What happened when I ate a spent hen

Could eating old laying hens be part of the solution to food waste? I ate one to find out.

You might not be familiar with eating old hens, but your grandparents will (probably, if they grew up on or near a farm that is). So, what the cluck is a spent hen? Unfortunate name aside, a spent hen is a former commercial egg laying chicken. Modern commercial egg laying hens are bred to pop out around 300 eggs per a year. For some perspective on just how many that is, chicken’s wild ancestor, red junglefowl, lay around a dozen per year. When young, these hens (also known as pullets) start laying eggs at about 5 months old, but at 15 to 17 months their egg production slows down. At this point, because the bird hasn’t been bred specifically to be eaten, it will be taken to a slaughterhouse to await a potential destiny in pet food or be frozen and shipped abroad for folks to eat before being replaced with a younger hen.

Spot the difference: organic free range spent hen on the left, high welfare free range chicken on the right.
Spot the difference: organic free range spent hen on the left, high welfare free range chicken on the right.

Why don’t we eat spent hens?

Industrialised poultry farming has removed the need to eat spent hens today, however it seems crazy that these edible hens are removed from our food chain. Modern chicken production — for both meat and eggs — is big business. 94% of the 2.2 million chickens consumed in the UK daily come from intensively reared birds. Free-range accounts for just 5% and organic 1% and last year we ate 12.6 billion eggs, according to the British Egg Council.

Industrially farmed broiler chicken (raised specifically for its meat) are bred quickly to be as big as possible, with lots of easy-slicing white meat. Today consumers can pick one up in a supermarket for less than the price of a pint of beer. In 1950s Britain, chicken was a treat where most people ate less than a kilo over a year. A spent hen was likely to have made it to the dinner table of a British farmer or smallholder in a time of post-war rationing where nose-to-tail eating was a practical way to make the most of what you had. Now we eat more than 2kg of chicken a month, averaging 25kg in a year.

Spent hens may not be a common food in Britain, but you can spot them at markets in Thailand (complete with its unlaid eggs or reng khai, more on that later) or across West and South-West Africa in dishes such as muamba, the Angolan chicken stew. In France, the farmyard bird hit the pot in the shape of coq au vin, where its ‘coq’, aka the older male cock, is braised slowly in red wine (traditionally a Burgundy) to breakdown its tougher meat.

My spent hen before it hit the pot.
My spent hen before it hit the pot.

So, why don’t we eat more spent hens in Blighty? I may not be a smallholder or a farmer, but it seems sensible to think that if you eat meat reared for food, you should explore eating it all and not just shy away from the bits that don’t look so pretty or need to be treated differently. Flavour and texture has been bred out of chicken in favour of high yields and low prices as a result of industrial farming. If spent hens are being dished out in other countries, then quite frankly it feels like we’re missing out. But before the eating comes the cooking, along with my first learning that a spent hen needs a little special handling in the kitchen.

Spent, means older, meaning tougher, meaning low and slow

Browning the spent hen - or any meat - before simmering in liquid will take the flavour up a notch.
Browning the spent hen — or any meat — before simmering in liquid will take the flavour up a notch.

Cooking an older spent hen demands an acknowledgement for the life it had, but much more so than your regular chicken dinner. ‘You can’t just pop it on a tray and cook it in the oven for an hour or so like your Sunday roast’, our Meat Buyer Jaks tells me the evening before I’m due to cook it. He then informs me that my particular spent hen would’ve lived for around 600 days. That’s approximately 17 times longer than the 35 days of a typical supermarket chicken and 7.4 times longer than the 81 days of a slow-grown high welfare chicken. As one of the former organic free range egg laying hens at Purton House Organics, my spent hen would’ve spent much, much more time pecking, walking, scratching around outside, nesting, and of course, laying eggs.

Bringing the to boil, before removing the scum from the top with a slotted spoon.
Bringing the to boil, before removing the scum from the top with a slotted spoon.

How to cook a spent hen

‘You need to cook it slowly at a really low temperature. Try it in a big pot of liquid, for at least 6 hours.’ Jaks advised. Because this spent hen has moved around a lot more in its natural environment of grass and woodland, it needs long, slow cooking at a low temperature ‘like lamb shoulder or beef shin would’. And so the next day armed with this newfound knowledge, off I went. I browned the bird first before bringing it to a boil in a large pot of water with an onion and a stick of celery and left it to simmer for 6 hours.

Tasting an organic free range spent hen vs. a high welfare free range chicken

Messy work: spent hen vs. free range chicken taste testing.
Messy work: spent hen vs. free range chicken taste testing.

I wanted to compare the birds by cooking them in ways that suited the different ways they’d been reared. By no means an exhaustive experiment — more a dabble into a long lost food — here are a few intriguing things I found when comparing a spent hen slow cooked in water and a roasted high welfare free range chicken roasted in a little olive oil.

