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Chickens are a staple animal for any homesteader, and it has become increasingly popular for anyone with a yard to keep a few laying hens to provide fresh eggs. But you might be wondering if your laying hens also make good eating. Can you also eat an egg-laying chicken, or are they specifically bred only to lay?
Egg-laying chickens are safe to eat, but because of the hen’s age, the meat is often darker, tougher, or can taste gamey. The bones may also be harder due to their age. Before slaughtering an egg-producing chicken, one should calculate the potential economic value of the hen vs. the meat value.
Although eating an egg-laying hen is entirely fine, it is important to consider whether it is worth it to do so. An egg-producing hen is a valuable asset as many breeds continue to lay for several years. Let’s consider the pros and cons of eating an egg-laying chicken.
Can You Eat An Egg-Laying Chicken?
Everyone who chooses to get chickens does so for different reasons. While some combine the roles of a layer and pet, others view the acquisition of fowls for a more practical or commercial basis. Perhaps you just want to raise your own healthy free-range meat to feed your family.
Chickens of any age or sex can be safely consumed. The meat’s quality, color, and texture will vary with advanced age, and the usual rule of thumb is the older the chicken, the tougher the meat.
You should never consider eating a chicken that is of egg-laying age if it is not in good health. At the first sign of any possible disease, a sick hen should be immediately separated from the rest of the flock and treated. If the hen does not respond to treatment, it should be culled, and the carcass must be discarded.
Egg-laying chickens are popular eating in several places globally, and the unlaid eggs inside the hen’s body are considered a delicacy. Besides the difference in the texture of the meat of an older hen, you will often come across partially formed eggs of different sizes inside the chicken. Although they have no shell or outer coating, the golden yolks can be safely consumed.
There are several reasons you might be thinking of eating a bird that is still producing eggs. It could be a troublesome hen with bad habits, or you might simply need to cut down on the number of chickens that you keep. If you notice some of your chickens are having social issues, check out my article What To Do If Your Chickens Don’t Get Along.
Before you cull an egg-laying chicken, first check if it may have greater value if it is retained as a layer. Fresh eggs are usually easy to sell, and rather than enjoying the hen for a single meal, it may make more sense to let it get to the end of its laying cycle before eating it.
Hens are a valuable commodity, and even a troublesome hen can be sold as a layer to someone who only has a few chickens in a chicken tractor or small coop. Some breeds can continue to lay eggs for several years, so eating an egg-laying hen might not make good economic sense, especially since the meat has already become tough and gamey because of the hen’s age.
Chickens have a natural life expectancy of about eight years and can live even longer if well cared for. Most breeds start laying at about four to five months of age. After two years of laying, commercial egg producers replace their chickens, which leaves millions of spent chickens available every year.
Although the spent chickens are still in good health, their egg production declines to make them financially unviable. Most of these chickens are either culled or end up in the pet food market. A small portion are slaughtered and marketed as stewers, implying that they’re suitable for use in stews.
The reason that the chickens are offered as stewing chickens, is that they don’t make good roasting chickens. As the chickens grow older, their meat tends to become tougher in texture. In addition, the meat becomes darker in color as they age, as opposed to the white meat from broiler chickens.
Another factor that puts most people off eating egg-laying chickens is that the meat tastes gamey or similar to venison as the hens grow older. Interestingly the chicken bones also become harder than those of commercial broiler chickens. Even the cartilage on the breast bone hardens once the chicken matures fully.
Although egg-laying chickens are edible, they taste different from what consumers are accustomed to. Broiler chickens are fast-growing chickens, explicitly bred to put on as much weight as possible in the shortest time.
At about two to three months, the broiler chickens achieve their goal weight and are slaughtered. The younger the chicken is slaughtered, the more tender their meat is. The only differentiator is thus the age of the chicken. Age affects the texture and overall taste of the chicken when roasted, cooked, or fried.
Egg-laying chickens are at least two and a half to three years old or more when they are no longer viable commercial egg layers. Therefore, egg-laying hens are significantly older than the two to three-month-old broiler chickens that we love to eat. Had the broiler chickens been allowed to grow out to a ripe old age, the meat quality would also decline.
Stewers make delicious casseroles and soups, but the meat must cook slowly and for a long time, tenderizing the meat. Spices and sauces used in stews do a good job of masking the taste difference of the egg-laying chicken meat. Some people prefer the stronger flavor of an older hen’s meat.
How To Make An Egg Laying Chickens Meat Less Tough
Egg-laying chickens that are slaughtered for food tend to have tougher meat that is darker in color and can have a more gamey taste than conventional broilers. Spent hens are much older than broilers, so their meat is different from the chickens we are used to eating.
When cooking stewer chickens, which are spent chickens, the stronger tasting meat can be disguised effectively by the use of spices or sauces.
Reducing the toughness of the meat is done in the following ways once the chicken has been slaughtered and cleaned.
- Allow the chicken to rest for up to a week in the refrigerator before cooking. Similar to aging a steak.
- Submerge the chicken in a brine solution for a few days before cooking.
- Simmer the meat over a lower heat.
- Pressure cooking the chicken speeds up the cooking process and softens the meat.
- A slow cooker does a great job at making a tough chicken tender.
- Stews and Soups are well suited for the use of egg-laying chickens.
Avoid roasting older chickens on high heat, resulting in tougher meat than most of us are used to eating. Having said that, many people enjoy the taste and texture of egg-laying chickens or older mature chickens in general.
If you choose to roast your chicken, place it in the oven between 250-300 degrees Fahrenheit and cook all day. Basting the chicken with a bit of oil and spicing it well will result in a wonderfully cooked and tender chicken roast.
