A day had been selected to harvest our chickens. Because I enlisted the help of a fellow chef and farmer friend who worked weekends, we picked a Wednesday and he came down from where he lives in the Catskills so I could apprentice. My husband works Wednesdays so the goal for working with Zach was to become competent enough processing birds that next time, I could do it without help.
“Harvest” and “process” are nice words for slaughter and butchery, respectively. Since the coyote episode took out half the flock, the work would be quicker, but I’d also have fewer practice birds. It sounds weird, right? “Practice birds?” But that’s all it is. If you plan to eat meat, the birds have to go through the process of harvest and a practiced hand is better but technique must be learned and, well, practiced.
I’ll walk you through the practicalities and logistics:
- As in any new task, work with someone experienced if at all possible. Zach was patient, gentle and direct when explaining things to me and when handling the birds. Could I have watched a bunch of YouTube videos and learned on the fly? Sure, but it was much nicer to have someone at my elbow directing the moves as I internalized them.
- Even when you get good (good?) at slaughtering, it’s nice to have a partner. It’s called “gallows humor” for a reason and it’s a good idea to have a friend to talk to, catch up with, and laugh at you when you get splattered with blood and poop.
- There’s an automated machine called a plucker that removes feathers. You can buy one or build one, if you are mechanically inclined, or do as I did: borrow one from my dad. You can dispense with with plucker all together, but it makes an hour-per-bird job take 30 seconds.
- Get everything set up and you’re ready to go.
- I set up a shade tent to work under. It would have been needed if it had rained, because we couldn’t reschedule slaughter day. Zach works weekends and the roosters were turning into dicks. Or, the roosters were turning aggressive.
- Killing Cones – You need something to contain the bird so it can’t flap around. It’s morbid and gross and messy, and unnecessarily cruel and eerie. You can buy them or fashion something out of chicken wire. I’d recommend getting at least two so while one bird is draining, you can slaughter the next. After some research, I’m going to replace the ones I borrowed (thanks, Daddy!) with 2-gallon bottles, as described in this helpful post.
- A metal skewer
- A new boxcutter razor blade
- A bucket to collect the blood
- A pot of hot water (150ºF) for scalding, with a clip-on thermometer to monitor the temp.
- A second pot of hot water on the stove inside to swap out when the first pot cools. (Alternately, a large gas burner set to low flame. I don’t have one of these so I just swapped pots a couple times. Use fresh water for each pot, or your house will be perfumed with chicken.)
- A plucker, or a log or stool to sit on while you hand pluck
- A hose with cold running water
- A cooler filled with ice water
- A cutting board with your two favorite/sharpest knives, one chef’s knife, one paring knife
- Three containers for offal you are going to keep
- A big container for the heads, feet and carcasses (if you’ll have any) for stock
- A trash container for the parts you are not going to keep
- Labeled zip-top bags and a plan for how you’ll break down the birds into edible cuts; more on that in a moment.
- A roll of paper towels
- A pack of gum (optional, but I like to chew gum when I have to focus)
- A strong constitution.
- Twenty-four hours before slaughter, isolate the chickens to be harvested with just water, no food. This will empty them out and lessen the contamination potential of poop.
- On the day of harvest, set up the list above assembly-line style.
- Take a bird, and with as much finesse as you can manage, pull the legs straight while holding the feathers, all in one hand. The best way to describe this is to imagine Zach and me dueling with chickens-as-swords (en guard!). Not that we did that, of course. That would be juvenile.
- Turn the bird upside down and drop it into the killing cone so its breast is facing you.
- Hold the metal skewer in your dominant hand and the head of the chicken in your non-dominant hand. Put the skewer into the mouth of the bird and with a deft amount of pressure, push through the roof and back of the mouth, pithing the bird, rendering it brain dead. It doesn’t take much and you don’t want to go through the skull and into your hand. Goldilocks pressure. Just right.
- Swap out the skewer for the box cutter blade. A major artery runs on the left side of the bird’s neck. Push the feathers back and you may be able to see it. If so, great, if not, that’s OK, proceed anyway. The feathers line up like scales of armor, so you’ll want to move them out of the way enough to see and cut through skin.
- Place the bucket directly under the bird. Cut across the neck of the bird, through the blood vessel and tip the head back to open the cut, allowing the blood to empty into the bucket.
- Once the bird stops moving, get your next bird and repeat steps 4 through 7. While bird number two hangs, you can proceed with bird number one. This is why it’s efficient to have multiple killing cones.
- Holding it by the feet, scald the bird in hot water for 30 seconds. The water should be about 150 degrees. Too hot and you’ll poach the skin, too cold the feathers won’t come off easily.
