Can you eat roosters? Don’t despair if your straight run chicken count includes more cockerels than you’re inclined to keep. With the right care, those often overlooked birds can become a valuable source of homegrown food.
If you buy or hatch chicks, there will likely come a time when you get more males (cockerels) than you need or want. Maybe you live in an area where you’re not allowed to have roosters, or maybe you don’t want fertile eggs; or maybe you’re worried a rooster will become aggressive. If you find yourself in one of these situations, there’s no need to panic! With a bit of planning and perspective, surplus cockerels can become a valuable source of humanely raised meat.
When hatching eggs under a broody chicken or in an incubator, the probability of males is approximately 50 percent, meaning roughly half the hatchlings should be male. With unsexed (“straight run chickens”) from a farm store or hatchery, the ratio of males to females could be lower or higher, but at least 50 percent males is a realistic expectation. (Remember, some of the chicks from the original hatch might’ve been purchased already or been removed for other reasons.) Even if you think you’re buying female-only chicks (“pullets”), vent sexing has a margin of error. Hatcheries claim an accuracy rate of roughly 90 percent, so some of those “pullets” may still turn out to be cockerels.
With breeds that aren’t autosexing or sex-linked – where sex can’t be determined by coloring at hatch – it can take several weeks before some of the male-defining characteristics begin to appear. Depending on breed, male chicks may begin showing physical characteristics, such as faster comb growth, larger body size, and longer hackle and sickle feathers, as well as behavioral characteristics, including greater assertiveness and more chest-bumping with other chicks. In some breeds and individual birds, however, these signs may not be obvious, and it can be unclear you have a male bird on your hands until it begins crowing.
Once your chicks have grown to the point where you can determine sex, you may well find you have more males than you want. And while you can certainly try to re-home any surplus cockerels so they have flocks of their own (as we also try to do), if you have the ability keep them, they’ll make delicious farm-to-table chicken.
We hatch eggs often on our farm, so we’re prepared for and embrace the inevitability of cockerels. Once we’re able to determine we have cockerels – typically around 3 to 4 weeks of age for the breeds we raise – we move them into either secure low tractors or hoop tractors. These “bachelor tractors” are sited well away from any pullets and hens. We do this because cockerels will generally be calmer and less inclined to fight for dominance if females aren’t nearby, buying us time to raise them to an optimal weight.
Can You Eat Roosters?
Our breeds are dual-purpose (intended to provide both eggs and meat), so they grow slower than meat-specific breeds. The upside of slower growth is that it allows more time for flavor to develop, and the difference is appreciable. Once you’ve tried a homegrown dual-purpose chicken, you’ll understand that the adage “tastes like chicken” refers to the comparatively bland flavor of commercially raised chickens, such as Cornish Cross, which are typically processed by 6 to 8 weeks of age. Did you know that a Cornish game hen is just a Cornish Cross of either sex that’s been processed at around 4 weeks old? Processing this early, while arguably more efficient from a feed standpoint, doesn’t allow the birds to develop deep and complex flavor.
On pasture, we move the cockerels around frequently to ensure they’re spending their days on new ground with fresh bugs and greens to eat, in addition to the high-protein fermented feed we give them. In their tractors, they can dust bathe, enjoy the breeze and sunshine, get some exercise, and make choices about where they want to sleep and which bugs to chase. The dual-purpose birds we raise typically have small breasts and large thighs, attesting to their unimpaired mobility.
Our cockerels usually reach peak growth at about 5 months old, after which their growth rate tends to slow. Plus, if the cockerels continue to mature, they might engage more frequently in dominance-related conflict. When we see these signs, we know it’s time to begin processing.
Processing your own birds on a small scale doesn’t have to be complicated or involve purchasing a lot of expensive equipment. If you’ll be handling only a few birds at a time, you can likely make do with some basic supplies, most of which you probably already have on hand. You’ll need a clean plastic garbage can lined with a garbage bag to contain the feathers and other discarded parts; a stainless steel prep table, or any table that can be thoroughly disinfected before and after; a large plastic tub for keeping the carcasses cool in ice; sharp knives and a sharpening steel; plastic bags for the carcasses, organs, and feet; paper towels; bleach or other disinfectant; ice; and running water. You’ll also need some way to scald the carcasses prior to plucking. A turkey-frying setup (burner, liquid propane tank, and sturdy stainless steel stockpot) works well for this.
The day prior to processing, we withhold supplemental food to help ensure the birds’ digestive tracts are empty. This is a matter of preference, but we find it helps keep the processing environment cleaner, particularly when dressing out birds.
