There are few white meats that are as lean and delicious as rabbit. And while you can substitute rabbit for chicken in many dishes, the techniques for cooking can be slightly different and may require a few extra steps or tweaks. Because rabbit is so lean, overall, slow roasting and simmering techniques tend to produce the best results. Don't get me wrong, I often brine rabbit so that I can grill it or bake it in the oven, however depending on the age of the rabbit, it can sometimes become quite tough. If you are new to raising and cooking rabbit then there are a few things you need to know to help ensure that the meals your prepare with rabbit turn as tender and delicious as you intended them to be.
In this article, I will show you how to choose some of the best techniques for cooking rabbit based on the age of the rabbit. Sounds kind of crazy right? What most consumers do not know is that poultry and rabbit are similarly classified into categories based on the age of the animal. All poultry available for consumption is classified as fryer/broilers (9 to 12 weeks), roasters (3 to 5 months), and stewers (10 months or older). What most of you buy when purchasing chicken at your local supermarket are young hens that are fryers. The package may not specify 'fryers' on the label, however 95% or more of the chicken purchased at your local supermarket are fryers. Fryers are young, tender, and can be cooked with just about any cooking technique with excellent results.
So what has this got to do with rabbit? Well rabbit is classified in the same general way as poultry, and the same rules apply to taste and texture. Commercially raised and butchered rabbit's like their poultry counterparts are generally fryers (about 8 to 12 weeks). However, most Americans who eat rabbit either raise their own rabbits or acquire them via hunting so the age of the animal may vary quite a bit. This matters because whether you raise and butcher your own livestock or simply enjoy the hunt. The age of the animal will have a big impact on the texture and flavor of the dish you wish to cook. So to help you better create the best possible meals out of your rabbit we will examine the four basic classifications of rabbit based on the age of the animal (young fryers, fryers, roasters, and stewers).
Young Fryers: 2 to 3 months
What I like to call young fryers are usually butchered at 8 to 12 weeks (2 to 3 months). Meat rabbits at this age are generally 4 to 5 pounds in weight and will dress out at about 2 to 2 ½ lbs bone in weight. At this age the meat is the most tender and this is the most cost effective age at which to butcher your rabbits. Once they get to 4 months of age your cost benefit ratio of food to meat produced begins to drop dramatically. The flavor of the young fryer is the most mild, and as the classification implies, at this age the rabbit can be substituted for chicken in just about any recipe that you would like including fried rabbit. Rabbit at this age is generally fork tender no matter the cooking process. If you have ever bought commercially butchered rabbit in the supermarket, this is the age at which it is most widely available. Best uses: Grilled, sautéed, braised, deep fat or stir fried, and roasted.
Fryers: 3 to 6 months
As opposed to young fryers, fryers are slightly more mature and usually butchered between 12 to 36 weeks (3 to 4 months). Meat rabbits at this age are generally 5 to 6 pounds in weight and will dress out at about 2 ½ to 3 lbs bone in weight. Some people make no distinction between young fryers and fryers, however as the rabbit begins to age the meat begins to have a greater depth of flavor, and while still tender, it is not quite as tender as a young fryer. For the home rabbitry, rabbits at 6 months are just coming into maturity (healthy breeding age) and your cash outlay to get the rabbits to this size from that of a young fryer may have actually doubled, depending on your feeding program, while the meat produced by the rabbit has not dramatically increased.
As the rabbit gets older it begins to put on more muscle mass. While this increase in muscle mass does mean that it has more meat, the continued growth and use of these muscle fibers as the rabbit ages makes the meat less tender. As with the young fryer the meat is still mild, but not quite as tender, however as the classification implies, at this age the rabbit can be still substituted for chicken in just about any recipe that you would like, especially grilling, but if you like fried rabbit, the young fryer is a better choice. We try and butcher most of out rabbits here at TAP rabbitry before they get to the six month stage, but sometimes you need to keep stock on hand at this age in order to fill the need for customers who want mature breeding pairs or to exchange livestock with other breeders. Best uses: Grilled, sautéed, braised, deep fat or stir fried, baked and roasted.