Flavour

Similar to turkey, but with a gamier flavour and very different taste to the buttery free range chicken beside it. Oddly, it tasted a bit like a chicken flavouring, or the essence of a chicken flavour — as if the taste of a slowly braised spent hen is the synthesized chicken flavour food scientists have been aiming for all this time.

Texture

The life the bird led was very much in apparent in the fabric of its flesh. At just over a kilo, the spent hen was skinny with small breasts, long lean legs and hardly any fat visible under the skin.

The white meat of its breast broke up into long strands when pulled apart, whereas the free range bird’s breast sliced easily, and still held its own. When I pulled the spent hen out of the pot the red meat was falling off the bone and tasted just like the usually ignored and massively underrated underside of a turkey. Sadly, both its white and red meat were pretty dry, which could possibly be explained by its very lean frame.

Shape

The picture above says it all, it’s a completely different shape to free range chicken. The legs of the 1.1kg spent hen measured 12cm, compared to the 8cm of the 1.8kg free range chicken. The older, lighter hen had bigger legs to support its smaller breasts, compared with short legs of the bigger broiler bird. Admittedly, the breeds of egg laying hens differ to chickens raised for meat. Globally, just two companies own the breeds that all commercial laying hens originate from — Hendrix and Lohmann. Between them they offer around 15 different breeds. My spent hen would’ve been either an Lohmann Brown, a Bovans Brown or an Amber Link hen.

Oh, and then there’s unlaid eggs

Premature. Embryonic. Immature. Unhatched. These are some of the names to describe the ‘in-utero’ unlaid eggs of a slaughtered chicken that are yet to develop a shell. These also accompanied my spent hen. Stay with me here and try not to get freaked out…

Olive oil, white wine vinegar, rapeseed oil and mustard (l-r) hanging out with unlaid eggs.
Olive oil, white wine vinegar, rapeseed oil and mustard (l-r) hanging out with unlaid eggs.

Eloquently described in a passage by an intrepid food blogger as ‘hard amber blooms about the size of a yolk, in rows like an organic assembly line on their way through the oviduct. Or they might be tiny yellowish seeds, like yolk buds on a stem’, unlaid eggs are a delicacy in many cultures and for pioneering chefs (enter Dan Barber) alike. Not to be confused with balut — fertilised duck eggs eaten straight from the shell and served up from street food stalls in the Philippines — unlaid hen eggs come in many guises. Creamy and flavourful, unlaid eggs are sometimes called the Yiddish eyerlekh, meaning ‘little eggs’, and are typically added to chicken soup. In Japan they’re called kinkan and in Thailand reng khai.

Unlaid egg mayonnaise anyone?

In an effort to sample this delicacy and make the most of all of the spent hen before me, I made a fairly cack-handed attempt to whip up an ‘unlaid egg mayonnaise’. My aim was to whisk them with a little mustard and a pinch of salt and gradually add a mix of rapeseed and olive oils to make an emulsion — the traditional mayo method. These golden globules however had other ideas and their outer membrane defied the whisk. So…they had to be cut open to release their runny yolk-like insides. Are you still with me?

An attempt at a mayonnaise made with unlaid eggs.
An attempt at a mayonnaise made with unlaid eggs.

After what looked like the beginnings of a cracking mayo, I accidentally added too much oil and my dreams of unlaid egg mayo were instantly dashed. I should’ve been patient. I should’ve known better. I should’ve got someone else to make it (thanks chef Alice for your whisking help). Or perhaps I should’ve simply added them to a soup, Yiddish style, or popped them in a carbonara.

Would I eat a spent hen again?

Yes, I would. But I’m not sure the way I cooked it did it any favours. It would be interesting to try it slow cooked in fat, confit style, as fat is definitely what’s missing and would help its texture and flavour along. Or trying it steamed for several hours before deep frying spiced batter might be a way to go as deliciously demonstrated by Zoe Adjonyoh (the chef behind Pop Brixton’s Ghana Kitchen) on Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast.

Having visited the organic farm the spent hen came from I know it would’ve had a very happy and healthy life as an egg layer. Yet I can’t help but think the very mature age of this particular 600+ days-old bird will have impacted its taste and texture — more so than a ‘recently’ spent hen.

I also can’t shake the thought of food waste. On its Twitter feed, RSPCA Assured stated how ‘In some parts of Asia they don’t differentiate between meat and egg laying chickens. Instead, they use the same bird for both eggs and meat — a far less wasteful approach than we have adopted in the west’.

The bulk of the UK’s spent hens are frozen and shipped abroad or used for pet food and there currently isn’t much of a market for farmers to sell their spent hens for meat. In the case of the organic free range farm — who usually sell spent hens to the locals after their egg laying time is up — this is because ‘it costs £2 to buy a laying hen and £2 to slaughter it, so they’d have to sell it for at least £6 to be worthwhile’ explains Jaks. Yet after seeing Zoe whip up free range spent hen fried chicken to a welcome reception of happy Southend punters, I feel there’s life in the old birds yet.