**This blog post was originally written in April 2019, but I am bringing it back as a part of this Chicken-Rearing Series. Austin and I have changed our practices over the last few years since writing this original post. Any updates or changes to what was said in the original post will be updated in this style/color font within the body of the post.**
As we are getting ready to take on our first batch of meat birds for our [tiny], BUT growing, Customer base, Austin and I are trying to perfect the art of processing. We have been asking around and gaining more insight as to how different people do this efficiently.
What we have learned is that the process is really all about the prep. If you don't have the proper preparations in place, the entire process becomes daunting and time-consuming. We have gone from butchering on the picnic table with hardly any clue as to what we were doing, with a bucket of hot water I pulled from the tub, to something a little more elaborate, but still very simple.
One of Austin's coworkers who has been butchering for years, told us about her process, so we adopted some of the methods this time around and cut our processing time, literally, in half! As I get older, I have come to learn that there are always better/more efficient ways to do things, so talking to other people and learning will never stop!
This time around, we only processed four birds, so we are really testing the efficiency of our new process. We set up the grill to heat up our water, instead of carrying it from the house shower down to the processing site. This worked out way better, except it took forever to reach temp of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Note: Austin and I have since switched to using electric burners with a big metal scalding pot - we run 2 side by side. Make sure you start getting water up to temperature about 1.5-2 hours before you start to butcher - this is the most time consuming part of the process and I promise that you do not want to hand pluck or machine pluck a dry bird. This temperature allows you to soak the bird after it's dead for a few seconds so the feathers will literally peel off nicely. Note: chickens are dipped in head first while I hold the feet - I use their feet to swirl them around inside the scalding water for about 10 second. You can tell if they are ready by the ease in which you can pull their feathers out, especially around the winds and neck which have the toughest feathers to pluck out. Do not soak them too long or you run the risk of pulling the skin off while you pluck them. Some people remove the skin during processing, but the skin is probably the most nutrient dense part of the chicken with vital vitamins and minerals AND it also tastes delicious when it has a slight crisp to it :). We decided to use a grill versus a fire so we could maintain a proper temperature and not have a fluctuating water temperature based on the strength of the fire.
Along with the grill, we continued to do the processing on our picnic table and cutting boards. Everything was washed down first and them cleaned with bleach before we started processing. Also, make sure you use very sharp knives and have a bowl of hot, soapy water on hand to wash your hands.
To recap thus far:
-Grill (or some source of heat) to get a big pot of water up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure the bird can fit in the pot you use! Note: we now use electric burners with big pots so the chicken fit inside - we raise large birds! We also run 2 side by side so I can switch to another pot when the first gets too cold. This will not be a problem if you are only processing a few birds, but we process 50 at a time. It is also good to have a pot of hot to almost boiling water handy if you are using shrink bags for packaging.
-Processing surface, cutting boards, and sharp knives. We used a Cutco large perry knife to get the job done. No need for a big butcher's knife, you'll wreck the meat!
-Keep a bowl of hot, soapy water nearby to wash your hands often, and paper towel to dry and discard into a garbage bag. You don't want to keep wiping your raw chicken hands onto the same towel.
-We do not put our meat on ice since it goes into the freezer almost immediately. Instead, we keep a bowl of ice cold water nearby, so when we are done processing the bird, we can soak in the water until we are able to get it into the kitchen sink for full cleaning. Note: we now have a dedicated stock tank that we fill with ice water, and keep cold running through it so we can place processed birds in the cold water until we are ready to package. This works better for us because we process dozens of birds at one time, we needed a larger holding space for them so we don't have to stop mid processing to package.
-CLEAN CLEAN CLEAN!! I cannot stress enough how clean your working area needs to be. You don't want the meat to get infected with any bacteria or parasites.
The last thing you need to determine is how you want to harvest the bird. Austin and I took a method that we saw on Alaska: The Last Frontier show, and modified it slightly. We took a 5-gallon bucket and cut a hole in the bottom/side of it. We can place the chicken in the bucket so their head sticks out the hole, and then we can remove the head with a large blade. We do this so the chicken is confined in the bucket and doesn't thrash around, causing the meat to get bruised or damaged after the bird is harvested. Is it perfect? No, but it works for our processing method. Note: we moved away from the bucket as we felt it was not very cleanly and could house bacteria in the plastic cracks in the bucket. We bought a poultry kill cone - size extra large for turkeys - because we have broilers and ducks that get very large. We mounted the kill cone to a wooden fence post and buried the post into the ground. The cone needs to be mounted with the large open end facing up so you can load a bird inside the cone, head first, and allow their head to stick out the bottom, smaller hole. Once you have the bird inside the cone, neck stretched out, and calm, take a sharp blade and either slit the throat to allow blood to flow out until the bird passes out, or do a clean, quick chop of the head and behead the bird. Either way, leave the bird inside the cone for a minute or two to let the blood drain out and let the nerves work out of the body. A chicken or duck will continue to thrash and twitch for several minutes after they are harvested - this is normal! This is probably the hardest part of the entire process, but leave them in the cone until they stop moving. If you take them out, you run the risk of the bird damaging it's meat and causing bruising.
