Are hens typically chewy? Was there something I could have done to prevent this?
Well, your chickens are kind of gender specific. It's either a hen or a capon (neutered rooster). But the problem is most likely the age of the bird which means it needs to be cooked slowly in a moist environment. Most of the chicken that is sold in the supermarket hasn't lived a long or peaceful life.
Hens are not chewy---unless they are old, in which case they are stewing hens intended to be braised for a long time. Another thing that can make a hen chewy, i.e. tough, is if it has not been properly chilled after butchering. And I suppose one could have a skinny, under-nourished chicken....but you don't say whether you're speaking of a supermarket chicken or a farmer's market chicken or one you raised yourself. Commercially raised chickens are generally slaughtered in their tender youth, about 8-10 weeks of age. At this age, the sex--male or female, hen or rooster, affects only the size.
pierino is right - neither a long nor peaceful life does a supermarket chicken make. My experience with grocery store chickens has been that if you read the fine print, it tends to imply a frying chicken. However, when stewing, it's probably always better to err on the side of long, tender braising in the presence of some nice moist, acidic heat. At that point, it should practically be shredable, as in pulled.
Yes to all answers. Brine the chicken first in salt water - gallon of water and 3/4 cup of kosher salt for about 6 pounds of chicken for about 60 minutes. Rinse with cold water before you cook. Brining in salt water works - makes all the difference.
All commercial chickens, at the hatchery, are not sexed or neutered. Since a chicken does not reach sexual maturity until 17 or 18 weeks, there is absolutely no reason to sex them. Most chickens are harvested between 6 to 8 weeks old, depending on the channel the meat is being sold . . .retail or food service. Hence, your chicken (referred to as a broiler in the industry) could have been either a male or female. Diet (effects taste), breed, how they are raised and especially processing have a lot to do with tenderness. . . but cooking methods do too. Hence, you will always do better with an organic chicken, since their diet will never contain animal by-products in the feed, nor any antibiotics, beta-agonists, arsenic, ionophores . . .do I need to go on?
Here's another wrinkle. Most chickens raised for eating are the same variety--the White Cornish--whether organic or not, whether free range or sitting in a Perdue barn. These are bred to size up fast. When we've raised this variety, we've observed that a White Cornish, at 8 weeks, will be almost three times the size of a laying hen of the exact same age. They grow so heavy so fast that they sometimes have trouble walking. The so-called "free range" commercial chicken may have access to the outdoors, but it's usually too fat to walk out the door. Many small growers are turning to heritage breeds, which grow more slowly and could--if not raised properly--be more "chewy" and less soft than the White Cornish. Brining, as SKK says, is the answer in that case.
@ Mainecook61 - Actually, most are a Hubbard-Cobb crosses and there are many varieties for this cross. Part of what I do for a living is auditing organic and non organic farms for animal welfare standards all over North America. This includes most of the hatcheries and the processing plants that supply these farms. You are correct to state that most organic use the same breeds as the commercial operations, since the availability of specialty breeds is scarce. But a few, such as Eberly Poultry, grow a Pollo Rosso organic bird. Possibly one of the best eating chickens you could ever buy. His standard organic chickens are also outstanding, the closest thing to the chicken we use to eat in Ireland when I was a child.
@ Usuba-dashi, Thanks very much for the tip on where to locate the specialty breeds. We've grown the White Cornish (that's what MacMurray Hatchery calls them) for a number of years and are fed up with the difficulties these chickens (free range, organic at my house) have in hot weather. While the baby layers are out merrily foraging, the same-age meat birds have to be shooed out of the coop as they get bigger. I will definitely give some business to Eberly Poultry. Do you know of any other hatcheries you'd recommend?
@mainecook61 - unfortunately, I am not allowed through confidentiality agreements to disclose that sort of information.