You can eat egg laying chickens, yes. Chicken meat has a different taste and texture as the bird ages, so it’s more to do with how old the chicken is than whether or not they’re laying. If a chicken is laying, however, they’re typically going to be at least 20 weeks old.
Broiler chickens, which is the name give to any chicken bred and raised for meat are usually slaughtered between 4-7 weeks of age without laying any eggs.
Broiler meat accounts for the majority of the meat we see on the supermarket shelves. This is because n commercial settings, it’s more cost-effective to either raise chickens for meat or eggs.
In a backyard setting, you may choose to raise a chicken for eggs - later slaughtering it to eat. In this case, it’s important you know when the best age is to get the taste and texture of meat you want.
What Is the Best Age to Eat a Chicken?
Let’s get right into the most important question, what is the best age to eat a chicken so that the meat is at its most flavorsome and tender?
Well, there’s a reason why commercially raised chickens are slaughtered at around 4-7 weeks of age.
It’s because this age is the sweet spot for both taste and cost.
There are a lot of varying opinions over the ideal age to slaughter a chicken. You have to remember that commercial broilers are raised for profit, so this isn’t the optimal age or type of chicken for the best tasting meat.
Chicken farms are producing chickens for profit first, that’s just fact.
Speaking with people who have a lot more experience slaughtering and eating backyard hens than I do, they say that 3-4 months is the ideal age to butcher a chicken.
Obviously, there are factors to take into consideration when making this decision. Such as the breed of chicken, size, what you fed them on etc.
Finding the ideal age for your chickens is something that will take a little trial and error. What we do know is that if a chicken is too young, the meat is too tender and bland.
If a chicken is too old when it’s butchered, the meat tastes “gamey” and is tough. Generally speaking, anywhere from 8 months onwards is considered to be ‘old’ for eating a chicken.
Don’t worry, there is a decent window of time in between when a chicken is too young or too old, it’s not as scientific or as complicated as it may be coming across.
Terms Used to Describe Chickens by Age
Here are some commonly used industry terms to describe chickens by age. These might prove handy when discussing the right age to butcher a chicken:
- Broiler-fryers - These are very young, tender chickens. Usually around 7 weeks of age and weighing anywhere between 2.5-4.5 lbs.
- Roasters - These are older than broiler-fryers, usually around 4-5 months of age. The extra months make the meat noticeably less tender.
- Capons - These are male chickens that were castrated before reaching sexual maturity and fed a rich diet. The result is a less gamey and more favorable tasting meat.
- Stewing/Baking Hens - These are mature egg-laying hens, typically anywhere between 1-1 and a half years of age.
- Spent Hens - These are commercial egg-laying hens that are no longer laying enough eggs to be kept for this purpose. They are usually two years of age and older.
Should You Eat a Spent Chicken?
Spent chickens are egg laying hens that are no longer able to lay enough eggs to be kept for their egg laying ability.
This doesn’t mean they’re old though. Commercial egg laying chickens have a short lifespan in terms of commercial use.
Egg laying breeds tend to start laying at just 5-6 months old, and will lay anywhere around 300 or so eggs for the next two years.
After that, egg production drops rapidly and they’re ‘retired' to make way for new chickens.
This certainly makes spent chickens too old to be used for meat. If you ate one you’d notice their meat is a lot tougher than what you’re used to, and it will also taste gamier.
Related - Here’s a closer look at ISA Browns, one of the best commercial egg laying breeds.
What About Unlaid Eggs?
Something else to consider when butchering egg laying hens is that you’re likely to come across ‘in-utero’ or unlaid eggs.
Or in other words, you might find an egg that is in the process of being made and not yet finished or been laid.
It takes around 24-26 hours for an egg to go from inception to being laid. During this process, it goes from the orange blob-like yolk to forming a shell around several layers of membranes.
When butchering chickens that are laying eggs, you can expect to find the egg in any stage of the process. It can be quite a shock, but it’s largely unavoidable.
Can You Eat a 2-Year-Old Chicken?
You can eat a 2-year-old chicken, but don’t expect it to taste like the chicken you’re used to. Two years is old for chicken meat and is considered to be a ‘spent hen’ in commercial terms.
You can expect the meat to be tough and gamey. It’s still very edible though, and a lot more common to see chickens of this age being eaten across Asia, Thailand, and some other countries.
Can You Eat a 3-Year-Old Chicken?
A 3-year-old chicken is going to be even tougher and has a stronger gamey taste. This is getting to the age where you’re really going to notice the difference and not enjoy it as much.
You have to cook chicken this old a lot different to that of the regular chicken, too. It’s going to take hours longer and be a lot less satisfying.
How Long After a Chicken Lays an Egg Can You Eat It?
If you’re asking how long you have to wait to eat an egg after a chicken has laid it, the answer is you can eat it right away!
In fact, most people will tell you the fresher the egg is, the better it tastes.
If you’re asking how long you have to wait to eat a chicken after it’s laid an egg, the same answer applies - the sooner the better!
It’s perfectly fine to eat egg laying chickens. The older a chicken is, the tougher and gamier the meat is going to taste - that’s the main consideration.
Whether or not a chicken is laying eggs doesn’t make a difference to if you can, or should eat them.
Image credits - Header photo by Hans Isaacson, in-body image by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash
How old are chickens used for meat? - USDA.gov