The last thing needed is a place to hang the bird after it is harvested. After the head is removed, you can tie it up and let the blood drain out.
Okay, so now that we have the preparations ready for processing, it's time to put all of the steps into motion.
1) Place the chicken into the bucket with its head sticking out of the hole, and remove the head. Make sure the blade is sharpened prior to doing this. The last thing you want is to have to use multiple swings of the blade to remove the head. We want to respect the animal and give it the most painless and quick death that we can give it.
2) After the chicken stops thrashing around, due to postmortem nerves firing, hang the chicken up to allow the blood to drain.
3) Once most of the blood drains, to where the chicken is merely dripping a few drops of blood, submerge the entire chicken into the 160 degree Fahrenheit water. We like to keep it in the water for about 5-10 seconds while swirling it around to help loosen the feathers. Remove the chicken from the water and hang back up.
4) Run your hands over the chicken's carcass to start removing feathers. Austin and I have tried wearing rubber/latex gloves to see if that might help create friction on the feathers to easily pull them off, but I saw no difference in the effectiveness of using the gloves. Remove all of the feathers from the chicken. Note: I do not hang the bird back up to remove feathers any longer - I lay on a dedicated plucking table and use my thumb/index finger combo to grab feathers and pluck them out (pull against the grain for best results). OR, if you have a plucker, you can place into the plucker and run it for 10-20 seconds until the feathers are plucked off. We use the Kitchener brand, link below in post notes.
5) Decide how you want to process the bird. We ended up quartering out 2 of the birds, and leaving 2 full carcass. It really depends on how you want to use them. For us, leaving them whole works great for putting in the smoker or roasting. Quartering them works great for having chicken wings, or chicken breast on hand to throw into other dishes. The choice is yours!
Weed 'em and Reap has a great video on their YouTube channel that shows the proper way to butcher a chicken (whole carcass): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_lAkPyvSnA
I highly recommend watching this 11-minute video to get a better idea on what cuts to make and how to properly remove the organs. It is easier to get a visual, rather than me try to explain!
6) After processing, throw the meat into the bucket of ice cold water and dispose of the organs properly. I always take the meat into the kitchen and run them under cold water for a bit and work the meat with my hands to get all the blood and any residual chicken fluids off the meat.
It is also very important to inspect the quality of the meat. If the meat looks unnatural or off-colored, you should not eat the meat, and discard it right away. That chicken may have been sick before it was harvested.
7) When the meat is cleaned to satisfaction, place meat inside a food saver bag and vacuum seal it for the freezer. Note: we now only process whole carcass chickens because of the MANY benefits including the skin which I talked about earlier in this post, saving the full carcass for making broth, and boiling down the bones and using them as nutrient supplements in my dog and cat food.
By this point in time, you should now have an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction knowing that you have raised these birds up from chicks, provided the best life possible for them, and now they are giving back to you by feeding you and your family. To us, this is such a beautiful thing.
Although we like the idea of processing our meat, we just don't have a scale-able operation right now to take on 20+ birds at one time. We want our customers to have clean-cut meat that is processed fast, so it can be sealed and put in the freezer right away. We will be having an Amish farm up the road from us process our birds for our Customers, as they are truly the experts in getting this done, and we like to support other local farmers! Also, not a single butcher shop within at least an hour drive of us will process poultry. Note: we have moved to processing all our own poultry in house, right here on our farm! It creates a stress-free environment for our animals, allows Austin and I to have full control over how the meat is handled and packaged so we ensure our Customers are getting a top-notch product. This also greatly reduces the price per pound for our birds - cutting our the processing fees is huge.
This past weekend, we had friends up for some kayaking down the Wisconsin River, and when we got home, we took this chicken and threw it into our meat smoker for 3 hours on top of some Apple Wood chips. This was the BEST chicken I have ever had, and I am not being biased because this is my own :) Five of us sat down and ate until we were full, we then carved another full plate of meat off this bird, and I saved the cage to make soup with.
You can't find a full carcass chicken in the store that can easily feed 6-7 people, plus make an additional meal of soup. Most packages of chicken you buy at the store are made up of numerous chickens. That sounds like a lot of waste to me! On top of that, I know exactly what went into this chicken's body; great quality food, and zero antibiotics or hormones.
Dinner tonight will be homemade chicken noodle soup. :)
So I challenge you this week, seek out a local farmer and try buying a cut of meat from them. I then challenge you to directly compare that cut of meat to a cut bought at the super market. Which one tastes better? Which cut of meat do you get more meat from? Do you know how the cut of meat from the store was raised, or where it even came from?
Always challenge yourself, and the state of our current food system. Food education is important!
Kitchener Chicken Plucker: https://www.amazon.com/KITCHENER-Stainless-Chicken-Plucker-Feather/dp/B076VW45J6
Whole Carcass Butchering: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_lAkPyvSnA
PLEASE reach out to me if you have any questions!