- Pluck the bird, either by hand or using what we dubbed the Super Plucker 3000.
- Give it a rinse with the hose.
- Scald the feet in the hot water and peel them. Just like it sounds. If the water is too cool, nothing will happen, so make sure the water is hot enough. Make a joke that at this point: it looks like he’s hanging out in a Jacuzzi. (Gallows humor.)
- Move the bird to the cutting board setup.
- Remove the preening gland. Make an incision where the tail meets the base of the spine then cut toward the tip of the tail, under the bright yellow bulbous gland; remove as much as you can, even if it takes a couple passes.
- Take off the head and neck where the neck meets the body. A sharp knife and some stern downward pressure will do the trick. That goes into the stock bin.
- Take off the feet by cutting across the knee caps and opening the skin so you can see the joint. Cut straight through the joint. Feet go into the stock bin.
- Eviscerate the bird. This takes some practice. With the legs facing you, identify the vent. “Vent” is a nice way for saying butthole. On chickens, everything (including eggs) comes out one hole, the vent. Using your small sharp knife, cut around the vent and through the fat, trying not to puncture any of the intestines, which you cannot see but they feel like gelatin. It isn’t easy. Once you’ve made a hole through the fat, you’ll see the cavity of the bird, reach up in there with two fingers and rake out the viscera. It’s a lot like a haunted house wherein you put your hands into a bowl of spaghetti and are told it’s guts. Except it really is guts. The chicken has a larynx, also called a cluck box. If there’s any air left in it, a cluck may now escape the bird.
- When you’ve raked everything out onto the cutting board, identify the liver (deep dark brown), gizzard (big and hard like a muscled golf ball,) and heart (looks like a heart.) Trim the gall bladder from the liver and discard. If you puncture it, the liquid is a beautiful deep green. Trim any excess hanging bits from the other organs and put them into three respective “keep” containers. Put the rest of the viscera into the trash bin.
- Now, you’ve got a bird you’ll recognize from the supermarket! You can leave it whole or break it down into cuts. I left six whole and broke down six thusly: One bag of wings, three bags of legs and thighs, two bags of boneless, skinless breasts. The carcasses from the broken down birds went into the stock bin with the heads and feet.
- Repeat! Because there were two of us, we took turns killing and plucking and butchering. If Zach was on slaughter, he’d process through steps 1–13 and drop the birds into the ice water bath in the cooler. I’d take them from there and butcher. We’d switch every couple of birds for a change of scenery.
- If you aren’t going to cook the bird in the first hour after processing, let the birds rest in the fridge for at least 24 hours and up to four days before cooking. This allows the natural process of rigor mortis happen and results in a much more tender bird. I may have made a mistake, because I froze all the birds after we were done butchering, which may have interrupted that step; I’ll have to wait and see. My plan is to allow one bird to defrost under refrigeration for several days before cooking, reasoning that freezing has both a tenderizing effect on protein and also will just slow down the rigor process.
- Enjoy the feeling of your hard earned work, patience, sacrifice, and dedication to owning where your food comes from.
Things to be aware of:
- When things die, even in the most humane way possible, they move around. A lot. It happens with fish, lobsters, and is the reason I don’t eat eel (a story for another day.) Same with chickens. They kick their feet; they shudder and live up to their reputation of “running around,” long after discernible life has left the body. The nervous system is a powerful and wonderful thing. Watching it shut down is equally dramatic, so be prepared for a lot of spasms and keep a hand on the bird’s neck until it stops moving so it can’t inadvertently launch out of the cone. If it does, calmly pick it back up and put it back in.
- I’ve gutted thousands of fish. And while I was prepared for chicken evisceration, it had somehow escaped me that the inside of the chicken and its blood on my hand during the draining process would be warm, about 105 degrees to be exact. Fish are cold, sometimes hand-numbingly so, and that was the sensation I had associated with gutting. Not so with birds, and I wish I’d put that puzzle together so I could have been prepared.
- If you work outside, there will be flies everywhere. It’s just part of the process. The key is to clean up thoroughly. Rake up all the feathers and either put them in the trash or bury them in the compost pile, as we did. You can dilute the blood to dump on the garden; we poured it around the edge as a vermin repellent. Hose everything down well in the work area, but know there will be flies around for a day or two. They are doing their job breaking down the leftovers.
You aren’t going to want to eat chicken for a while, a possible symbiotic evolution with the rigor mortis process. You’ll smell like chicken and be sticky and have blood on your jeans. We had pork tacos for dinner on slaughter night. It’s normal to not be stoked to eat bird for a while. But when you are ready, you’ll be so excited to eat! The final installment of this series will provide you with some recipes to get you started.