Date posted: September 28, 2008

Cooking an Old Hen

I choose to eat my hens at three years. They are considered “old” by then but a chicken’s life span of five to ten years. Apparently the oldest recorded chicken was fourteen years old. Commercial farms slaughter chickens at six weeks and some free range and organic farms at fourteen weeks.
A three year old hen has some distinct differences in the quality of meat. The skin and meat is tougher and the bird has more fat. These facts lend to a different texture and more distinct flavor. Not knowing what that meant and if there are known recipes for old hens, I called my mom to ask if she recalls what her parents did with older hens. She said, “Do you know what Mexican’s call old hens?” Eager to know our cultural term that refers to a particular stage of chicken developmental, I said “no, what?!” Her answer, “mole.” Nyuck nyuck mom. Though traditionally mole is made with turkey, as chickens are not native to the Americas. But I get the point, stew the bird long and pack the dish with flavor robust enough to stand up to its “henniness.”
Turns out this is a pretty well known fact. There seems to be many recipes for old hens. In fact, it turns out that old hens have grown in popularity and are even in demand, at least according to the New York Times. Apparently, though the meat is not as tender, the flavor of an old hen lends itself to a sweet and tasty stock.
Beeton’s Book of Household Management says an old fowl that is no longer good for even eating, is best for stock. For the old girls that are still tender enough to eat, they need to stew for a few hours. A few dishes that can accommodate the flavor and length of time required include:
Caldo de Gallina Viejo; Mole Negro; Mole Colorado; Mole Pipian; Chicken Adobo; Chicken Mull; Coq Au Vin

There are many recipes for cooking the innards, specifically, the neck, liver, heart, gizzards, testes, ovaries (little yolks inside hen), and the kidney. The heart, liver and gizzards are collectively called the “giblets.” a quick peak in the Oxford English Dictionary revealed that the word “giblets” dates back to 1303 when it was first used in Middle English to describe an unessential appendage in the passage:
“A messe ys ynoghe for pe pe touper gyblot, late hyt be.” okay?
The Joy of Cooking says that gizzards and hearts make a good stew. Traditionally, they are chopped up and used in stuffing for the bird. The liver can be sautéed and also ground for pâté. Backs, necks and feet (really well cleaned) can be used for stock. Chicken feet can also be prepared Dim Sum style.
For free style cooks, offers a nice description of flavor affinities for chicken:
Balsamic vinegar, basil, black pepper, carrots, chipotle chiles, cilantro, cinnamon, cumin, garlic, ginger, honey, lemons, mushrooms, mustard, olive oil, olives, onions, red wine, rice wine, rosemary, sage, savory, soy sauce, tarragon, thyme, tomatoes, white wine.
Cooking a rooster tends toward the same recipes. Though, I recently cooked a cockrel with someone that said you could cook the cockrel the same day it was killed. We did this and made adobo. It came out great. So I am back to being confused about whether you need to chill a bird for two days before cooking or not.


  1. stefaneener

    As always, interesting. I think we may, indeed, have a young rooster. Feel free to arrange a slaughter/seedling/seed exchange day.

    And the Chow reference is a great help! Who knew?

  2. Dave

    I think that any of the classic French recipes for preparing chicken were specifically intended for these tough old birds. You’ve already mentioned one of my favorites, Coq Au Vin, but there are many others.

  3. Grace

    We’ve been cooking our tougher birds in a fricasee style, or at least what a visiting friend called fricasee. Basically, we age them for at least 3 days in the fridge, soak them in either a salt brine or a tenderizer and then brown them whole in a hot pan. After that we put them in a dutch oven with a little juice, homegrown carrots, onions and potatoes and roast them very slowly at 250 for most of the day. When we were otherwise unable to tenderize these hens, this method has resulted in incredibly tender, juicy and delicious chicken.

  4. Ann

    I made chicken soup out of my old hen. It sat in the fridge for 4 days until I could get around to it. Then I simply simmered it for about 3 hours in water with carrots, potatoes, and onions. I added swiss chard, left-over rice, and a little orzo pasta the last 10 minutes. It tasted just fine.

  5. JC

    A bird is supposed to chill in the fridge for a few (4) hours to let the rigor mortis pass. I have found this to be true, as I killed 2 3 year olds last weekend, and periodically checked the fridge for firmness. Current recipies will not have accurate cooking times for truely old hens. Consider cooking long and low, ala crock pot to help break down tough meat!

    Watch Coq Au Vin by Alton Brown’s Good Eats on Youtube (it is seperated into 2 parts). Informational and exquisite!

  6. Larry

    Interesting. I’m from Dominican heritage and my wife is Colombian. In both cultures Hen is a fairly big part of the diet. I’ve always looked at it as not having a lot of fat though. But maybe in more mature hens it is a fattier bird.

  7. Esperanza

    Larry: Older hens are indeed fattier. That’s why their broth is coveted. Its got much more flavor!

  8. Edward Warren

    This was helpful to me. I have raised hens for eggs for 20 years and have just totally varment proofed the chicken yard. Now they are not lost to predators and are almost all 3 years old (24 of them).

  9. MJ

    Oh crap… are you not supposed to eat a chicken the same day as it was killed? The last 4 I have butchered and eaten were same day… one was a rooster. I am not sick soooo did I just happen to get away with it?
    Any info would be great since I only just got into keeping chickens.

  10. LW

    MJ, eating a chicken the same day it was killed won’t kill you. It is just fine. It is just that if you let it sit in the fridge a few days it supposedly gets more tender.

  11. Nancy

    Last night I “processed” 4 young roosters and 2 old hens. Due to a lack of fridge space, I immediately roasted them for 2 hours at 350 degrees. The young roosters (~3lb meat ea) were fork tender and the old hens were so tough and compact that I could not pull the meat off easily. I then began boiling them for stock. The hens probably needed a few days of brining.

    For the feet: in case you didn’t know, the chicken feet “peel” when dipped in warm (150degree) water. Even the toenails pop off, leaving a completely clean foot that has never touched the inside of a chicken coop. Quite fascinating design, IMHO.

  12. Cindy

    Thank you for this most interesting article. I live in an urban area and we are severely limited by law the number of chickens we are allowed to keep, so when one of my hens turned out to be an extremely poor layer (to the tune of 14 eggs this season!), I had her processed along with my broilers. I’m going to pop her into the freezer until sometime this fall or winter when a rich stew sounds heavenly.

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