Will It Sous Vide? Whole, Tiny Birds

Hello, everyone, and welcome back to another meaty instalment of Will It Sous Vide?, the regular column where I conduct experiments with my immersion circulator.

Photos by Claire Lower.

This week, I decided to go with "small, whole birds" and traipsed to the over-priced, hippy grocery store in search of one (well, more than one). The only tiny bird they had was the fair Indian game hen, so I grabbed three of those. I have only eaten a Indian game hen (also known as Cornish game hen in the US) a handful of times — half of those occasions being at Medieval Times — so I was pretty pumped to see how the plump little bird would fare in our immersion bath.

Indian game hens are mostly white meat, so I set my Anova to 66°C, as per this handy temperature guide. The hens came vacuum-sealed in plastic, so I threw one directly into the bath with no further treatment. To see if extra, added fat could take us to tastier places, I unwrapped the second bird and re-sealed it in a vacuum bag with a couple of tablespoons of duck fat and a whole bunch of fresh, chopped herbs.

Marjoram, thyme, oregano, etc. I then left the little birds in their bath, pulling one out every fifteen minutes or so to check the temperature. After two hours of hot tubbing, we finally reached our target temperature of 66°C.

I pulled the birds out of the water, removed them from their plastic prisons, and patted them dry with paper towels. I then approached the skins using two different tactics. I bet you can guess what they were. (Torch and broiling, just in case you can't guess.)

This photo really captures the mood of the moment. The torch yielded a blistered bird that was burnt in spots, which wasn't necessarily what I was looking for.

Eh. The meat however, was quite pleasing.

Both breast and leg meat were juicy, plump, and succulent. I sprinkled on a bit of crunchy Maldon salt, and ate it gladly. The second bird (the one with all the duck fat) was popped under the broiler to crisp up, which yielded better results, skin-wise, though the legs never got enough colour on them for my liking.

The flesh of this bird, though, was a bit off-putting. I didn't think there was a scenario where adding a whole bunch of duck fat wouldn't be the right call, but here we are. The meat was too supple, too moist, and — though the thickest part of the breast registered at 68°C after broiling — had an almost raw feel to it. I did, however, like the way the herbs and salt had infused into the bird.

I didn't know poultry could be too juicy. With Hen 1 and Hen 2 done, I went to bed, with big plans to spatchcock the third bird. The next morning, I groggily stumbled from bed, mumbling "don't butcher the hen upside down" over and over. What happened next will shock you.

WHOOPS As you can probably deduce from the above photo, I accidentally removed the breast bone first. I don't know that this is actually the biggest deal, but it upset me enough that I flew from the kitchen into the den — an absolute vision of blue hair and poultry shears — yelling "GUESS WHAT I DID?" at my poor vegetarian house guest. I then put the two accidental chicken halves in a vacuum bag, omitting the duck fat, but sprinkling on a few healthy pinches of salt and herbs.

After two hours at 66°C, I removed the hen, checked the temp — which clocked in at 66°C exactly — and patted the meat with a whole bunch of paper towels. I then rubbed the skin with a good bit of butter (it browns faster than duck fat) and popped the whole thing under the broiled for five minutes.

The skin on this one was by far the most pleasing, but the meat fell short. Though the legs were superb, the breast was dry and stringy. Given the fact that this bird is mostly breast, this is unacceptable. This outcome probably has to do with the fact that this is a pretty small bird, so breaking it down for faster, more even cooking doesn't do us any favours.

Boo. So none of the hens were particularly mind blowing, and the best was the one that was sous vided directly in its packaging, with no added fat or seasonings. This leads us to our favourite question: Will Indian game hens sous vide?

The answer? Yes, and you can get a pretty decent bird this way. For optimal results, I recommend cooking the bird whole, with no extra fat, seasoned liberally with salt and herbs. After two hours at 66°C, pat it off, rub it down with butter, and pop it under the broiler for five minutes.

However, though a hen prepared this way will be tasty and succulent, I can't tell you it will be mind-blowing. Unlike turkey, where the difference between sous vide-ing and roasting is startling, there wasn't any particular difference texture or taste-wise between this little bird and other hens I had had that were prepared by roasting or grilling. (It was however better than the hens I had consumed at Medieval Times, if that means anything to you.)


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