Yes, you should age your processed birds before freezing them. I'm well persuaded of that. But, alas, the best approach to aging a chicken is not a subject of universal understanding, or agreement, as you are about to learn...
The genesis of this blog post came with a letter I received some years back from a very disappointed first-time poultry producer. This is the letter:
I bought your plans and some parts for the plucker a couple months ago, and then recently a bunch of shrink bags. The plucker is done and we used it yesterday for the first time. Everything went as advertised from the scalding to the plucking, gutting etc. I finished cleaning the bird, put it in cold water for about twenty minutes, and then into the refrigerator overnight.
My wife pulls him out early this afternoon and into the oven he went! Out he comes a couple of hours later and right away we discovered the legs did NOT MOVE upon trying to cut him up as all other store bought ones tend to do. This guy was so tough you could not chew any of it! So right now he is in the stew pot to see if that helps relieve him of his "tightness".
Would you be having any thoughts as to why the chicken is so tough? He was only a year old, but free range.
I Just completed butchering 21 more this afternoon and would hate for them all to go the same route. They are all in the reefer right now for at least 24-48 hours.
I posted that letter to my Yahoo discussion group, WhizbangChickenPluckers to get some feedback. It was an active group at the time and some of the responses I received are below. They are all, in their own way, instructive and insightful.
At the end of this post I'll tell you what the North Dakota State University experts say about aging game meats, and I'll explain what my wife and I routinely do for aging our chickens before freezing.
"After processing my chickens I plunge them in ice water so the meat can cool down as fast as possible. Later in the day I'll pull them out and wrap each in a plastic grocery bag and set it in a pan in the refrigerator. They stay there for 2-4 days before I cook or freeze them.
The birds I usually process are large-fowl cockerels between 18-24 weeks of age. I cook them slowly with moist heat. Either simmered in broth or baked in a covered roasting pan. They always have come out tender.
Maybe this person's bird was baked too quickly or with too much heat. I wouldn't cook a chicken whose joints wouldn't move easily, I'd put it back in the refrigerator to rest some more and let the rigor mortis pass."
(From Carol K.)
"I let mine chill out for two or three days, until I can position their legs inside the bags easily, before I freeze them. I only learned this because I'm lazy and never get them in the freezer the same day we process them. Thank goodness.
I also have found a pressure cooker invaluable in cooking old roosters and such. I have no idea if it would help with an "unrested" chicken."
(From Sherry in NH)
"There is a good stewing recipe as follows: Chop onions, carrots, turnips and garlic. Add some herbs and place in pot with chicken and some water or stock. Place old boot on top of chicken to keep it weighed down in the stock. Slow cook for 4 - 6 hours depending on the weight of the chicken. At the end, discard the chicken and eat the boot.
My understanding is that the meat of free range chickens is quite tough anyway and certainly has a gamier taste. If you are expecting it to be "better" than shop bought - it is - but it is a different gastronomic experience that takes some getting used to.
It doesn't sound like you let it hang for any length of time after you killed it which is very important for tenderizing the meat. We were advised on another thread that roasting isn't the best method of preparing free range chickens as the meat is tougher. Therefore slow coking/stewing is best. Also, we were advised to reduce the amount of space for meat birds to roam in so that they gain weight and lay down some fat which improves consistency and flavour."
(From WhizbangChickenPluckers Comment #12946)
"We process out CCs [Cornish-Cross chickens] at eight weeks and usually have an average weight of,four to five pounds They are put out on the grass at three weeks and are encouraged to forage as soon as they figure out that the door to the pen is open. Our birds go from the pen to the freezer in usually no more than twenty to thirty minutes. I have consistently received comments about how delicious and tender my chickens are. We have been selling several hundred chickens a year for over five years. We do not have the capacity to refrigerate our chickens so they go right into the freezer. It seems to work alright for us."
(From Tom in Freeville, NY)
"Same here. We package and freeze all of our birds the same day. We cool them down with cold water baths and to get any excess blood off of them and then package them and throw them into the freezer. The longer you wait to freeze them, the better the chances of e-coli and salmonella bacteria to start growing."
"I was under the impression that any bird that old would be tough unless you stewed it."
(From WhizbangChickenPluckers Comment #12949)
"Our 15 year old son will not eat my birds because he grew up on store bought (mush flesh) and our free ranging heritage breed birds are "too tough and taste “funny" for him. Some of our friends and family have similar comments and others LOVE the meat as do my wife and I who cannot stomach the store bought yuck anymore. E.R.L. will find over time that there pastured birds will have to cook twice as long as store bought mush birds for them to pull apart and the meat to come off of the bones easily. Cook in oven at 400' for 15 min. turn down to 325' for 3 hours. MMMMMM . Or try jerking the meat by marinading it for some days and then dehydrating or cold smoking it."
"I have learned not to question grandma's wisdom on certain things and this is one of them. No matter the age of the bird, it needs to be tenderized. She never called it this but the process described below is the way it was done. I laughingly refer to the process as "controlled rot". You need to allow the rigger to dissipate and also give the natural cell breakdown enzymes a chance to work.
