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Bird is the Word

Have you heard about the bird? The bird is the word in this week’s periodical review, and is going to be the last article that I review from the February 2012 issues of Restaurant Start-up & Growth. I decided to do this article because as we learn more about healthy eating and managing our cost an interesting fact stood out tome from this article. Some poultry products can have much lower food cost percentages than some beef items; 15-20% for poultry compared with 30-35% for beef. The article goes into some of the basics of working with poultry and fowl, and then goes on to talk about different factors about each type of fowl. This article presents a nice overview of the different ways that you can use each type of poultry because poultry can fill many roles on just about any menu. Various types of poultry are often some of our best low priced proteins, and others can be some of the most expensive and sophisticated dishes available. No matter where in the world you go you are going to see fowls of all kinds featured on the menu. With chicken being a classic and all-time favorite of many people around just the US makes the increased availability of organic and free-ranged options a great way to pick “healthier” or more humane selections on our menus.

Let’s start off talking about the word poultry first as it means much more than just chicken and turkey. Besides these two it includes: Goose, Duck, Cornish game Hen, Quail and Pheasant. What is really surprising is that until advents in technology after World War II the poultry that we take for granted today was an expensive treat for the affluent diners in the past. The new production techniques are exactly what has been a major factor in the rise of popularity. It is these same techniques that are creating a demand for healthier and more humanly raised birds. Free-ranged birds for example are given “more space” and the ability to forage for feed, giving them exercise and outdoor time that one’s raised on commercial farms do not have. That is why some people think that these birds have a fuller, richer flavor that those raised exclusively in tiny cages. Even terms like “organic”, “no hormones” and “no antibiotics” mean largely what they imply.

Since chicken is the most widely used form of poultry, not to mention one of the most commonly served foods in general, let’s start there. On top of the USDA grading that you see on all meats chickens are also classified in age and size categories. This classification is important to understand, as different types of chicks are better for different types of cooking. When you see things like “Broilers” or “Fryers” on the label, this means tht the bird was about 2 ½ months old, and they will weigh about 1.5-3 pounds. These are going to be very tender birds that will work well with any cooking technique, but they work best with broiling, frying roasted or even grilled. “Roasters” on the other hand can be up to 8 months old and between 3 ½-5 pounds. These can also be used well with any cooking method but because of the higher fat content in them they make great birds for roasting.  As we increase in age and weight you will see birds called “Stewing Hens” or “Boiling Fowl” and while they are going to be quite tough, they more than make up for this with the great flavor they have. Use these for when you want to make stocks, stews, and braises.

Cornish Game Hens are still chicken but they are a hybrid of two types of chickens, the Cornish, and the White Rock chicken. Being plumper and having a higher ratio or white to dark meat  then other chickens they work very well roasted or broiled and typically because of the small size each bird is one portion. Birds like Capon’s are roosters that have been castrated before they are 8 weeks old and then feed a very rich diet until about 10 months old. A Capon is going to be very juicy and plump bird perfect for roasting, as one bird will yield five or six entrée portions. Chickens are available year- round, both fresh and frozen. With the exceptions of the smaller birds you can buy them whole or broken down into just the part you want. Depending on the menu and the skill level of your staff it may be more economical if you buy whole birds and fabricate them yourself but this isn’t always the best option. Be careful with the difference between “ready to cook”, which is just that ready to go into the oven, and “dressed” which has only had the feathers plucked clean. “Dressed” birds will still have the head and feet on and will not have been eviscerated.

Turkey has moved beyond a dish served only on Thanksgiving. Today it is available year round, fresh and frozen, as a whole bird or in parts just like chicken. They are classified as either young hens or toms, and can weigh anywhere from 8-30 pounds. AS a whole bird they are traditionally roasted, although deep-frying is gaining favor in some areas. Boneless cutlets, whether purchased or fabricated down to the can be used in many different ways, just like chicken. If you are going to butcher your own birds in house then by all means use the resulting carcass to make a great turkey stock for all seasons use. Even things like ground turkey are being seen today to make healthy burger options, and let’s not forget the fact that you can roast your own turkey breast and slice it very thin to use for sandwiches that will be hands down better then store bought deli meat.

Geese are very popular in Europe but for some reason haven’t been as popular in the US. This could be because of their high fat content, and the two very popular French dishes of foie gras, and confit. Foie gras, the velvety rich enlarged liver from “force-fed” geese can be made from certain varieties of duck however and duck confit has seen a rise in popularity here in the US. A female goose is known, simply enough as a goose, while the male is called a gander. Younger birds of both sexes are known as goslings and will weigh between 6-10 pounds. Goslings are generally roasted as the higher fat content and size makes them perfect for this cooking method, and can yield about six entrée portions. Older Geese can weigh up to 18 pounds, and are often braised stewed or turned into confit because of the tougher quality they have. One of the benefits to have goose on your menu is that like duck you can render the fat and use it as you see fit.

Also like geese ducks are available year-round more often than not frozen. Most ducks come to market when still young so the normal age terms are less important than with other types of poultry. With that being said a typical “Broiler” or “Fryer” duck is less than 8 weeks old and typically weighs between 2-4 pounds. Ducks have very tender meat and work well with any cooking method. Unlike chickens or turkeys ducks do not have salmonella, so they don’t need to be cooked through. In fact, most people will expect duck breast to be served no more than medium rare.  When roasted or grilled to medium rare and sliced into thin medallions, this makes one of the nicest examples of poultry anyone could put on their menu.

Lastly we come to the game birds, and historically, game birds were only available during hunting season. Today, many of these birds are now available year round often frozen but still farm raised. This presents a down side as they will more than likely lack the “gamey” character of their totally wild counterparts. This isn’t always a bad thing as domestically raised pheasant has a very mild, slightly sweet flavor. No matter what size of pheasant you get it is important to cook the bird just until it’s juices run clear. Quail is also available year round now and can be bought in two different ways, whole with bones or semi-boneless. When semi-boneless they will be flattened with only the leg and thigh bones remaining. This type of quail is great for grilling and frying, but if you’re not careful because of the small size they can overcook quickly. Depending on their size, one or two whole quail will make a nice sized appetizer. If you want to make some of the most opulent “chicken” nuggets you can fry the breast meat of a quail.

No matter what birds you decide to put on your menu poultry and fowl have earned a place and are so versatile that you can do almost anything you want with them. Take a chance and see what your customers think of the different types of poultry that are available year round. Use them as specials that will bring new flavors and life to your menu each night. Since most poultry and fowl will still have a lower food cost percent then beef you can use them in more applications while maintain or even lowering you cost. Given that many choice are “healthier” then beef it is a great way to shift your restaurant into having a “healthy” reputation. The bird is the word and if you haven’t heard about the bird then it may be time for you to take flight and see what great dishes await you and your guests alike.

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