The first time I ever cooked a stewing hen, I grabbed it out of the freezer thinking it was a broiler. I prepped it in my usual way and tucked it into the oven. When dinnertime came, I was confused and disappointed. Our typical tender, juicy chicken was nowhere to be found. Instead, we had a sad looking bird, covered in tough, dry meat that was reminiscent of rubbery cardboard. Once I realized what had happened, it all made sense.
Treating a stewing hen the same as you would a broiler will almost always lead to disastrous results - yet it can seem like a tempting option if you’ve never experienced the end product. Stewing hens are far less expensive than their younger counterparts, and they don’t look all that different to the untrained eye. For novice cooks especially, it’s easy to convince oneself that with just the right touch, a roasted stewing hen just might work. Let me be clear: it won’t. It really, really won’t.
The thing is, stewing hens are an amazing ingredient to work with, and they deserve their own rightful spotlight fully separated from the accolades of their roasting pan-worthy counterparts. It’s a matter of knowing what you’re working with, why it’s important, and how to treat one. Let’s take a look.
The WHAT: A stewing hen is a retired egg layer. Stewing hens are an important component for honoring the life cycle of a farm. After several happy years eating grass and bugs, a hen’s egg laying ability naturally slows down, and she’s no longer a productive member of the flock. In order to keep up with the demand for eggs, farms must cull these older hens in order to make space for new layers. Butchering and selling these hens provides a revenue source for farms and allows the hen to continue to provide nourishment, this time in the form of high quality, pastured meat.
The WHY: At Brookford Farm, the diets of egg laying hens are supplemented with organic, soy-free food. This food, paired with the green pasture grasses and insects that the hens naturally forage on, creates a bird that has lived a full life of optimum nutrition. Unlike broilers that are raised for meat and fattened relatively quickly, stewing hens have the opportunity to develop very strong bones, and strong, lean muscles. These bones are incredibly mineral rich, and the fat from these hens is full of fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients. Because of their rich nutritional content, stewing hens make excellent stock. A stewing hen’s lean meat contains a high level of connective tissue, which works wonderfully for slow cooked dishes such as stew, soup, and chicken and dumplings.
The HOW: Stewing hens are very lean and contain a lot of connective tissue which must be broken down through low, slow cooking. You can cook a stewing hen on the stovetop in a large pot of simmering water for several hours, or, as many cooks prefer, you can use the crockpot. The main difference between methods is that the stovetop will create a more concentrated stock, as the water evaporates out during cooking. The crockpot will typically create a large batch of less concentrated stock. Because it is easier to control the temperature and maintain a low simmer in a crockpot, many cooks prefer that option. It also provides a safer option for cooking your stewing hen for extended periods of time, such as overnight, or times when you may be out of the house during the day.
For either method, you begin by placing the stewing hen in the pot along with vegetables and herbs of your choosing. Whenever possible, I use vegetable scraps for this, rather than vegetables I might otherwise want to eat (they will be discarded at the end). Good vegetable scraps to use are carrot tops and peelings, celery leaves and trimmings, onion, leek, scallion, or garlic trimmings, parsley leaves and stems - really the sky's the limit. For herbs and spices, I like to add two bay leaves, several peppercorns, and a little thyme. Add about two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and fill the pot with water. (The vinegar helps to release the minerals from the bones.) Turn the heat to low and slowly bring to a simmer. Maintain the simmer for as long as needed. After a while, the meat will tenderize and begin to fall off the bones. Generally, 4 hours is the minimum simmer time, and 24 hours is the max.
Remove the chicken carcass and attached meat from the pot and set it in a bowl to cool. Strain the broth into a bowl or other container(s) for storage. (It’s typically easier to do this once it has had some time to cool). If you’ve simmered your hen for a very long time, you will likely have a good deal of meat in the strainer - pick that out and save it to use. Once the carcass has cooled, remove all of the meat for use in stews, soups, tacos, casseroles, chicken salad...really anything that you would use cooked and shredded chicken for. Some people save the carcass to add to their next batch of stock. You can keep recycling bones in this way until they crumble; you will have better results with this if you always add some “new” bones along with the old. Note that the cooled broth will likely develop a layer of bright yellow fat on top. This will solidify when refrigerated. Don’t throw this fat away! As a solid layer over the broth, it will help it to keep for longer in the fridge. It is also full of healthy vitamins and nutrients that you want to eat. You can choose to mix it into the broth when eating it, or scoop it off to use in the same way you would use any other cooking oil or fat.
It’s really a very easy and rewarding process, and one that is definitely worth learning. While stewing hens are decidedly NOT for roasting, they are a wonderful way to honor the life of an animal by using the whole body: the meat, the broth, the fat, and the bones.