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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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May 14, 2008 2:57 PM

Chicken -- little?

Posted by Nancy Leson

After reading about one of my favorite Sunday suppers (roasted chicken). Jane Ramsey wrote to ask if I know where she might get her hands on a true "roaster" -- not one of those dinky broiler/fryers sold all over town -- like the ones my husband smoked on the Weber last weekend:

Now, for those of you who don't know your roaster from your broiler from your fryer, allow me to quote from that ready reference "The Food Lover's Companion," which explains: "The broiler-fryer can weigh up to 3 1/2 pounds and is usually around 2 1/2 months old. These chickens, as the name implies, are best when broiled or fried. The more flavorful roasters have a higher fat content and therefore are perfect for roasting and rotisserie cooking. They usually range between 2 1/2 and 5 pounds and can be up to 8 months old."

And this, from my well-thumbed tome, "The Joy of Cooking": "Any chicken, from a 1-pound poussin to a 10-pound capon, can be roasted. . . Today, most chickens weighing 2 to 3 1/4 pounds are sold to restaurants. What is left for supermarket sale are chickens at the heavier end of the midsized range, weighing between 3 1/2 - 4 3/4 pounds. Usually these are labeled simply "whole chicken." If you do not see one called a broiler/fryer, don't get too excited, for it probably will turn out to be a fairly large chicken like all the rest. If you are buying a whole midsized chicken for roasting, assume that it will feed four people, generously if it weighs over 4 pounds, modestly if it weighs less. . . Large chickens -- generally those weighing 5 to 7 pounds, though some producers include chickens weighing as little as 4 pounds in this category -- are marketed today as roasting chickens or roasters. They are often perfect candidates for roasting. . ."

And, just because one can never get too much information (and because I trust them implicitly) here's what the folks at Cook's Illustrated have to say on the subject: "Most of the birds raised for meat in the United States today are descended from the Cornish (a British breed) and the White Rock (a breed developed in New England). Broiler/fryers, roasters, Rock Cornish game hens, capons, and stewing/baking hens are all chickens. Each has been bred to "plump out" (an industry term indicating that the breast meat is thick and plump) upon reaching a certain age and weight. Broiler/fryers, the birds we recommend for grill-roasting, are slaughtered between six and eight weeks of age, when they weigh 2 1/4- to 4 1/2 pounds. These young chickens (another term you might see on labels) are ideal for frying and broiling (parts from older birds are too thick to cook evenly by these methods), hence the term broiler/fryer. Roasters are slaughtered between 9 and 13 weeks of age and weigh 5 to 8 pounds."

So, now that we've got that straight -- sort of -- where can Jane buy a roaster?

Dale Erickson at University Seafood and Poultry in the U-District is the only source I could come up with that regularly carries roasters. (Anybody know any different? Please speak up! And yes, I might suggest checking closely at your neighborhood farmers' market.)

"So, what's the difference between a roaster and a broiler/fryer?" I asked Dale. "About six weeks," he said with a laugh. "They're both very young chickens. Roasters run 4 pounds or more, broiler/fryers run from 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 pounds. Those roasters -- like all his chickens -- are fresh, unadulterated, Northwest birds, available fresh daily, and they'll set you back $2.19 per pound today (the broiler/fryers are $1.98). Dale points out that he's also your point-man for "Gramma's brown-feathered laying hen" -- the proverbial "tough old bird" also known as a baking hen (though she's not for baking at all, she's an old-fashioned stewing hen).

At A&J Meats and Seafood on Queen Anne, they're moving some plump broiler/fryers, weighing-in (today at least) at around 5 pounds -- though these are big-uns, comparatively speaking: stock on hand is generally in the 4-lb range. Those hormone- and antibiotic-free chickens are $2.95 a pound.

Yesterday I stopped in to Whole Foods downtown and checked out the goods. The birds in the butcher-case were locally grown broiler/fryers, I was told, and when we weighed them out just for grins, they came in on either side of 4 pounds (and sold at $2.29 per pound). They were, said the friendly young butcher, some of the largest broiler/fryers he'd seen there:

The biggest clucker in the house, however, was found in Whole Foods' grab-and-go case: a 5.28-pound, free-ranging, organically-fed "Rosie" from Petaluma Poultry. That was one plump bird, and at $17.37 she should be!

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Posted by Daryn

1:08 PM, May 15, 2008

For comparison to the others (and to save people from doing the math) the Rosie is $3.29 / lb

Posted by Chi

5:16 PM, May 15, 2008

How about stewing chickens? Do these still exist?

Posted by Nancy Leson

8:43 PM, May 15, 2008

Chi: Regarding stewing chickens. Yes, read the paragraph above quoting Dale Erickson: he said he sells "baking" (i.e. stewing) chickens at University Seafood and Poultry, and you can also buy them (cheap!) at 99 Ranch Market in Kent or Edmonds.

Posted by chi

7:39 AM, May 16, 2008

Thank you! And sorry, I missed that completely. I love chicken and dumplings but have not been able to replicate the old fashion rich taste from today's 'regular' chickens which cannot withstand the rigors of long simmering. Looks like Ranch 99 will be on this weekend's agenda.

One more question though - in case there is no one there to ask: Are these hens specifically identified as baking/stewing or does one simply go by weight?

Many thanks again and I'm so glad to have discovered your blog!

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