuming it. Collagen supplements are derived from the hides and skins of animals and fish.
If you are into eating the skin, pressure cooking poultry can provide you with soft juicy meat and broth for canning later. Place a heavy cook-safe dish in the bottom of your canner, large enough to hold a cook-safe colander. Make sure the canner water will not bubble up into your dish. This dish will catch the broth that will cook out of your poultry that is in the strainer. If you don't do this, you will have to simmer everything that settles in the bottom of your canner for a few hours before canning to preserve in jars to remove the excess water. My 19-pint canner is aluminum, and aluminum is a known neurotoxin, so I don't let any foods touch my canner or the canner water. Non-stick coatings on instant-cookers are also toxic. If you are growing food for your health, please consider non-toxic cookware. These include stainless steel, cast iron, and enamel-coated cast iron.
Place your chicken in the strainer. If it doesn't fit, whittle some parts off and place them inside the body cavity. Evacuate your canner correctly before cooking and follow your corners instructions for cooking. Most canners should run 15psi for 25 minutes after being evacuated. Let cool slowly on the stove. Do not water cool. If you are planning a meal, this process takes about 45-50 minutes from start to finish.
Once the canner pressure is low enough to open, use tongs to remove your chicken. It will be scorching. It will come out in tender pieces. Season and serve immediately while hot.
The bottom of the dish that holds the sieve will be a fresh batch of broth that can be frozen or canned. The broth needs to cool and be placed in the fridge overnight. It will gel up, and the fat will rise to the top. Skim off the fat and save it for schmaltz. It has endless uses, including frying. All fat must be removed from the chilled broth before canning as it can go rancid when stored for any prolonged period. Reheat your broth for canning or freeze it in leftover containers to make frozen blocks for vacuum packaging for long-term deep freezing. Always follow FDA recommendations for canning. The internet has many incorrect variations in video and recipe form. Only the FDA recommendations are safe. Tape your canner's instructions to the inside of your kitchen cabinet doors so they are always available.
The chicken bones must be picked before the carcass completely cools as the meat will firm up again, and the collagen will set, making it kind of rubbery to the touch but very edible. I use the bone pickings chopped up on salads, in hot dinners with vegetables or beans, in omelets, and sliced thin on sandwiches. I separate the bones that will go back to the poultry pasture to be picked clean. The bones degrade in the pasture and return calcium to the soil. They are cooked, so there is no risk of disease. I also set aside little organ bits left in the backs that aren't tasty to humans, for my dogs, along with any extra neck skin that would make for odd bits in a meal.
The other route to tender meat from old birds is to remove the silverskin. First, remove the chicken skin. It isn't chewable unless stewed or pressure cooked anyway. This won't easy if the poultry is several years old. A sharp knife is a necessity to prevent a struggle. I keep a few knives on hand for use. They aren't expensive, but I like the shape and flexibility of the blade. This chicken was a very small two-year-old laying hen, so there wasn't a lot of meat, but I would get the "goody" out of it.
Place the breasts face down on a cutting board and skin off the membrane, like how you would fillet a fish. It will surprise you how tough the membrane is, and your knife should easily glide along to remove it. It may take a little practice, but it is worth the effort not to eat tough meat when processing old birds. This will leave the breast meat soft, supple, juicy, and tender. I take it one step further and pin down the tendon in the tenderloin and scrape the meat off it, leaving the breast free of anything chewy. This is my preferred method for making fried chicken strips. Older chicken has a little more pronounced flavor in the soft white breast meat, perfect with homemade ranch and honey dipping sauces.
This same process can be used on the thighs. It is a little more tricky and takes a bit more practice. The membrane only covers the outer areas of the thighs.
Remove the skin and then the bone by cutting down the fat line that stretches the skinned thigh's inner side. The bone has to be removed to be able to lay the meat flat to remove the silverskin.
This will expose the bone. Gently cut along the bone until the thigh is free. Place the thigh, bone side up on the cutting board, and skin of the outer membrane facing down, just like filleting a fish. These old skin-free, bone-free thighs are excellent for frying or cutting into bits for sauteing.
Filleting off the silver skin. This is a clear membrane underneath the peeled-off chicken skin.
Save the bones and extra skin. I place the extra parts in vacuum safe bags and freeze them until I have enough for a whole pot to simmer down out enough for a canner run for broth. It is safe to open a large vacuum bag and toss in new bones or skin, reseal and refreeze. I often cook chicken bones down for three days on the woodstove, setting the pot outdoors overnight when the temperatures are below freezing. Homemade chicken bone broth is an excellent addition to your health and any meal calling for chicken broth. These are a few great ways to get tender meat out of your old birds and delicious homegrown broth.
If you know someone who farms, homesteads, or owns chickens they eat, please share this article to help them get the most out of their meat birds. This works on all poultry, including enormous old turkeys.
I have been homesteading for two decades and recorded my self-sustainability journey in a novel available HERE on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback form. The first two chapters are free under the "Look Inside" tab. We have been off the "food-grid" for ten years now, meaning we don't buy store food or bring home all the trash that comes with it. This also reduces our carbon footprint by negating all of the fossil fuels needed to grow, manufacture, package, and distribute store-bought food. The book has chapter by chapter photos available for free, along with more homestead information, blogging, and Facebook on my website growingbacktotheland.com