Explaining Chicken Nomenclature

When shopping for whole chickens, how do chickens labeled "broilers," "roasters," and "stewing" birds differ?

These terms refer to the age of the bird, an important factor since chickens, as they mature, develop connective tissue that turns their meat tough. The older the bird, the more substantial the tissue, and the longer it takes to break down during cooking.

Broilers (or fryers) are the youngest of the bunch: The USDA requires that the birds be slaughtered when they are less than 10 weeks old and weigh 3 to 5 pounds. Next come roasters, processed at 9 to 11 weeks and weighing 6 to 8 pounds. Broilers and roasters can be of either sex, but stewing chickens (or hens) are always female. They aren’t slaughtered until 10 months or older and typically weigh at least 6 pounds, though the USDA sets no weight standards for them.

To demonstrate the cooking differences among the birds, we roasted and stewed each type. As expected, the mature hens were undeniably tough and chewy compared with tender broilers and roasters when roasted. But after three hours of stewing, they tasted even richer and just as tender as the broilers and roasters, since their connective tissue had enough time to transform into gelatin, which lubricated and flavored the meat.

Our recommendation: If you’re roasting, broiling, or frying, stick with a younger, more tender broiler or roaster. For a long-simmered stew or soup, it’s worth seeking out a stewing chicken (which, unlike broilers or roasters, may require special ordering).

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