A capon is a male chicken that is gelded, or castrated, at a young age, and then fed a rich diet of milk or porridge until it reaches 6 to 12 pounds, between the age of 5 and 6 months. The flesh is very white and, unlike that of other chickens, marbled with fat. Larger than a chicken, a bit smaller than a turkey, but more flavorful than either, capons are full breasted with tender, juicy, flavorful meat that is well suited to roasting.
They tend to taste less gamey than an intact rooster would, and yield moist tender meat with high fat content. Because of its size, the capon is a good choice to feed a dinner party, or even a small Thanksgiving gathering in place of turkey.
Caponization is done either by surgical removal of the testes, or, as some factory poultry producers prefer, by estrogen implants. Capons that are labeled “all natural” have been surgically caponized. Because of the loss of sex hormones, the normally aggressive barnyard rooster becomes a docile, mellow creature. Capons can be housed together as they will not fight for dominance, which makes the process of raising them a lot easier on the farmer. Capons are less active because of the neutralization of sex hormones so their flesh does not become tough and muscled but instead is fatty and tender. Other physical changes to a capon include a smaller head, comb and wattle.
While humankind has been eating chicken for a long time—at least since 4000 BC in Asia—the capon’s history is a bit murkier. When it was first decided to castrate a young male chicken and then fatten it up is open for debate, but some lay it at the doorstep of the Romans. A law was passed during a period of drought (162 BC) forbidding the fattening of hens, as it was deemed a waste of precious grain. Wily breeders skirted the letter of the law by instead castrating roosters and fattening them for sale, though these capons were much larger than hens, so they must have eaten plenty of grain. The name “capon” comes from the Latin “capo,” meaning “cut.” Through the Middle Ages, capons were especially popular with the clergy and kings, and thus popularized throughout Europe, where capon was stuffed, roasted, stewed and baked into pies. In present-day France and Italy, capons are traditionally served at Christmas.
Capons require longer cooking times than typical chickens because of their larger size. Roasting capons at lower temperatures helps bring out the flavor, but also adds to the cooking time. As a general rule, a capon should be roasted for 17 minutes per pound, so a 10 lb. bird would require a total roasting time of just under 3 hours. The poultry is done when a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the capon’s thigh reads 165 degrees or the juices run clear. Whether poached or stuffed and roasted, capons offer rich taste and lots of meat to go around the table.