The definition of poultry is domestic fowls, while game refers to those that are wild. However, the line between the two is somewhat blurred, with very little wild fowls being used in restaurants or home kitchens nowadays.
As well as comprising chicken, turkey, geese and duck, poultry also includes spatchcock, quail, pigeon and pheasant. Here is a guide to some of the key birds on the market in Australia.
When and where, exactly, the first chicken was domesticated is a matter for much debate, but it was probably several thousand years ago, in India, Malaysia or southern China. No matter, as since then the chicken travelled east to west, through ancient Greece to Rome and onto ubiquity.
According to chef Ron O’Bryan, owner and head chef at The Vine in Collingwood, chicken is the most ethical meat one can eat, assuming it comes from a good provenance. In Australia, the reality is that, although the chickens we eat aren’t cage-reared, they’re mostly farmed intensively in barns.
According to the Australian Chicken Meat Federation
, most chicken sheds measure 15 x 150 metres and contain 40,000 chickens each. Sixty thousand broilers [a type of chicken raised specifically for meat production] may be packed into a similar space.
As a rule, the cheaper the chicken, the more intensively farmed it is, as price plays a factor in the space they can enjoy and length of life before slaughter. For example, Glenloth chickens from Victoria take longer to grow and generally aren’t ready for market until they reach between 49-63 days. Compare that to industrial broiler chickens which may reach a maximum of eight weeks old, and roasters that are usually 12-20 weeks old.
Free-range chickens, which account for about 10 to 15 per cent of farmed chickens, are allowed outside for part of each day and enjoy more room in their sheds. Antibiotics can be used to treat sick birds but, once treated, the meat from these birds cannot be sold as free range.
Traditionally eaten at Thanksgiving (the second Monday of October for Canadians), the turkey is native to North America. It is also one of the most popular Christmas dinner birds too.
In the 16th century, the turkey was introduced to Europe, where it became a luxury meat. Intensive farming, dating from the 1940s, made it a cheap source of protein, with demand now calling for birds weighing 4.5-6.5kg.
The breast meat is incredibly lean, but, due to a lack of fat, easily dries out through overcooking. The challenge in preparing turkey comes from most of its fat being in the skin and the brown meat of its limbs. Many chefs don't like working with turkey as the meat can be dry (they prefer geese, with its moister meat and more gamey flavour). One solution is to remove the legs and cook them separately, while boning and stuffing a turkey will also help it retain moisture.
Broiler turkey sheds in Australia typically hold 8,000-14,000 growing birds. Only a few small farms produce organic turkeys.
Ducks were first domesticated in China more than 4,000 years ago, and require more effort to breed than chicken and other poultry. They’re prone to carrying diseases so can't be intensively farmed or mixed with other birds as the bugs may spread. They also make a terrible mess, being indiscriminate as to where they soil.
Most ducks take six to seven weeks to reach about 2.85kg, at which point they are slaughtered, and head straight to the Asian restaurant market. These birds are ideal for roasts, slow cooking and making confit, and often require the fat under the skin to be rendered.
Boned breasts are best cooked quickly with the skin-side down (to crisp it), leaving the flesh slightly pink. One of the most popular dishes is Peking duck (not to be confused with the Pekin breed of duck), in which a bicycle pump forces air in through the neck cavity, separating the skin from the flesh and ensuring a signature crispy skin.
Used by the Egyptians and Romans as guards, geese are tough animals. But they make a great alternative to turkey for a Christmas dinner. Because they contain so much fat, and thanks to their thick skins, goose meat remains moister than turkey, and doesn’t so easily dry out through overcooking.
Geese are less versatile than duck, but, similar to duck, are best prepared by slow roasting, rendering the fat and ensuring the meat is moist. Both duck and goose fat are prized for cooking and the flavour they impart.
Geese take 24-28 weeks to raise, and the younger the goose the better the flavour. Because there is less demand for geese than other forms of poultry, they are not intensively farmed and most birds are free-range. How to render goose fat
Like pigs and beef, both geese and ducks have thick layers of fat, which help to keep their meat moist. In the case of geese, there are large chunks or pods of fat in the body cavity, which ordinarily few people want to eat, despite it being low in saturated fat, but which can be rendered and used for cooking and preserving. The secret is to remove these chunks before cooking. Combine these chunks with leftover neck fat and the parson’s nose.
To render goose fat, add a small layer of water to the bottom of the pan to prevent the fat burning, while the fat and other parts gently melt and the water evaporates.
Once melted, the fat should be filtered, best done through muslin. Seal in a jar and keep in the fridge.
Goose (and duck) fat is excellent for all types of cooking, such as roasting potatoes; making Yorkshire pudding, basting chicken and game birds; and traditional uses such as confit.
Pigeon (or squab)
Squab is baby pigeon, taking just four weeks to raise, and is mostly available in Australia. It weighs about 500g and has legs which dissolve to nothing and can be fiddly to deal with. On the other hand, pigeons are easy to roast. Dan Yassin, chef at the Hideout Cafe in Wodonga, says that wrapping the pigeon in bacon will protect the breast meat, keeping it moist. Another tip from Yassin is to baste the bird in duck (or goose) fat, while roasting, to help keep it moist.
Quail is the most popular game bird in Australia and is farmed in vast numbers like chicken in large, climate controlled sheds, although they’re split into cages of about 15 birds. When dressed [gutted], they weigh 180-200g, perfect for a single portion.
Nicky Riemer, chef and co-owner of Melbourne’s Union Dining, says to always try and choose a plump-looking quail at the butcher’s – they will go better on a grill without overcooking the delicate breast meat.
“I love the delicate game flavour of quail and the smokiness of the chargrill. At home, I use a Le Creuset grill on my stovetop to achieve the same flavour as a restaurant chargrill,” she says. “I like to marinate quail in a mix of blended extra virgin olive oil and olive oil with crushed garlic, oregano leaves, bay leaves and thyme, before cooking on a barbecue or open grill – this keeps the flesh tender and adds an extra dimension to the flavour.”
Grilled quail goes incredibly well with soft white polenta – just follow the directions on a packet of instant white or yellow polenta, and stir in grated parmesan and butter before adding your grilled quail. This is a very typical northern Italian dish.
The best time to shoot wild pheasant in Australia is between late May and August, though those available in restaurants are most often bred for eating. Paul Cooper, executive chef at the Provincial Hotel in Fitzroy, says he prefers Milawa pheasants, which are available from late March till late June. Hens are his preferred choice, as they tend to be more tender and less gamey in flavour. But the hens have a tendency to dry out if cooked for too long, since their skin is thin and, like cocks, there’s little fat in their flesh. Cooper says that high-temperature roasting tends to make hen meat stringy and a little dry, so he prefers to pan-fry the breasts.
The male birds are perfectly edible, but take a little more effort to prepare, and, for instance, work well in a pheasant version of coq au vin, with the long marinating time helping to tenderise the meat. The leg meat is full of small bones and sinew, so slow cooking and shredding or picking the meat down is recommended. Most pheasants are slaughtered at 16-18 weeks of age, with carcasses weighing about 1-1.5kg.