Saturday, 19 January 2019

Are roosters edible

Recently when I have had a few conversations with people, often they are self-confessed "foodies", and I have mentioned that we used to eat our extra roosters.  They are bewildered and ask if you can even eat rooster.  Then, before there is time to reply, they often smugly comment in an all knowing tone that they would never do such a thing as the meat would be tough and bad tasting. 

Of course you can eat rooster.  If you eat meat then you can eat most animals as they are made from meat.   Strangely these foodies have all eaten rooster many times, but they didn’t know they ate it as they simply don’t know where food comes from.

When you go to 'woollies' and pick up a roast chook, or go to a fancy restaurant and order an over priced meal containing chicken, if you are in Australia it is probably the meat of a young rooster about half of the time.

Currently, around half of any chicken meat you can buy in Australia is from roosters (albeit they are very young), but this is a relatively new thing.  Allow me to explain this further.

Blue australorp rooster - massive and calm

In the ‘old days’ most families had a small flock of dual purpose pure bred chickens.   The hens would lay eggs and extra roosters would be fed to the family.   Often you can't have many roosters as they will fight and hurt one another.  Roosters were usually killed reasonably young, about 4 to 6 months old.  When hens got too old to lay well, or the breeding rooster stopped doing his job well, they would be made into soup.  This was seen as normal, everyone who ate 'chicken' mostly ate roosters.

Slowly house block sizes got so small that a self-sustaining flock of chickens were no longer feasible for most families so people turned to shops to provide them with chicken meat and eggs.   This helped to detach people from their food, it lead to the extinction of many great breeds of chicken, and it lead to many breeds being bred for show and losing their usefulness, but that is a story for another time.

Silkie rooster ready for cooking
When I was young the egg farms mostly had pure bred birds, often leghorns as they lay more eggs on less feed than any other breed that I am aware of, but later they were often australorps as consumers wanted brown eggs instead of white.  They are lovely birds that do not do well confined in battery cages, and it is difficult to accurately tell the gender of hatchlings.  This lowers profits as more space and more food is used.   Often males and females were grown out for a few weeks to be certain before culling the males.   As money had been spent on feed the males were not wasted, the females would be placed in cages to lay eggs and the males would be grown out in separate sheds and slaughtered for meat.   Back then, almost all of the chicken meat you could buy was from young roosters as the females were used for eggs.  This was considered normal, everyone who ate 'chicken' mostly ate roosters.

In the 1960’s a first cross meat chicken was developed overseas.  It was fast growing and had a great feed conversion ratio.  As they are slaughtered before reaching maturity they were not kept for eggs, meaning both males and females would be killed and eaten.  These meat birds grow so fast that if they are not slaughtered at a young age they often experience all kinds of health issues.  I know a few people who tried to use them to breed from and they said that the roosters sometimes get so large that their legs would break under their own weight.  This cross breed struggled to be widely accepted in Australia in the early days as farming was less specialised back then and the egg industry had to do something with all the extra males.

Some cross bred chickens that we used to own

Around 1978 a French company developed a first cross laying hybrid where the females are red/brown and the males are white, they don’t eat a lot and laid well when confined in battery cages.  They are thin so don't have a lot of meat, but they lay well when confined and fed consistent rations.

This changed everything.  From then on it was simple to tell at hatching which were males and which were females as soon as they hatched.  Females could be kept for eggs while males could be buried alive, or fed through a wood chipper, or otherwise dispatched at day old in whatever way that is deemed acceptable by the RSPCA.  It took many years for these crossbred layers to become popular in Australia, now they dominate the egg industry and are probably the most popular back yard chicken.

The development of a sex linked layer also meant that a first cross meat breed could dominate the chicken broiler market.  This meat cross that was developed in the 1960’s before I was born now dominates the broiler industry in Australia today.  They grow fast and can reach marketable size (which is rather tiny) in about 6 to 8 weeks. 

Both males and females are now grown out and slaughtered for meat, which means about half of the chicken meat you can buy is now from a rooster.  Now this is seen as normal, everyone in Australia who eats chicken meat also eats roosters, but they usually don’t know it.

It will be a young rooster, but you can’t tell the difference in meat between that and a pullet, and I don’t know of anyone who even claims to be able to tell the difference.   If anyone would pretend to be able to tell it would be foodies, yet all the foodies I know have no idea that rooster is even edible!

Now, before someone petty tries to point out that young roosters are sometimes called 'cockerels' in some places - I know.  Cockerel is sometimes the name for a rooster under about one year of age.  This is a pedantic difference as it a regional dialect that differs depending on where you live.  Some places use the words cockerel and rooster interchangeably.  Regardless, a young rooster is still a rooster.  If someone is asking if roosters are edible they are always referring to young roosters.  Old roosters make a decent soup, just like an old hen makes a decent soup, so they are still edible.

The answer remains the same: If you eat meat, then yes you can eat a rooster.

Some other poultry terms that appear to confuse the foodies I know:

A 'capon' is a young rooster that has been castrated.  Roosters are very rarely castrated in Australia so you will not find these in many places.

A 'spatchcock' is just a bird (normally a young pullet or rooster but sometimes various game birds) that has been splayed open for grilling.

A 'squab' is a young pigeon.  They are normally under 4 weeks of age.

If I think of any other terms that are confusing I will try to list them here.

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