Chicken Butchering 101

August 24, 2010 § 21 Comments

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There are few things more satisfying than knowing that, when the economy collapses, we will still know how to raise and process our own food. Moreover, the quality of meat raised by small operators, organic and free-range meat in particular, to me couldn’t be farther removed from what you find on the store shelf. My personal experience of conventional store-boughten chicken (and beef) is not much more than that of grease – not meat. For that reason, we raise all of our meat and eggs ourselves, as well as harvest some in the wild. With guns.

A couple of FAQ before we begin (I really get these all the time):

Isn’t butchering gross?

No. It’s amazing how fast one becomes desensitized. Try it sometime, and you might find yourself loving it. When I met my husband, I didn’t want to eat animals because I felt sad they had to die for us to eat them. These days I find chicken butchering to be second only to Christmas morning. And God knows, I love Christmas morning as the celebration of the birth of our Lord as the primary vehicle of accumulation. So that’s saying something.

How do your kids do with butchering? Does it traumatize them?

Our kids do wonderfully around butchering. In fact, they are as excited about it as we are. When you grow up with it, it is not something shocking – it is a way of life. Ever read Little House in the Big Woods? About the pioneers in Wisconsin? Kinda like Jacob and I minus electricity? Then you’ll remember little Laura finding butchering to be “a great fun.” Moreover, we believe that it’s valuable for a young person to have this kind of first-hand experience with what it takes to raise and process food, care for animals, and participate directly in the greater circle of life. I’d much rather have my kids learn how to butcher than feed them microwaved chicken nuggets out of a box.

Why don’t you pay them Amishes to butcher your chickens for you? It’s only a couple bucks a piece.

Because doing things yourself is good for the soul, and because such first-hand participation in my food’s entire life-cycle whenever feasible is important to me as someone who is serious about cooking and eating.

But don’t you feel sad about killing the birds you’ve raised from cutie-pootie-itty-bitty-yellow-chickies?

No. They have a good life, these chickens, you know – raised in dramatically more luxurious accommodations than most of the animals raised for food in this country, our chickens are provided with a spacious, cozy home and infinite space to roam outside if they so choose. As long as we treat them well during their lifetime, I am at peace with eating them.

Where do you get your chicks?

From a hatchery, either through our local agri-center or here. They arrive in the mail (yes, that’s right) as one- or two-day-old chicks, and, depending on where you bought them, you pick them up either at the post-office or the agri-center.

What breed(s) do you raise?

Cornish Rocks or Roasters. They are bred to gain weight rapidly and to grow very large – and you know what? I don’t have any problem with that. And I don’t have any problem buying all of my ammo at Walmart, either.

Do you use a chicken tractor? Why not?

No – chicken tractors are a pain in the butt, and, in our situation, it is most convenient (and pleasant for the birds) to house them in our large chicken coop (separate from our layer coop). Every morning we open their door so they can go outside and roam freely around our farmstead – but not until they get their feathers (at about 3 weeks of age). The door is then closed at night to keep them warm and safe from predators, such as coyotes and foxes, who don’t normally venture out during the day.

How many chickens do you raise every year?

Fifty.

Note: This post is about chicken cleaning (plucking and gutting), since, in order to protect the sensibilities of some, I decided to not include the killing photos. I will just tell you that we use killing cones and a chef’s (or a hunting) knife to this end (But keep in mind, this will be hard on the chef’s knife, and is likely to make the blade mildly disfigured forever. If you love your chef’s knife, use something else. I almost never use mine, however, so that’s OK). Note also that I am not usually the one doing it – although I’ve done it, I much prefer the gutting part, while it is  Jacob who is in charge of killing, scalding, and plucking.

Another step not pictured here: the scalding. To loosen the feathers and facilitate plucking, be it by hand or with a motorized pucker, you need to scald your (freshly killed) chickens in 150-degree water for a few minutes (we use a turkey fryer for this purpose). To do so, just swirl them around in hot water for a bit and then try pulling out wing and tail feathers – if they are not coming out easily, dip the birds some more. Be careful that your water is not too hot as this will cause the skin to tear when they are being plucked later.

