If chicken shopping isn’t complicated enough, (organic, natural, heritage, free-range, grain-fed, kosher, blue foot, etc.) perhaps you should also consider the age of your bird.
In neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Flushing, where food shopping generally feels a little closer to what it might have been like in the olden days—before everything was trimmed, shrink-wrapped, and delivered directly to your door—butchers categorize their chicken by consistency: Soft, Medium, or Hard.
A hard chicken is older, tougher, and more flavorful than a “soft” or young one, and needs slow, wet cooking. “If you want to make soup, this is the only way,” Arian Daguin, Owner of D’Artagnan, told us. “These chickens can stand a lot of cooking without falling apart or losing their flavor.”
Daguin also explained that a hard chicken, or what the French call a stewing hen, can be up to two years old. A regular industrial chicken is usually about 45 days old, and an organic one can be 85 days old.
“You have to know where you’re buying these from—what farm they were raised on. You don’t want a hen that’s been laying eggs in some tiny cage for two years, eating nasty stuff,” she warned. Stewing chickens used to be a common item in butcher shops in New York, but they’ve become a specialty item in American butcher shops. They can usually be ordered a few days ahead.
So, this winter, bring home an old hen for some pot au feu.