Roasters: 6 to 12 months
These are your mature rabbits, and are butchered between 36 to 48 weeks (6 to 12 months). Meat rabbits at this age are generally 7 to 10 pounds in weight and will dress out at about 3 ½ to 5 lbs bone in weight. The flavor of this rabbit is really rather nice, however because of it's age, the meat can be quite tough. Rabbits at this age are best roasted or baked over a prolonged period of time to allow the fibers in the muscles to breakdown and become tender. There is nothing quite as delicious as a slow roasted rabbit. If you attempt to fry mature rabbits as you would a young chicken or rabbit fryer you will be disappointed with the results. While the meat will have great flavor, rabbit cooked at this age using high heat techniques such as frying or grilling will most often be tougher than most people prefer.
Here at TAP rabbitry any rabbit which we have not sold after six months goes to what we call “freezer camp”. While we may keep the hindquarters after butchering, at this stage in the animals life most of the meat is de-boned and frozen until we have enough to make into sausage. In addition, we cut up some of the rabbit and then boil it until the meat is tender and falls off the bone. This meat is then packed in it's own broth in mason (canning) jars and processed in a pressure canner so that we have rabbit meat to use in casseroles, soups, and even rabbit salad whenever we want. For information regarding canning rabbit and other wild game or meat, check out my article on 'Canning Rabbit and Poultry'. Best uses: Roasted, baked, boiled, poached, sausage, and canned.
Stewers: 12 months or older
These are your mature rabbits, and are butchered after 12 months of age. Meat rabbits at this age are generally 9 to 12 pounds in weight and will dress out at about 4 ½ to 6 lbs bone in weight. Many breeders will tell you that rabbits of this age have some of the best flavor, the downside to eating mature rabbits is that they can be really tough. Just as with poultry, and old rabbit is a stewing rabbit. The low and slow process of stewing meats helps to breakdown the connective tissue of older animals making them both tender and delicious. As I mentioned these rabbits are generally ones that have either outlived their breeding age or for whatever reason just need to be butchered. We have had an occasional buck or doe here at the TAP rabbitry that either just refused to breed, or continued to have small litters of 2 to 3 rabbits.
Like the roasters, rabbits which we do not stew are either de-boned for sausage or cut up, boiled and then de-boned and then canned in it's own broth in a pressure canner so that we have rabbit meat to use in casseroles, soups, and even rabbit salad whenever we want. For more information regarding stewing meats see my article on 'Moist Heat Cooking Methods' on my Culinary You blog. For recipes on making your own rabbit bratwurst or chorizo sausage, check out my articles on 'Making Bratwurst' and 'Making Spanish Style Chorizo' on our blog. Best uses: Stewed, slow roasted or baked, boiled, sausage, and canned.
Raising your own meat rabbits can be quite rewarding especially if you are concerned about where the food you feed to your family comes from and the conditions in which the animals are treated prior to butchering. When cooking rabbit it is important to take into consideration the age of the animal when trying to decide on a recipe. Remember, stewers make lousy fried rabbit, but they make a great traditional hausenpeffer (German rabbit stew). Fryers on the other hand are great for sautéing, braising and or frying, however the delicate flesh of the fryer can quickly become mushy when cooked using long slow techniques such as roasting, baking and especially stewing.
Knowing the age of the rabbit you wish to cook can help you to choose the right recipe and or technique to create a tender and juicy meal making you look and feel like a five star Michelin chef. Ok, well maybe that is an overstatement, but I guarantee you that both you and your family will love the flavor and texture of home raised rabbit when cooked properly. As always, we ask that if you find this information interesting that you please share it with your friends on Facebook and Google+. Don't forget to send us a friend request on Facebook and Google+ or subscribe to our blog so that you do not miss any of our new articles or our notices regarding rabbit's that we have available for sale.
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