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After your birds have been scalded, you can certainly pluck them by hand – something I have done quite a bit and enjoy very much, but we haven’t done in for several years now since we began using a motorized chicken plucker. This particular model is great because it sprinkles water onto the birds (you place two-three in at a time) as they are being spun around, causing the rubber fingers to strip the birds of their feathers, which come out a special opening in the bottom and onto a tarp you spread underneath, allowing for easy disposal.

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And then they look like this.

Note: our friend Jane chills chickens a little in cold water before gutting, but we just go straight for it. Nothing like warm chicken innards on a cool day. Your choice.

Another note: to keep flies at bay, Jane places discarded parts into a barrel full of cold water, but if flies are not very bad, you can just use empty buckets or what have you.

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You wanna start by cutting off the feet. Personally, we feed chicken feet to doggies, but if you come from a culture that uses them as food, more power to you. Personally, I grew up with not so-fond memories of gnawing on peeled, boiled chicken feet, and the feel of those delicate little bones in my mouth is not something I wish to relive anytime soon. Same goes for chicken neck if you try to suck on it directly.

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Anyhow, to remove the feet, locate the joint that connects the foot to the drumstick, and, using a light hand, cut through the skin and the cartilage connecting the two.

Next, we are going to remove the oil gland used for producing preening oil from the part of the bird known colloquially as Pope’s nose – the tail, in other words.

Holding your knife almost parallel to the bone, apply quick, light slashing strokes to remove that oiler. Note that this wasn’t done so well in this picture, but this is good because it allows you to see for yourselves what the gland looks like – it’s the yellow stuff. If this happens to you, just cut a little deeper around it and it will be gone.

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You can try severing the neck and saving it for soup or giving it to your cats or dogs, but my mother-in-law prefers to leave it on at butchering time, and use a cleaver later to remove it before cooking (or was it before wrapping?), because it does wreck your knives. It’s also hard to do with a knife – in fact, you’ll see in the following pictures that my father-in-law tried to cut it off and gave up. Although aforementioned Jane does it somehow.

What? I didn’t say we’ve got everything perfectly figured out, but, somehow, it all works out in the end. That’s just the thing about this DIY approach to life – you might not always know what the heck you’re doing, but if your heart it is in the right place, you’ll get to your destination eventually.

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Next, you want to make an incision in the skin around the throat area and use the small opening to locate and loosen the crop – the “sack” chickens use to store their food. The size of the opening will vary with your skill and level of care.

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This thing that he’s pulling on, by the way, is a wind pipe that will show up in the process of looking for the crop, and, somewhere along the line, you’ll want to remove it.


The crop is especially easy to find if you have fed the chickens the morning of butchering. Now there are two schools of removing it – once you loosen it up, you can either cut it off, or pull it out from the inside with the rest of the guts later, but that doesn’t work so well if the crop is really full.

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Next, turn your bird around – we are going to dive into the cavity to remove the inner organs. To that end, carefully make a small, vertical incision between the end of the breast and the chicken’s (gosh there’s gotta be a polite word for it) cloaca. Exercise utmost caution as you do so – all you wanna do is cut through the skin and the fat to get to the cavity, and not, God forbid, pierce the intestine. While it’s no major disaster if you do, since the poop that comes squirting out as a result can be easily rinsed off, smell-wise, you’ll get what you deserve, plus poop on your hands.

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Aha! Like this.

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Next, I am sorry to say, you’ll have to plunge your hand inside that chicken’s warm cavity, which is one of my very favorite things to do in the world. I am not even going to apologize for loving it, because I realized early in life that you can’t let the opinion of others steer you away from something you really, really enjoy.

Anyhow, stick your hand in with the back of your hand up against the breast. Locate the gizzard (stomach) – a large, firm, round, ball-like thing inside (it will be distinctly larger and firmer than anything else in there), and yank on it, pulling out the intestines and some of the attached inner organs with it.

Some organs that might not come out on this first try are kidneys and heart, so once everything is out, look inside and see what else you might need to pull out, but not until…

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Not until, with all the insides laid out on the table, you cut very carefully around the cloaca, taking care (once more) not to pierce anything, thus removing the whole thing and the attached guts with it. Being able to do so cleanly gives me with a powerful self-esteem boost each and every time. So much depends upon not piercing the intestine.


And there, in the pile of guts, will be the liver. I like to save livers for making a chicken liver pate a couple times a year, but, as you can see in this picture, it is attached to the gull bladder – this black-green thing at the top. The gull bladder must be removed. To do so, cut into the liver very carefully, cutting all around the gull bladder. If you pierce the gull bladder, all hell breaks loose and you get the nasty bile all over your liver, at which point you have nothing left to do but throw that liver away with the rest of the guts. If you have helpers, watch over them like a hawk, or else demand to personally process all livers yourself. If someone is not careful with their liver, a bit of bile will make the entire contents of the liver container taste bitter. (We like to put livers into a bowl full of water to keep them cool until we freeze them).

But you are not done cleaning the cavity just yet – you still need to remove the lungs. Now really skilled chicken lung removers with many a years of experience, such as yours truly, will remove the doggone things in one go, leaving each intact, because if you burst one by poking around, it is a pain to remove it in pieces, and it makes the cavity that much more bloody.

To locate the lungs, slide your hand inside the chicken cavity, with the back of your hand up against the back of the chicken, and feel around the ribs with your index finger. You will feel two fleshy, soft, almost jello-like (perhaps that parallel is misleading, I am not sure) organs. Slide your index finger underneath each one in such a way that the back of the finger is against the back of the bird, loosen the lung all around, and yank (or pull gently, whatever works). In case that wasn’t self-evident, this is done one at a time. If you are lucky, upon emerging from the cavity, yours will look like this:

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See? A whole lung. Bingo!

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Now the chicken needs to be washed out in cold water. We use a two-tub system, where we first give our chickens a rinse in the first tub to remove the initial blood and grime and feathers and what not, and then transfer them to the second tub (shown above),  kept relatively clean by the first step, to pick it over one more time. Now this is your quality control step, where you will scour the cavity again for forgotten organs, especially when novice butchers are present (which, with us, is almost always), an occasional windpipe, and remove the pin feathers that your plucker(s), human or mechanized or both, have missed.

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Here is mother-in-law is picking pin feathers out of the chicken’s armpit. My mother-in-law is an especially outstanding chicken cleaner – they come out incredibly clean after passing through her hands.

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Now see how nice and clean the cavity is after rinsing? You may now officially begin thinking of this chicken as food.

By the way, see the pink fleshy bits to the left of the center? That sort of look like an O’Keefe painting? That’s where the eggs come out – I just watched it happen for the first time this past week.

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And now the final step in the butchering process – put them in a larger tub filled with cold water (ours comes straight from the ground and is very cold), and let them sit and relax till the evening (if you’ve butchered in the morning) or overnight, changing the water a couple of times (this is done by sticking a hose into the tub and turning it on so the warm water can float to the top and over the edge while cold water replaces it).

Note that it is important to let your chickens rest and relax in this fashion before cooking them, because, if you cook them right away (not that most of you, unlike me, would want to), they are likely to be tough.

Don’t they look just lovely, by the way? This year, our smallest chickens weighed 7 lb after butchering. Don’t even ask me about the bigger ones.

Next step is to package them for storage in the freezer, where, if wrapped well, they will keep for a couple of years without freezer burn.There are two ways we do it in our family – my mother-in-law owns a vacuum sealer, while Jacob and I use a more primitive method of placing them in 2.5-gallon zip bags (we prefer the Hefty brand whose bags are somehow, dare I say, more hefty than the competition’s), and then wrapping them in freezer paper and securing it with masking or freezer tape.

What Jacob and I do is better accomplished with two people, so one person can keep their hands wet for taking chickens out of the water and placing them into bags, and the other can keep their hands clean and dry for wrapping and labeling.

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I like to expel as much air as possible from the bags before sealing them, which I do by submerging partially-zipped bags, chicken and all, in a big pot of water (above), while leaving a tiny unzipped corner exposed to the air (so the bag does not fill up with water, which we don’t want). Once everything but a tiny unzipped corner is submerged, the water will push most of the air out of the bag, leaving your chicken practically vacuum-sealed. We learned this trick from Jacob’s cousin Mike – I call it “poor man’s vacuum sealer.”

Like this. Isn’t that nice?

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Lastly, you’ll need to label your packages (not shown) – we like to put down the current year and also mark whatever defects the bird might have (skin torn during plucking and so on). If this happens to be the year of significant political elections, we have also been known to put our candidate and party preferences onto the packages as well. Otherwise, sonnets and haikus are also acceptable.

In case you were wondering (and sometimes people do), we never, ever, ever cut our chickens into pieces before freezing – with a very occasional exception of Chicken Kiev, I don’t prepare boneless, skinless chicken breasts (and I secretly judge people who do) – I prefer cooking the entire bird and then using the leftovers for casseroles, chicken sandwiches, and stock.

Now, let’s reprise:

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Before…

After.

Amen.

§ 21 Responses to Chicken Butchering 101

  • Tom Hudgens says:

    Amen, indeed! Thanks for this wonderful hymn, Sofya! I like that you start (and end) with the picture of the actual, live chicken. An important reminder. This chicken looks exactly like the one chicken I raised for the table many years ago, named Meat Chicken. In fact, all the photos brought back memories of Meat Chicken! The feet on your chickens look so nice and clean. You know, they make an excellent addition to the stock pot–they add lots of richness and flavor.
    –tom h.

  • Sofya says:

    Cool, Tom! Would you peel the feet to that end?

    • Tom Hudgens says:

      As long as they are nice and clean, no need to peel them! Just throw them in, let the stock take in their flavor and nutrients, and throw them out when you strain the stock. They add a lot of gelatin, giving the stock excellent body.

  • Jenny Albert says:

    Having removed the birds’ food 24 hours before butchering starts, I also remove their water first thing in the morning on the day of slaughter—and I replace it with beer. Then once I have my butchering setup in place, I, too, have a small glass of beer, with the birds, and we drink to each other. I toast them in thanks to for the richness they’ve added (and will add) to my life and they drink to me….well, I’d like to think they drink to me in thanks for a good life and, I hope, a good death.

    Our toast to each other relaxes me and it relaxes them, making the whole butchering process go smoother and giving it a ceremonial and sacrificial significance to the day’s work.

    And of course, when we’re done, there’s beer left to be enjoyed by the butchering crew.

    • Tom Hudgens says:

      I used beer in exactly that way when I slaughtered, too! But I don’t think the chickens drank any…also, I’m just remembering (this was ’95 or ’96) that I cooked the livers for lunch after the slaughtering. It sounds odd, I know, but it felt–and they tasted–just exactly right, somehow. Eating them, I felt replenished.

  • Sofya says:

    That makes a lot of sense – livers are best fresh like that.

  • H. Houlahan says:

    How did the gull’s bladder get into the chicken?

  • noey says:

    Wow! Thank you so much for this post. I love food and meat, and feel like the best way to honor and understand your food is to see (and if possible, participate) in the entire process from animal to snack.

    Now I just have to find someone with live chickens so that I can do this myself.

  • Sofya says:

    Are you guys serious about giving beer to chickens? I can’t think of a more natural place for communion than my digestive tract, and that is also where beer, I think, belongs the most. Although, if this was Ruth Bourdain, she’d be giving the chickens some absinthe.

    Also, I find it important to feed the chickens the day of the butchering so it’s easy to locate and remove the crop.

  • Foodie says:

    I live in town now, but consider learning to slaughter food animals one of the most important things I learned as an adult. AND at social gatherings it allows you to upset neurotic animal rights activists for the rest of your life….

    This is a really good post. I’ve never really found a literary treatment of meat production that does justice to it, even Wendell Berry.

  • C. Bryan says:

    Hello Sofya and good day to you..!

    I have just come across your blog through a link from “The Browser”. Wonderful..! I will be signing up for the email…looking forward to it.

    All the best to you and your family,

    C.

    P.S. : Every person who eats chicken should do this at least once. Like gardening it’s grounding to “get your hands in the Earth”…

  • Siva says:

    Hi Sofya !!
    Do you know how the chicken feet are processed and stored..??

    • Sofya says:

      I’ve never done it, no, but I do know that you need to peel the scaly, yellow (or black, or whatever color your chicken is) skin off first. What are you going to do with them?

  • Eileen Phillips says:

    I just butchered my first chicken. I used your site as a guide. Everything went very quick and smooth. I did feel a little bit anxious after breaking the birds neck. But, he is in the fridge resting as we speak. I am hoping for a wonderful chicken soup tonight. It’s a beautiful fall night and I have LOVED raising my chickens this summer. Thanks for the great guide.
    Ely’s Ford Road
    Fredericksburg VA

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