A friend of mine approached me several months ago and asked if we wanted a few roosters. I sighed and asked what was going on knowing that if we took them, they would end up as a stewing hens and roosters project. She explained her predicament.
She had wanted to raise Silkie chickens but lives in the city with limited space for her backyard chickens. She only wanted a few birds and was having difficulty finding a company that would ship a small batch. Then one day she was at a flea market, a farmer was selling chicks, and they were Silkies — what luck! Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out as planned.
She bought five of the chicks and brought them home to add to her backyard chicken flock. As they grew, something became clear: These birds were not behaving like the ones she had had in the past. She had some experience raising Silkie chickens as well as other breeds, and she knew what had happened. Though this farmer had told her the birds were pullets, they were in fact, all roosters.
If you have raised chickens before, you know that rooster behavior is fairly distinctive. There are the telltale crowing and mating behaviors, but there are many other signs as well. Generally speaking, roosters are larger in size with more colorful or bounteous feathers. They are often the last to go to bed, stalking around the chicken coop or run to make sure everyone else has gotten safely to bed. Roosters will usually protect the flock from any threat they perceive, puffing themselves up, squawking loudly, pecking at, stomping on and charging at dangers. Most small backyard chicken flocks can support no more than one rooster. This is where my friend’s trouble arose. She had five roosters in a flock of fewer than 10 chickens.
The aggressive rooster behavior became an issue as the birds reached maturity. They began fighting endlessly. She separated them into different parts of the yard, but as winter got worse, she had to put them back together for warmth or they would all die, and so she did. One morning she came out and found one of them had been killed by the others during the night. She knew she had to do something different.
This is when she called me to ask if we would take any of them. I told her that we had no desire to add a rooster to our backyard chicken flock but that we would gladly take them for harvesting. Generally speaking, we aren’t in the business of raising meat chickens. We are raising chickens for eggs, but we did harvest a few birds in the past year. We had a rooster who nearly killed several of our babies; he became a roast. Similarly, our neighbors asked us to harvest their male when his rooster behavior became unmanageable.
Now, if you know anything about raising Silkie chickens, you may recognize that harvesting these birds was perhaps a silly thing for me to offer to my friend. When she eventually came to terms with this option, and the chickens arrived at our house, I laughed at myself. They were seriously tiny! We wondered if this was worth the effort.
My husband felt like it would be good practice for him to go ahead and harvest them. Besides, what we were going to do with them otherwise?
While he got to work in the yard, I went to the kitchen to do some research. I had heard of stewing hens but didn’t know much about them or how to cook them.
After a lot of reading, I decided this was the way to go with these tiny birds. Whatever meat they had could be salvaged and their bones would contribute toward a rich and healthful broth. When the birds were ready, I set to work.
How to Cook Stewing Hens
Now for the nitty-gritty: How to cook stewing hens.
1. Put your birds into a large pot and fill with enough water to cover them. I had a little extra broth leftover in the fridge from something else, so I threw this in as well.
2. Put the pot on the stove and bring to a boil. As it comes to a boil, scum will rise up to the top. Skim as much of this off as you can. I dumped the scum in my compost bin.
3. Put the lid on the pot and turn the heat down to a slow simmer. Now you’ll need patience. It’s going to be a long haul! Leave your broth alone for four to eight hours. Check on it occasionally just to make sure your bird is not completely disintegrating. If you leave it to that point, it will be more difficult to pick out the meat and bones but not impossible if you strain it.
4. When you and the broth are ready, use whatever tool works for you to remove the chicken from the broth. I used tongs and a slotted spoon.
5. Use your hands to separate the meat and bones into separate containers. Work with care because these birds have some tiny bones, which are easy to miss. Our three little Silkies yielded a couple cups of usable meat, which I put into the refrigerator for later use. The parts that were too sinewy for us, I added to the dog’s food. Nothing goes to waste around here!
6. Return the broth and the bones to the pot and return to a boil. Once boiling, lower the heat and cover. Now you wait. Your broth should cook at least 12 hours total, but up to 24 if you have the patience. The longer it cooks, the more nutrients you leach out of the bones. At this point, you can also add some things like celery, onion skins, garlic, or parsley to enrich the flavors of the broth.
7. When you declare it finished, pour it through a strainer to get all the bits and pieces out, and you’ll be left with a beautiful homemade chicken broth full of nutrition and usable in so many ways!
What to do With Your Products
The most obvious choice, of course, is to make a soup. I used some of my broth to prepare a vegetable soup for our family. It was simple. I raided the freezer for items from last year’s garden: corn, carrots, peppers and green beans.
I also added a couple small jars of diced tomatoes, an onion, and some of the chicken I pulled off the stewing hens after the initial few hours of cooking time. Some herbs rounded out the flavor. My favorites for soups are rosemary, thyme, and sage.
The remaining broth and chicken I but into plastic containers and froze for future dinners.
You can also pour the broth into ice cube trays to freeze if you tend to use it in smaller portions.
I add chicken broth to everything from stir-fry to soup to sauces. It gives a boost of protein and tons of flavor to just about any savory dish. The leftover shredded chicken will make for a nice chicken pot pie, tacos one night, or a second round of hearty soup. It’s always a nice thing to have on hand in the freezer for a last minute meal.
Lessons Learned from a Difficult Situation
Raising meat chickens can be an emotional topic for many, but if we are going to eat meat, we have to come to terms with where we get it. We have no meat without animals. Though our backyard chickens are primarily for egg production, we are fully aware that someday they may also provide meat for us as stewing hens. This experience taught us that even the smallest birds have much to offer us nutritionally and we are grateful for how they sustain us with their lives.
What would you do if you ended up with too many birds or aggressive rooster behavior in half your flock? Could you use them as stewing hens and roosters? Let us know in the comments below. Hopefully, you have learned about one option that may work for you, with even the smallest breeds of chickens.