Thursday, August 29, 2013

5 steps to starting a backyard flock responsibly

In my last post, I talked about the controversy that is brewing over backyard chickens. As with any animal that becomes popular, chickens are starting to fall into the hands of some irresponsible owners, but it is not difficult or complicated to be a responsible chicken keeper. Here are five action steps you can take before starting your own backyard flock.
  1. Contact your local zoning office or check online to make sure chickens are legal in your area. Ironically, most large cities do allow chickens, while a lot of small towns do not. If you contact the zoning office and are told that chickens are illegal, ask to see the actual ordinance regarding poultry. Unfortunately, some cities employees have been known to say chickens are illegal when they are actually legal.
  2. Read at least one book on chicken care. My personal favorite is Harvey Ussery's The Small-Scale Poultry Flock because he employs a natural approach to raising heritage breeds.
  3. Join a local group of chicken keepers on Facebook, Yahoo! Groups, or Google Groups. They will be able to provide you with invaluable knowledge on everything chicken related in your area, from where to buy feed to where you can have roosters or old hens processed. They can also tell you about the political atmosphere surrounding chickens in your community.
  4. Decide what you will do if you cannot keep a rooster and one of your chicks starts crowing. Will you turn him into dinner? If not, do you know someone who will take him in? Would you be okay with someone else having him for dinner? If you want to be 100% sure that you are getting all pullets (young hens), you should buy chickens that are already a couple months old so that their sex will be obvious.
  5. Decide what you will do when a hen's laying slows down. Will you be happy with an egg or two a week during her later years? Or will you turn her into chicken soup when she gets to be a few years old? If you will butcher your chickens, can you learn to do it yourself? Or do you have a processor in your area?
By planning ahead and making some hard decisions before bringing home your first chickens, you will be better equipped to deal with the inevitable situations that every chicken keeper eventually faces.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Controversy over backyard hens

A Delaware pullet, which is a rare breed
Whenever anything gets popular, there will no doubt be people who don't like it and become rather vocal about their opposition. Sometimes they will voice legitimate concerns, but other times they will have objections that are not grounded in reality. Such is the case with backyard hens. I was sadly shocked to see that NBC fell prey to some misinformed animal activists last month.

I wish animal activists realized they are hurting chickens far more than they are helping them when they try to talk people out of having backyard hens. The vast majority of Americans are not going to become vegans, so if they don't have backyard hens, they will be buying eggs from the supermarket -- eggs that probably (95% likely) came from a factory farm where the chickens have their beaks cut off and are kept in small cramped cages and never see the sun or chase a bug across the grass.

I've listed a few quotes from the article that present some of the worst misinformation, followed by my response with the correct information.
  • "hens lay eggs for two years, but can live for a good decade longer"
Hens actually lay eggs for many years, at least two-thirds of their natural life, just like other creatures. If their reproductive life represented only 20% of their lifespan as this quote implies, that would mean they have the shortest reproductive life of any animal on this planet. These people have simply assumed that because factory farms kill hens after two years, that they no longer lay. Wrong! Hens are simply not profitable enough for factory farms after their second year, but they are still laying. We don't butcher our hens until they are three years old. Initially we kept some hens until they were five years old, and even at that age, they were still laying an egg every week. However, an egg a week compared to four to six eggs a week is a rather expensive egg, which is why we now turn our hens into stew meat at about age three. I have a friend who is a vegetarian and has a flock of 9-year-old hens that still lay!
  • "raising the birds can be noisy, messy, labor-intensive and expensive." 
Factory farms are noisy, filthy, and the parts that have not been automated are labor-intensive. Backyard chickens are less noisy than a dog. I generally tell people that taking care of a small flock of hens is about the same amount of work as a cat. Chickens are actually less messy than many cats. Ever had a cat that would scratch its litter so vigorously that it would get tossed out of the litterbox? They are also less expensive than a dog or cat -- and they give you eggs in return!
  • "some 225 former backyard chickens are waiting now for new homes"
This quote came from a shelter director and is just plain sad because a lot of people could be fed by 225 chickens. And if someone is not willing to eat a rooster or a backyard hen that is past its laying prime, but they are willing to buy chicken at the store, they are just plain hypocritical. People need to realize that those chicken nuggets came from a real, live animal that died. And almost all chickens that are sold in the supermarket were raised in factory farms and fed drugs in their daily diet to keep them alive because of the filthy conditions in which they are being raised. In 11 years, we have never had a chicken that needed drugs.

Unfortunately, modern humans are so far away from our food roots that I have heard too many people say that old hens are not good to eat. Argh!!! Even Julia Child said that old hens provided the best broth. Slow cooking an old hen with plenty of water, over a low heat, for a few hours makes a delicious, tender meat that can be used in soups, casseroles, and salads.
  • "People entranced by a 'misplaced rural nostalgia' are buying chickens from the same hatcheries that supply the nation's largest poultry producers and rearing them without proper space, food or veterinary care, she said.