Does A Chickens Diet Affect Meat Quality?
A chicken’s diet significantly affects the quality of the meat produced. The chicken’s meat color is affected by age, breed of chicken, diet, intramuscular fat, and the meat’s moisture content.
Myoglobin and hemoglobin pigments that occur in the meat are influenced by the above factors and determine the meat’s color.
Free-range chicken meat is generally tougher than that of caged chickens. The free-range chickens are more physically active than caged chickens and have smaller carcass weights. If you enjoy the taste of stewer chickens, commercial egg-laying chickens would be the preferred choice. Free-range chickens would, however, be healthier for you.
It might surprise you to learn that rabbit is also a healthy meat. Learn more in my article, Is Rabbit Meat Healthier Than Chicken?
Both broiler and egg-laying chickens are initially raised in chicken runs. Once the egg layers reach maturity, they are moved into battery cages where they will live the remainder of their lives, laying eggs. The egg-laying chickens have minimal space to move around, so they do not get much exercise. Meaning their muscle tone is generally underdeveloped.
Free Range Versus Caged Egg Laying Chickens For Eating
Free-range chickens naturally have a more varied diet than grain-fed caged chickens. The varied diet of the free-range chickens ensures that the meat is more nutritious and healthier for human consumption than that coming from commercially raised chickens. Learn more about what free range chickens eat in my article, What To Feed Free Ranging Chickens.
The downside of free-range chicken meat is that the carcass weight is usually lower than commercial chickens. Secondly, the fat content is also lower in the meat of free-range chickens despite having a more varied diet as the chickens need to work harder to find sufficient food when foraging.
Regarding the meat’s appearance and taste, there is not much difference between free-range and caged chickens as the determining factor that dictates the meat’s quality is the chicken’s age. Neither the free-range nor caged egg-laying chickens can compare to the light meat produced from a six to eight-week-old broiler.
Are There Any Practical Uses For Spent Hens?
The decline in egg production is relevant to commercial and privately owned laying hens. Spent hens are chickens that have reached the end of their usefulness as egg producers. Millions of hens reach this point in their productivity cycle annually.
The vast majority of spent chickens are culled and used for the pet food industry. A small portion ends up in the human food industry, where the most popular products are their meat, used chiefly in stews, stock, and soups. Many are also dumped in landfills as an egg production by-product.
For commercial operations, what to do with a spent hen is a constant challenge. However, for those with only a few chickens, a spent hen can either be left to live out the remainder of her life or be used as a brooding hen, utilizing a donor hen’s eggs.
Old hens can be grumpy but have a lot to offer, even if kept as pets. Older hens are also wiser and more observant than younger hens. They can be used to warn the flock of impending danger and to sound the alarm when all is not well.
What’s The Difference Between Egg Chickens and Broilers?
Layer or battery chickens and broiler chickens, a general term, are two types of chickens that have been bred over many years to fill a specific need. The layers have been bred to produce eggs while the broiler breeds have been bred as meat-producing chickens.
The most popular egg-laying chicken in the United States is the White Leghorn breed. These chickens can lay around two hundred and eighty eggs per annum per bird. Multiply this number by a few million birds, and you have a lot of eggs being produced every day.
The most popular broiler breed is the Cornish Cross. Primarily white with a yellowish color skin. The hens used in broiler production grow to an adult weight of up to eight pounds in six to eight weeks.
Cornish cross hens can produce about one hundred and sixty eggs per year, which some are allowed to do to ensure a future generation of chickens.
Many breeds of broiler and egg chickens exist worldwide, with some breeds being better suited to some regions than others.
Are Dual Purpose Chickens Good To Eat?
Dual-purpose chicken breeds have emerged over time and are bred to get the best of both worlds—good meat quality in a chicken that grows fast and high egg production. For homesteaders and non-commercial chicken owners, these breeds make a lot of sense, particularly if you don’t have the facilities to keep different breeds of chickens for various purposes.
Focusing on a single breed of chicken is advisable to avoid cross-breeding. Social issues amongst the chickens are reduced where for example, a dominant or more aggressive breed may make life difficult for a submissive or smaller species of chicken.
However, dual-purpose chickens are still chickens; therefore, you face the same meat quality issues as you would have when utilizing spent hens. The quality of a chicken’s meat in terms of color, tenderness, and taste depends on the chicken’s age.
To achieve the meat quality that we have become accustomed to with broiler chickens, the chickens need to be slaughtered as young as possible. Unfortunately, the average hen only starts laying at about four months, which is well past the prime table fare age.
A practical idea when raising dual-purpose chicks is to keep the roosters for slaughter, utilize the hens as layers, and breed new stock with a select few chickens.
Are Store-Bought Chickens Hens Or Roosters?
Almost all commercially available chicken meat comes from hens. Roosters are not popular in the broiler and obviously not in the egg-laying industry other than for the part they play in the breeding. Roosters tend to be more problematic to keep due to their competitive nature. Roosters also eat more than hens which negatively affects profitability.
Roosters also produce meat that tastes different from the hens. Rooster meat tastes very similar to spent laying hens which only makes them suitable for cooking in stews and soups or making chicken stock or in dishes such as meat pies.
Egg-laying chickens are most definitely edible. How the chicken tastes, how tender the meat is, and how the meat looks are determined by the age of the chicken. The younger the chicken is, the tenderer and light-colored the meat will be.
Spent-laying chickens are primarily used as pet food once they are no longer commercially viable as egg layers. Many, however, do end up on the dinner table as stewer chickens, making excellent eating in casseroles and soups or can be used to make chicken stock.