What is a Chicken? Or, Things I'm learning in Law School
Monday, November 12, 2012 at 3:42PM
Hungry Sam in Non-Recipe Absurdity!, chicken

As I expected, law school entails wrestling with many weighty issues of Great Importance--questions that shed light on American values and on the very foundations of our legal rights.

Questions like, "What is a chicken?"

Image via Allie's.Dad, Creative Commons licensed. Some rights reserved.

Yes. A case I read for Contracts last week turned on whether, in a particular contract for the sale of frozen chickens, "chicken" meant "any bird of that genus . . . including stewing chickens" or, more narrowly, young roasting chickens. See Frigaliment Importing Co. v. B.N.S. Int'l Sales Corp., 190 F. Supp. 116, 117 (S.D.N.Y. 1960) (holding plaintiff failed to prove the contract was for young chickens--I won't bore my non-lawyer audience with the somewhat involved rationale).*

But here's a question suitable for this blog: Why does the age of the chicken matter? Or, put differently, what's the difference between a young chicken (suitable for roasting, broiling, frying, baking, etc.) and an older chicken (good for stewing and braising)?

The answer, as I understand it,** lies in the fact that absent texture-altering prep techniques (like using marinades or brining), meat from older animals is much more likely to become tough when cooked at the high temperatures associated with roasting, broiling, frying, and baking. As an animal ages, the number of contractile protein fibrils inside each of its muscle fiber increases, making the fibers stronger and thicker. Because cooking makes muscle fibers dry and dense, denser muscle fibers will more readily squeeze out liquid, resulting in tougher cooked meat. This issue is exacerbated by the fact older birds have more connective tissue (particularly collagen) and less marbling fat to keep things tender and juicy.

Here's where it gets cool. You can slow-cook older chicken meat in liquid without it getting tough and dry, both because the meat reabsorbs liquid from the stew or braising medium and because the lower temperatures assists in the breakdown of tough collagen into soft gelatin.

As an example, one traditional French method for cooking old birds is Coq Au Vin--chicken in wine. You can find any number of variations, but here's a link to Julia Child's recipe for a Bourgogne-style Coq Au Vin.



*DISCLAIMER: This post is in no way intended to be helpful to anyone attempting to understand or brief Frigaliment Importing Co. v. B.N.S. International Sales Corp. For that, I'd whole-heartedly recommend listening to this song. (Further incentive: there are banjoes!) 

**All the cool cooking science here comes from this tome of food science, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee (external link).

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