After plucking and cleaning, I put them in cold running water for 4 - 6 hours. A large wash tub or small plastic kiddy pool works well for this. Then they go in the refrigerator for a Minimum of 24 hours, preferably up to 48 hours or so. Now they are ready for cooking, freezing or whatever else you want to do with them. If they are old (I replace my laying hens each year) slow cooking (crock pot) is the only way to go.
If you think about it, store-bought chickens are under refrigeration (or on ice) for a minimum of 2 - 3 days from the time they are butchered to the time they are displayed at the grocery store."
(From Jeff in Fremont, WI)
"In my experience, any bird past 5-6 months requires a crock pot. Once they get 6 months old, their "keepers" unless their Roo's. Those don't make it past learning to crow, unless they have some special markings or find a way to gain amnesty.
I think at a year, your going to have to let them sit for a few days, then do a "low & slow" cook, much like you would fine BBQ."
(From WhizbangChickenPluckers Comment #12952)
"We end up canning ours and they come out soooo tender."
(From Cathy Phelan)
"We always butcher our chickens at around 8 to 9 weeks old, put them in an ice cold water bath for minimum of 2 hours, maximum of 4 hours. Bagged them and put them in the freezer. They come out nice and tender. I think the chicken is tough because it's a year old. A pressure cooker will tenderize anything. A store bought chicken is generally 4 to 6 weeks old. Hope this is of some help to you."
"A year-old free range rooster is tough? Are we going to act surprised here?!
When I was a boy, my Dad raised some Old English Game Cocks. Mom boiled one of them for days, and it never did become edible.
Ah, the memories of youth!
I'd kill 'em sooner, or make chicken & noodles out of him."
(From Tim Inman at Oakdale Farm)
"Gotta agree with Tim. Who would eat a year old rooster, even if he was in a coop? He probably won't have any white meat at all on him. All meat will be very dark and tough. Canning for chicken salad would probably be the only hope of salvaging them.
E.L.R. didn't mention breed. Cornish x Rock grow so fast if given enough high protein feed they have little dark meat at all because they can't exercise the muscles. I culled cooped White Leghorn Roo's at one year and baking even at very low temperatures my dog couldn't eat it. I kept my biggest CxR last year when I did his buddies in at 12 weeks. He lasted for 5 months before he broke his leg near the end of Oct. and weighed about 23 lbs. He was refrigerated for 2-3 days then frozen till 11 days before Thanksgiving, brined for 10 days and slow cooked with our turkey. Most preferred him over the turkey!
PS: CxR @ 12 weeks of age deep fried in a turkey fryer in peanut oil is an awesome treat once in a while."
(From Michael in Ocala National Forest)
"So it seems like from the letter, the gentleman raised chickens like you would layers. Allowing them to pasture and butchering the rooster at 1 year. It will be a tough bird.
I have found from past experience that aging will make it taste better but not more tender. I have butchered young cockerels at 4-6 months of age and they are tender enough for roasting. Anything older than that will be good for stewing or Coq Au Vin. And these will taste fantastic!! If he wants birds for broilers or fryers, he should try the cornish cross for raising for 7 weeks to butcher or Red Rangers which are slower growing but can be pastured for a excellent roasting/frying bird. These birds can be butchered at 11 weeks.
The chickens you raise at home will taste so much better than what you can buy in the store, plus you have the knowledge of what they eat. Home grown chickens are superior in taste and will have a little more texture.
The best tasting birds are my old layers which in turn become my stewing chickens.
Sorry, but I think that if your chickens are a year old, whether hens or roosters, they are going to be a wee bit tough for roasters."
"It is the year old thing. Any chicken other than a Cornish Cross I have butchered I have found to be tough. Some on this site say to put them in the fridge for a day or two. I always cool my Cornish in ice water until they are below 40 degrees and then they go straight into the freezer. I have never had one that we could not cut with a fork."
"I always let mine set in a fridge for at least 48 hours to get the rigger out. That usually makes them much like the ones in the market but, I will say that we usually have to cook our fresh chicken 20 to 30 longer than the same size bought from the store, always has taken a bit longer. I just did 60 and they are the best."
So, like I said, there is some diversity of opinion when it comes to aging your processed poultry, but no one above would have dreamed of following the information found in This Field & Stream Article ...
"The science behind aging says that enzymes start to break down the meat as the time after death increases, tenderizing the meat and making it more flavorful. According to the North Dakota State university's Wild Side of the Menu guide to wild game, when aged at 34 to 37 degrees, meat increases in tenderness at a constant rate from one to 14 days--then plateaus."
So there you go... age the birds TWO WEEKS in the fridge for maximum tenderness and flavor!!
Personally, after growing and processing our own 7-to-8-week-old Cornish-Cross chickens for nearly twenty years, I'll tell you what Marlene and I do...
We process one day, putting the chickens in a big tub of cold water. Then, the next day, we drain the birds and freeze them. And, of course, we freeze them in the commercial-quality, laminated, barrier shrink bags available from PoultryShrinkBags.com