    "The most commonly available hens have been bred to be good egg layers. At the same time, backyard farmers often use enhanced feed, light or other tools to prompt hens to lay constantly. After keeping up that pace for 18 months to two years, however, hens often develop reproductive problems including oviduct diseases that can kill them, veterinarians say. However, healthy hens can live for years longer, up to a decade after they stop laying."
The scenario in those two paragraphs describes what happens in factory farms. Hens in factory farms have half a square foot per bird, and they get zero veterinary care. All factory farms "use enhanced feed, light or other tools to prompt hens to lay constantly." If factory farms didn't do that, the egg section of the grocery store would be stocked quite sparsely from November to February as hens naturally quit laying in the months with less sunlight.  Although some backyard chicken keepers do light their coops to encourage hens to lay through the winter, many don't.

Sebright bantams, which are only raised by rare breed stewards

Rather than buying breeds that have been specifically bred to be good egg layers, most backyard chicken keepers have heritage breeds, many of which are on the verge of extinction and will only be here for future generations if backyard chicken keepers become stewards committed to keeping those breeds alive. Those breeds lay a good amount of eggs -- four to six a week -- but that's not profitable enough for factory farms. In eleven years we have never had a chicken have a problem with egg binding, the oviduct problem to which the animal activist refers, which is sadly common with the enhanced breeds developed for factory farms.

I don't know anyone who has bought chickens because of "misplaced rural nostalgia." Most people who want backyard chickens want them because they abhor the conditions in factory farms, so they are certainly not going to mimic those conditions. Yes, every now and then you might hear about someone keeping a couple of chickens in their basement, but you also hear about someone keeping 20+ cats in filthy conditions, and no one paints all cat owners as irresponsible and inhumane. Recently someone on a chicken forum asked if they could keep chickens in their basement, and community members responded negatively, some with simple facts and others with more emotional responses.

The reason that we have people giving away hens that are not laying much any longer is because of ignorance. We need to educate people about their food choices -- including animal rights activists who think that chickens only lay eggs for two years! Unfortunately few people in our society have the "common sense" that our ancestors possessed about food. Most modern Americans think everything comes from the grocery store and don't see a difference between a box of dehydrated mashed potatoes and a piece of chicken. A dinosaur-shaped chicken nugget doesn't look anything more like a chicken than a pile of dehydrated potato flakes looks like a potato.

But the plight of the potato and the chicken are very different because chickens are sentient beings. If you don't do your homework before deciding to plant a garden, and your garden fills with weeds and produces very little to eat, you are the only one who will lose. But if you get chickens without knowing what you are getting into, that creates an entirely different situation. Just as you should do your homework before bringing home a dog or cat, you should do your homework before bringing home chickens. If the people in that article really cared about chickens, they would work on educating people, not simply condemning every chicken keeper as a mini-factory farmer.

I am probably preaching to the choir here, but if you know anyone who is thinking about getting chickens, you might want to share this post and my next one with them. In my post on Thursday, I'll talk about the things you need to consider and the decisions you need to make before starting a backyard flock.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My 3 secrets to fresh, hot bread daily

When people hear that we don't buy bread -- we make it fresh almost every day -- they wrongly assume that someone is spending a lot of time in the kitchen. But I'm sure I spend less time baking bread for the entire week than most people spend standing in line at a fast food restaurant for a single meal. How do I do it?

  1. Originally, we had a bread machine, and I'd still use it except that it died after 17 years of faithful service. But it only takes about 3 minutes to put all the ingredients into the machine and press, "Start!" Set the timer, and you can  have fresh, hot bread waiting for you when you wake up in the morning.

  2. When the bread machine died, I bought a stand mixer. It takes about 3 minutes to put all the ingredients into the bowl, flip the switch on, and then turn around and do something else in the kitchen while the machine mixes and kneads the dough. I add flour as needed, and when it's just right, I turn off the machine and let the dough sit there for an hour or two. Whenever it's convenient for me, I flip the switch back on, and it knocks down the bread and kneads it for a couple more minutes. I turn off the machine and repeat if it's still a couple hours before dinner, or I put the dough into a pan if it's time for the final rise.

  3. I mix up two or three loaves at once and only bake what I need today. The rest of the dough goes into the refrigerator after the first rise. Doughs made with unbleached flour can be put into the frig in a buttered or oiled bowl. If you want two or three rolls with dinner one night, simply pull of a couple little balls of dough and place them on a baking pan. Or put a big hunk of dough into a bread pan to make a loaf. Before refrigerating doughs made with whole grain flours, put them into the bread pan in which they'll be baked because whole grains seem to have a bit of trouble rising after being in the frig. They will rise in the frig, and they'll bake beautifully as long as you don't knock them down after taking them out of the refrigerator and expect them to rise again.
And that's it! By incorporating one or all three of these ideas, you can have fresh, hot bread as often as you want. If you want to get started with a simple, four ingredient French bread recipe, click here!

Do you have any tips for incorporating bread baking into your life easily? Be sure to leave your ideas in the comment section!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Cheese fail!