On processing day, we carry each bird to the processing area, keeping them calm by talking to them along the way. This is their one “bad day” (really, a few bad moments), and we want to minimize stress as much as possible. Keep any birds awaiting processing far from your work area so they don’t hear or smell the activities. Ideally, they shouldn’t be aware of what’s occurring. We do our processing in a sheltered area well away from the waiting birds, and we usually end up trekking out into the pasture to retrieve birds two at a time from their tractors.
To begin processing, we place the birds into killing cones to hold them in place. (We use cut-down traffic cones for this purpose.) We then quickly remove their heads with one swift cut from a sharp pair of loppers. It’s typical for the birds to have a reflexive movement after decapitation, so we keep the bodies in the cones until they’re still. We prefer this method because it’s quick and nearly foolproof, in keeping with our aim of humane processing. If you’re new to processing chickens, learn how to properly dispatch a bird before you attempt it.
Next, we scald the carcasses to loosen the feathers and facilitate hand-plucking. Plucking is the most labor-intensive and time-consuming part of the process, and if your budget allows for a mechanical plucker, it’ll save you a lot of time and effort. We haven’t been able to justify buying a plucker for the relatively small number of birds we process, so we just do it the old-fashioned way. Once the carcasses are cleanly plucked, we eviscerate them and then give them a final rinse. Next, we bag the carcasses and place them in ice water to keep cool until packaging. If you’re new to processing, familiarize yourself with the conditions for safely storing processed chickens until you can get them bagged and into a freezer or refrigerator.
Though we’ve used shrink bags for packaging in the past, we prefer to vacuum-seal our processed birds, because we’ve had far fewer failures with vacuum-sealed bags. After recording the date, breed, and weight of the processed birds on the bags, we put them in our chest freezer until we’re ready to cook chicken. Recording this data is useful for comparing the growth rates of different breeds to inform future planning.
Techniques for Tender Meat
Our pasture-raised chickens taste nothing like the commercially raised birds sold at the grocery store. The meat is rich, flavorful, and unbelievably “chickeny” – a result of the breeds we raise and the terroir imparted by their environment. Out of respect for our chickens, we try to use as much of them as possible, including saving and eating organs, such as the gizzard, heart, and liver. Even if these don’t sound appealing to you, a dog will gratefully eat them. Once the chicken is cooked and deboned, we turn the bones into delightfully gelatinous and nourishing bone broth, enjoyed by both us and our dogs. We also save the feet for bone broth.
Pressure-cooking is my preferred method for cooking pastured rooster. (I use an electric pressure cooker.) A pressure cooker can tenderize a fully frozen bird, eliminating the need for lengthy thawing times, and it makes collagen-rich bone broth much more quickly than other methods I’ve employed.
Regardless of the age of the bird, a pressure cooker will render it tender. If you have an older bird, cook it a bit longer. I find that a slightly frozen cockerel of about 5 months old is perfectly tender after about 45 minutes of pressure-cooking, whereas an older rooster (1 year or older) benefits from about an hour of cook time. I check for tenderness by poking one thigh with a fork. If the meat feels resistant, I continue to cook the bird in five-minute increments until it’s done.
Once cooked, the tender meat lends itself to a variety of meals, including soups, ramen, sandwiches, and casseroles – many of which can also be prepared quickly and easily in an electric pressure cooker. One of my favorite ways to use our gourmet farm-to-table chicken (and that luscious bone broth) is to make congee, an Asian soup that’s warm and comforting. The complex flavor of home-raised chicken really shines in this deceptively simple and nourishing meal. (See “Chicken Congee” below.)
Growing your own food is an important step toward becoming more self-sufficient. I think you’ll find raising cockerels for meat to be an excellent learning experience that creates a new appreciation for homegrown chicken.
Chicken Congee Recipe
- 1 pound cooked and deboned chicken
- 1 cup uncooked jasmine rice
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 3 to 4 sliced mushrooms
- 1 quart bone broth
- 3 cups water
- Toasted sesame oil and fish sauce, for topping
- Chop chicken into small cubes.
- Layer rice, garlic, ginger, mushrooms, and chicken in an electric pressure cooker.
- Add bone broth and water.
- Close and lock the lid of the pressure cooker. Ensure the steam release is turned to “sealing.” Cook on manual (high pressure) for 20 minutes.
- When the congee has finished cooking, allow the pressure to release naturally.
- Scoop congee into bowls, and then pour about 1 teaspoon each of toasted sesame oil and fish sauce on top of each bowl. Stir to incorporate.
Carrie Hardie focuses on pasture-centric and earth-friendly practices on her small farm. Follow her at Forged Mettle Farm.