If I plan to cut it up and fry it, which one do I want?
In order of size: fryers, broilers, roasters, stewing. The names reflect optimal cooking methods. Fast cooking, like frying, call for smaller birds. Otherwise the insides won't be done at the same time as the outside.
Age. Almost all commercially raised chickens are the White Cornish cross, a chicken bred to grow rapidly. (And despite what producers would have you believe about free range, these critters grow big so fast that they fairly totter. Exercise is the last thing on their minds.) A roaster gets a few more weeks than a broiler in order to size up.
I don't know about commercial "free-range" chickens, but the ones I buy from farmers at the Greenmarket are not that breed, and they definitely ARE free range.
I always think of a broiler as a chicken under about 6 pounds although I do roast them. Growing up a "roaster" was always a capon...bigger, more fat and wonderful roasted!
And a capon is actually a neutered rooster, not a hen. I happen to love roast capon too.
The way I was taught, broiler/fryers are 3 pounds or maybe a little less. A roaster is at least 4 pounds, and I prefer 5 or more.
You can fry a roaster if you cut him up into small enough pieces that it will cook through by the time you're finished frying.
Thanks all. I had bought a roaster so I cut it into small pieces and the deep fried chicken came out marvelous. Next time I'll look for one labelled fryer.
Re the comment about "free range," this term is a squishy one. The door to the coop can be wide open, but White Cornish chickens, the chief commercial breed and also the one most widely available to home growers via mail order or the local farm supply, won't go very far. They get too big too fast. "Pastured" chicken is a more accurate market term, as these birds have free access to pasture, whether they're in a tractor pen (which can be pulled from place to place) or some other such arrangement. At my place (where chickens can come and go as they please), we're fed up with the slothful White Cornish and are trying the Freedom Ranger breed this year. Another alternative is a dual purpose breed (eggs and meat type, like a Buff Orpington). But I would guess that, free range or not, many farmer's market chickens are the fast-growing White Cornish (also preferred for its white feathers=clean plucking). There is nothing wrong with them, but even with the door to the world flung open, they're going to prefer the spot closest to the feeder. It's too bad---take a look at an online chicken catalog some day (like McMurray's) if you want a glimpse into the truly varied world of poultry breeds.
Sort of a side-track but this book by Jenna Woginrich, a novice chicken-raiser, was a lot of fun:
"Chick Days: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Raising Chickens from Hatching to Laying"
I learned about it during her interview on NPR with Lynn Rosetto Kasper: