When I was a little girl, I had a soft heart. I avoided butchering season like the plague and despised all aspects of that side of farming. I had to participate (as with all aspects of farming - everyone does their share) and I even understood the necessity, but with a child's youthful ignorance I scorned the need for doing it. Don't get me wrong, I was first in line for all the delicious dinners. However, for those couple of months each fall, my heart warred with my brain and I was confused to say the least. As I previously mentioned, I moved away from the farming lifestyle as a young adult. I bought into the 'big' brands and easily accessible, commercially sold food items and lost touch with the way I had been raised. It wasn't until I became a mother myself that I even considered returning to it. As mothers, we want to give our children the best, and my head (and heart knew) that what we had available in our grocery stores was not it. I wanted my son to eat vegetables grown in pesticide free soil; to eat meats hand-raised on grass and non-GMO grains; to collect eggs from the coop each day and understand what process had to happen for that happy, healthy hen to lay them. In short...I wanted him to have what I had (and took forgranted) as a child. To that end, we started raising meat birds each year (* see previous blog Poultry-Part 1-Chicks) and have taught our son the joys (and yes...the hardships) that come with raising chickens for consumption and the butchering process that inevitably follows. This article will outline the butchering process in a few easy-to-follow steps and should provide a general outline to ensure a quality bird for the freezer. Full disclosure: I am not a butcher. I know the basic cuts and, most importantly, the significance of a "clean" kill. We adhere to the "happy animals provide healthy food" mantra and endeavor to make the entire process the least amount grotesque for everyone involved.
Step 1: Prep
Remove all food sources from the birds the evening before butcher day. It is advisable to keep water still available as water is essential in the digestive process. This ensures the digestive tract has a chance to "clear" itself and prevents unnecessary "shit" from happening. Pun intended! Next, prep your butchering area and ensure you have all the necessary items at hand for a quick start the next morning. Items include a large stock pot (with lid) for boiling water to 'dip' the bird in, heat source (low bonfire, electric element or propane burner), thermometer, sharp knives, table (of a height so you are not hunched over - important trust me!), butcher block (or 'cone' - more on this in a moment), bins for waste, stainless steel bowls, and several clean 5 gallon buckets or barrels (depending on quantity of birds being butchered). I know that the traditional method of chopping off the head is still used in many places, but we have adapted a "crazy carpet" (you know the children's snow sleigh that gaurantees you'll hit mach speed in 5 seconds or less...on flat ground!) into a cone that is screwed to a wall at serviceable height with an opening in the bottom for the birds head to come through. This prevents the bird from flopping around, making a huge bloody mess, and eliminates broken bones in the process. The key here is making it the right size that the bird rests "naturally" in it without being squished, but you are still able to access the neck for beheading.
Step 2: Butchering
On the morning of, you should start by filling your buckets and stock pot with clean water, getting your heat source started and your water heating. Once the water is heated, you are ready to go. There is no right or wrong way to select the first bird, in fact I usually just walk in, chatting, and scoop up the closest one. Hold the bird firmly but without hurting it, as it's instinct will be to flap and get away. Covering their eyes (head) usually stops any fussing. Next, grip them by the feet, place them into the cone and stretch the neck out through the hole in the bottom. Using a sharp knife, quickly and efficiently remove the head. Allow the blood to drain out until all signs of motor movement have stopped. You are now ready to 'dip' the bird into the heated water. This is done to ensure easy removal of the feathers. You will want to have the water in your stock pot anywhere between 130-170 degrees fehrenheit, and you can dip for 30 seconds to two minutes. Test a wing or tail feather to see how easily it comes out. If it resists put the bird back in for another dip. Now start removing the feathers into your waste bins (we use old feed sacks screwed directly the table surface for easy removal). You want to remove as many of the feathers as possible, with the exception of some pin feathers that will be cleaned up later during the process. When you are satisfied with the look of your bird, it is time to remove the feet, entrails, and organs.
1. Start by laying the bird on it's back with the feet facing you. Using a sharp knife remove each foot at the joint halfway up the leg. You can use the weight of the bird to dislocate the joint. Do this by lifting the bird up by the foot, puncturing the skin and into the 'ball' of the joint. You may have to maneuver the blade around a bit but the weight (and gravity) will naturally help seperate the connective tissue and provide a clean cut.
