By: Bryan Cambell
Poultry is a mainstay of family dinners everywhere and can be prepared in countless ways. The term refers to any domesticated animal raised for meat or eggs and encompasses everything from quail to ostriches.
While exotic varieties can be a lot of fun to prepare, there are only a few types you’re likely to come across. Whether it's for an everyday family meal or a big dinner, the important thing is to know the right bird for the occasion and the best ways to prepare it.
Tip: Learn to select and prepare beef with our easy-to-follow guide.
The best way to ensure top quality is to speak with your butcher about what's freshest. When purchasing fresh poultry, look for firm birds with plump flesh –– the skin should not look deflated or wrinkled. If buying frozen, check that the package is well sealed.
Chicken is classified primarily according to its age. As it ages, chicken grows both more flavorful and tougher, so you’ll need to select the right type depending on how you’ll be preparing it.
Broilers: chickens under 14 weeks of age. They constitute the bulk of the chicken sold in the US, and while they can be found whole, are most often sold already segmented. Broilers can be prepared in a variety of ways, but are best broiled or fried.
Roasters: chickens older than 14 weeks but usually younger than eight months and are more flavorful. Roasters typically weigh five to six pounds and because they have a little more fat than broilers, and can be roasted without drying out as easily.
Stewing chickens: chickens as old as 18 months. While their meat is flavorful, they’re too tough to be cooked without liquid, so these chickens are best braised or made into soup.
White vs. Dark Meat
Segments are classified as white meat if they come from the breast (which does little work) or dark meat if they come from the legs and thighs (which do relatively more work).
- White meat is leaner and tends to be less flavorful; it can also dry out easily.
- Dark meat is generally less popular and therefore less expensive, but is both tastier and more forgiving because it’s moister.
Cornish Game Hen
Although the name suggests a wild fowl, the Cornish game hen is actually just a small variety of chicken that was first bred in Connecticut in the 1950s.
Cornish game hen is generally younger than five weeks of age and weighs less than two pounds. Owing to its small size, each Cornish game hen constitutes a single serving, which is most often roasted or broiled.
Treat selecting and preparing Cornish game hens the same way you would a chicken. Be careful of their size as it lends itself to overcooking.
Tip: Learn to select and prepare common varieties of pork with our guide.
Look for turkeys with pale and reflexive skin. Skin should be off white and the flesh a greyish-pink.
- For most of the year, turkey is mainly eaten in processed form as sandwich meat or as a substitute for bacon or ground beef.
- Broad-breasted whites are the most common turkey for roasting but the large breast that makes them so popular also makes them difficult to cook, as the white meat that tends to dry out before it’s cooked through.
- Heritage breeds (breeds that became less common as turkey farming became industrialized) like the Bourbon Red and Standard Bronze often have smaller, more flavorful breasts that make the bird easier to cook, but result in a higher price.
How to Prepare: Turkey is most easily prepared roasted, though techniques such as deep-frying have gained popularity. Turkey can also be purchased in parts, with bone-in breasts and legs being the most common –– both of which are ideal for everyday family meals.
Though duck isn’t widely available at many supermarkets, it can be purchased at specialty markets or butchers. Like chicken, duck is typically divided into a few age-determined categories:
Broilers and fryers: Ducks younger than eight weeks old.
Roasters: Ducks younger than 16 weeks.
How to Select: Because it is a specialty item, duck is most often sold frozen. Speak with your butcher to make sure it's fresh; look for tightly sealed packaging and check for any signs of freezer burn.
How to Prepare: Duck is most typically roasted to achieve the dual goals of crisping the skin and rendering much of the fat from the meat. Some of the simplest methods for preparation involve a 'low and slow' approach, roasting the duck at moderate heat for as long as two or three hours.
Brian Campbell, along with his wife Elizabeth Stark, writes the blog Brooklyn Supper — the story of a family eating with the seasons in Virginia and Brooklyn. They believe strongly that good, local food and wholesome meals should be for everyone.