The endless varieties of chickens might make your head spin when you are looking for the best chicken breeds. However, these varieties do serve a purpose. Depending upon what purpose you want your chickens to serve, not all chickens are created equal.
Generally speaking, chickens are divided into three categories: chickens for eggs, chickens for meat, and dual-purpose chickens for both eggs and meat. Certain breeds outperform others in each category.
Chickens that are bred for laying eggs put their energy into egg production. Hence, they have a tendency to be on the scrawny side, relative to the other categories, and as such are not so good for eating. Layers are relatively easy to maintain.
Overall, Leghorns are the best chicken breed for laying white eggs, in what is called a “Heritage” chicken (this means the breed meets certain criteria, including that it's been recognized by the American Poultry Association since prior to the mid-20th century). Many Leghorn hybrids perform just as well or even better, so the best laying chickens tend be a variety descended from the Leghorn, if not Heritage.
For brown eggs, the Rhode Island Red tops the list for most productive, as well as for the largest eggs.
Chickens bred specifically for meat are often of the hybrid variety, and are bred to grow rapidly to a large size. This regularly causes health issues and, therefore, a flock of this type must be carefully attended.
With this in mind, the best chicken breeds for meat are those that are well established. These have been time-tested for the best results.
Cornish Chickens are popular for their meat, and for their personality and other characteristics. Though adult males grow to more than 10 pounds, with hens growing to eight, these are not the fastest growers. This is why the Cornish game hens found at your grocer are about one pound. These are the young chickens, harvested before adulthood. Still, if allowed to grow, the meat is firm and quite good. These chickens are naturally healthier than the more rapidly growing varieties, though the breed is still relatively scarce. This is largely a home-grown breed.
The Corn/Rock Broiler is a hybrid of the White Cornish and the White Plymouth Rock, growing to about the same size as the Cornish. These grow at a rapid pace, harvested at six weeks, so are commonly used for commercial purposes. Raising any breed that grows this big and this rapidly, takes time and practice. Still, many people find the six-week investment is well worth it. The home-grown meat of these chickens is juicy and tender.
Best Dual-Purpose Chickens
Dual-purpose chickens offer the best of both worlds. These chickens are good enough egg producers to keep a steady supply and are meaty enough for dinner, too.
Plymouth Rocks are one of the best breeds of dual purpose chickens. Hens grow to about 7 1/2 pounds and generally have good motherly instincts -- if you‘d like to raise chicks. Roosters grow to about 9 pounds.
New Hampshire is another of the best chicken breeds in this category. These are a bit smaller than the Plymouth Rocks, with hens at about five and a half pounds, and roosters close to eight pounds. Egg production is stressed more with these than is meat, though they do work well for both.
Fine-Tuning Your Pick
Numerous varieties of each of these breeds have been developed, each variety to exhibit certain characteristics. Certain personality traits may attract you more so than others, as well as the egg-laying or meat-bearing characteristics. Once you have chosen a particular breed, you might like to check into its different varieties, for an even finer pick.