2. For the removal of entrails, begin by slicing from the bottom for the birds breast bone (which will protrude) down and around the vent (aka "butthole"). You will have to use your hands to remove any fat or connective tissue layers directly inside the cavity, then tip the bird over the waste bin and gently scoop out the entrails. There is a natural divide between the entrails and the organs and if you insert your hand to the "top" and tug you are usually gauranteed a clean scoop out. Note: if choosing to save the gizzards; carefully remove them from the small intestine, slice them open to clean out food waste, and remove the inner layer before setting aside in a bowl of cold water. The liver and heart are next and should scoop out with minimal effort. To clean the heart, remove any excess fatty and connective tissue along the top using a sharp knife then rinse thoroughly in cold water. Set in a bowl of cold water until later. For the liver, remove any connective tissue and carefully remove the blue-ish bile sack attached to the one side, rinse and set aside in cold water.
3. The next few items to remove are the feed sack in the birds neck region and it's windpipe. Do this by making a small slit in the skin along the neck (belly side up still) to where the neck meets the breast, and gently tug out the sack and attached pipes and tendons. This step requires a bit of finesse (to avoid tearing the feed sack which should be mostly empty) and some force as the tendons/windpipe are strong. Lastly, flip the bird over and remove the tail section. Some will keep this, but you must remove the oil gland in it if doing so. To remove the oil gland, pinch the tip while applying downward pressure and make a slice at the top of the tail section as close to the spine as possible, working top to bottom. This takes a bit of practice and after a few tries, you should get the hang of it. Thoroughly rinse the bird (inside and out) and set in bucket of cold water for processing later. Congratulations...you now have the basic 'know-how' to butcher a chicken. "Rinse and repeat" as many times as necessary until you are done and ready to move onto processing the birds.
Step 3: Processing
The work is far from done, but the major hurtle is finished. The next part of the process is...well processing of course. You can choose to keep the birds whole or cut them down, but you need to remove any pin feathers and wash them first. Tweezers work well for removing hard to grasp pin feathers, and this is a great job for little hands. The following instructions will give a basic breakdown of cutting the bird into 'classic cuts" (think thighs, drums, breast, etc).
1. Start with the wings. Grip the tip of the wing and gently lift the bird. Using the weight of the bird (and gravity), find the joint where the wing meets the body and insert the knife tip. Follow the natural contour of the muscle around the joint until the connective tissue releases. You may need to apply a bit of pressure to pop the joint from its socket. Repeat on other wing. Each wing can be kept as is or broken down into wings and drumettes. Cut at the joints to achieve each piece.
2. For the legs, place the bird breast upward and pull the leg away from the body. Slice through the skin, again using the weight of the bird to assist, and cut until you hit the thigh joint. Try to stay as close to the body as possible to avoid waste. At the thigh joint, firmly push down with your hand and break the joint. Finish cutting to remove from body. Repeat on other leg. Each leg can be kept as is or broken down into leg and thigh pieces. To achieve this, cut through the flesh at the natural joint contour until you hit the joint, then firmly pop the joint out with your hands.
3. To remove the breast, run the knife along each side of the breast bone, keeping the blade as close to the ribcage as possible and using the weight of the bird to help. The breasts have a small section on the bottom, often referred to as the 'tender' which can be saved seperately. Alternatively, the entire breast (both sides) can be kept whole, skin on, and roasted for a quick and easy chicken dinner. Everyone likes the breast meat! To achieve this, use a cleaver and remove the breast from the spine.
You are now left with each individual cut and a carcass. I usually salvage any little bit of meat (which can be ground up for sausage) from the carcass then make soup stock from the remaining bones, but the choice is yours. Package your cuts in butcher wrap, label and freeze. Don't be afraid to try. This is a skill like any other, and as such it requires practice. The end-game is to have edible meat for yourself and your family. So what if the cuts are a bit sloppy at first, you'll improve. Just try.
Pro Tip: Chickens raised for meat are typically ready for butcher anytime after the 8 week mark, but depending on the size of bird you hope to achieve (and consequently the amount of food you intend to put out), this is a personal choice. We usually start around the 9 or 10 week mark and yield birds of approximately 6 to 7 pounds.