Does fear of failure stop you from trying to make cheese? If you're afraid that you might do something wrong when making cheese, you're right. At some point, you will make a mistake, and the cheese will be a total flop. It might be the first time or the 641st time that you make a cheese, but at some point, you will fail. So get over it!

The picture above is what happened to a batch of cheddar recently -- and Mike has made at least 100 pounds of cheddar over the years. But that's what happens when you fall asleep and don't wake up for 90 minutes when the cheese was supposed to be resting for only 30 minutes. I suppose I have to take some of the blame. After all, he was counting on my internal clock to wake me up in 20-30 minutes, as it usually does when I take a nap in the afternoon. Of all the times for that internal clock to fail! But as I always say when things like that happen -- it's a good day to be a pig! They didn't mind at all that the cheese didn't knit! There wasn't anything wrong with the batch from a safety perspective, but when the curds don't stick together, there is tons of air between the curds, which would have likely resulted in crazy mold growth veining through the cheese during aging -- and we're not talking about good mold here.

And this is what happened the first time I tried to make a mold-ripened cheese several years ago. I thought I could use a cookie cooling rack instead of a proper cheese mat. To make matters worse, I also forgot to turn the cheese daily, and the mold wrapped around the cooling rack. When I tried to pull the cheese off the rack, it ripped apart.

But I always say that I have learned far more from my mistakes than any books I've read or classes I've taken. Having those cheddar curds sit for 90 minutes instead of 30 minutes, we learned first hand how fast curds release their whey. So, remember to always use a timer when making cheese.

A timer is a cheesemaker's best friend!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Crash Course on Sourdough

Lime Poppy Seed Sourdough Bundt Cake
Hello, readers! I am Stephie, the face behind the food blog Eat Your Heart Out. On my site I write about a little bit of everything, though I love focusing on recipes that use fresh ingredients, and try to avoid as many unnecessary preservatives in my food as I can.

While you will find all kinds of recipes on my site, I like to say that baking is my first love. Some of my earliest memories are of helping my momma bake snickerdoodles. Much of what I know about baking I learned from my mother, and it was at her elbow that I learned to bake cookies, pies, and breads of all kinds. Now that I have my own kitchen and the blog and have taught myself a few things, we often embark on baking and cooking adventures together (usually with delicious results).

Multigrain Sourdough Boule

About a year ago, we decided to embark on the adventure of baking with sourdough starter. Sourdough breads are different from other yeast breads in that sourdough contains naturally occurring yeasts (as opposed to the cultivated yeast that you buy at the grocery store) in combination with a Lactobacillus culture and requires a long fermentation process.

Whoa. That just got really scientific. Basically, we know that yeast is a living thing (more specifically, a fungus). It is the gases produced by yeast that make yeast breads rise. In the case of sourdough, the Lactobacillus (which is used to produce foods such as yogurt, cheese, and pickles, just to name a few) also produces lactic acid, which is what gives sourdough its unique (and delicious) flavor!

Buttery Sourdough Rolls

Understanding all of the science behind sourdough helps us understand why we need to begin with a starter when we bake our breads – the yeast and bacteria cultures live in the starter! I really love my sourdough starter recipe – it is much easier to get going than a lot of recipes, and is incredibly easy to maintain. Feed your starter once a week, and you’ll have a happy starter that could live for years – generations, even!

Of course, after taking care of and baking with my sourdough starter for about a year now, I have learned a few things. The first is really the most obvious: You really must feed your starter. It is a living thing, and it will die if you don’t feed it with a simple combo of flour and water. Once a week (or more often) is best; you can sometimes go about a week and a half, but get more than that and you’re likely to find mold growing on your dead starter. Whoops. Leave a post-it note on your fridge (I leave a note on my whiteboard in my kitchen) if it will help you remember to feed your starter.

The second is this: Leave your starter on the counter overnight after feeding, but don’t forget to put it back in the fridge after that! Turns out, fruit flies like fermenting yeast as much as they like rotting fruit. Whoops again.

Roasted Strawberry Sourdough Muffins

When it comes to baking with sourdough, it really couldn’t be easier! There are a lot of recipes out there for you to choose from (and I’ll leave you with a few of my favorites at the end of this post). Some use a combination of starter and cultivated yeast – these recipes will take about the same amount of time to rise as conventional yeast bread. Other recipes just use the starter – these recipes will take a much longer time to rise (usually overnight, plus a chunk of the next day), but will give you a bread with a much more distinct sourdough flavor.

Vegan Sourdough Banana Bread (The best banana bread I’ve ever had!)

You can even add your starter to quick breads! To do this, replace 1 cup of the flour and ½ cup of the liquid called for in the original recipe with 1 heaping cup of starter. Follow the rest of the recipe as directed, and you will have sourdough pancakes, muffins, cake...anything! The starter acts much like buttermilk would when used in this capacity.

I hope this crash course on sourdough has unveiled some of the mystery behind what I think is a great way to bake, and encouraged you to give sourdough a try!

Visit my site for more information behind the science of sourdough and yeast in general.

In addition to everything pictured (click on the picture to link to the recipe), here are some of my other favorite sourdough recipes to try:
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