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Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Dead Chicken Sketch

By overwhelmingly positive response, this post is going to be about slaughtering and butchering a chicken for dinner.  There will be blood, and there will be guts, but it's not bloody guts, so if you can handle a gory movie you can probably handle this post.  My intent is for it is to be instructional, not sensational. I also want to remind you that if you can't see the picture well, click on it so you can see the bigger version.

Ethel was definitely not a hen
I have to preface this by saying that I wasn't at all sure when I started with the chicks that I'd ever be able to kill one for a meal, but my aim with the birds all along has been that they would be livestock for me, not pets.  They were intended primarily for help in the garden, with their eggs being a useful side benefit and good source of protein. Then I had to cull one that went horribly lame.  That by itself was an interesting experience because I learned that I could kill a chicken if I had to.  So it was with some dismay when I learned around eight or so weeks of age that the remaining birds were cockerels.  They had to go, but quick, because the city doesn't allow them and rightly so.  I was certain that Vivian and Violet were boys- their faces were taking on a roostery aspect and they were crowing.  But I wasn't at all sure about Ethel, and even though she was the most agressive of the bunch, her head didn't look particularly roostery like the other two, and her tail was not as pronounced as the other twos'.  Still, on that second morning after discovering that I had not one but two birds that were crowing, Ethel popped out the pop hole and started the morning's ruckus herself. My friend Rae still wasn't convinced they were all cockerels because some hens have been known to crow, and some hens have been known to grow spurs, and frankly I wasn't convinced Ethel was male either.  But crowing, hen or otherwise, is not allowed where I live so down to Rae's forty acres they all went.  When we came back roughly six weeks later I was astonished first at how big they were, and well, this here's Ethel. Definitely a rooster.

Before you get started with the business of turning live birds into chicken dinners, you want to first set up an area in which to do it.  A plastic topped table is helpful because it's easily washed-- otherwise get a plastic tablecloth.  You also need a large pot of steaming water. I've read that it needs to be 140 degrees, but LJ (Rae's intended) told us that if you can dunk your finger in three times and it finally hurts like hell on the third dunk, the water's hot enough.  And then finally a cone of some sort placed upside down on a wall, or in this case, on a post is also helpful for calming down the bird and making the whole sordid deal for them a little easier to take.  I've read that this is the most humane way to kill chickens, so I was relieved when I saw that Rae and LJ already had a cone set up.  I mean, I've seen how they raise their animals and know that each species has plenty of room to wander and fresh air and sunshine and shade, depending on what they want and need, and they are living good lives, especially her hogs, who for all the world look like they're smiling contentedly while they're stretched out in the deep shade of their little woods on a hot day.  I was happy to see that they would also have good deaths, and really, that's the best you can hope for in this world. We all of us want our deaths to be as quick as possible, and that's what the very, very sharp knife you're going to use is for- make sure that the knife you'll use is extremely sharp, because it will make quick, clean work of the kill thrust, as well as be a whole lot safer for you. It also makes getting the chicken apart a lot easier.  The last thing you'll want handy is a bucket for catching everything.  Rae and LJ thoughtfully had a plastic garbage bag stretched over a bin tote, and that worked very well.

So to the slaughtering:  After catching your bird and placing it head down in the cone, give it a few minutes to rest there.  My own personal feeling about why hanging a chicken upside down works to calm them is that their little tiny brains don't know what to do with all that blood rushing to their heads, but that's pure conjecture.  At any rate, it works, and once they seem pretty calm you can go to it.   Pull the skin at the front of its neck away from the spine- it's very loose so you can do this comfortably.

Then with the knife edge pointing down, thrust the blade into the neck between the spine and the jugulars, and with a sharp twist of your wrist pull down and out to cut the throat and open up the neck.

You can hold the bird's head away by the comb to facilitate it bleeding out, because the faster it bleeds the quicker it dies, and we want to be humane here.   Once the bird is dead, cut off the head by separating it between the neck vertebrae, and unfortunately this is easier said than done, but the bird is dead at this point, thank goodness.

The next step is to dunk the bird in the hot water to loosen its feathers for plucking. I'm going to forewarn you here that they never tell you this, but after you dunked that bird it stinks.  It didn't before, but when it comes out of the water it smells like a hot, sweaty bird so be prepared for that.   You want to dunk the bird to the point where its feathers meet the scaly part of its legs and swish it around in there for about thirty ten or so seconds.

Then out it comes and you can start pulling feathers off by the handful.  Our birds had just started their fall moult, so there were quite a few new feathers coming in, which made plucking them a real chore, so my suggestion is to do this whole process earlier in the summer if you can wing it (sorry).  By far, getting the bird clean is the longest part of doing this, so be prepared for that.  A stiff raspberry daiquiri goes a long way here.  Once you have the bird clean, it's time to cut off the legs at the knees.  I did not get this part documented on film, but thankfully it's not hard.  As you're holding the bird by the scaly part of the leg, feel for the knee joint which is where the scaly part of the leg meets the now plucked part of the leg. Feel for the spot where the two bones meet with the thumb holding the bird and cut through the joint in between the two bones.  At this point, the bird really starts looking like dinner.

Okay-- the next step is to eviscerate the bird, which isn't as bad as it sounds, but is a step fraught with peril. Chicken guts are full of nasty bacteria that will make you so incredibly sick they will put you off eating for awhile, in fact, they may put you off breathing as well, so be extremely careful not to puncture anything inside there.  To do this, you want to put the bird on its back, and at the spot where every culinary bird you've ever seen has a gaping hole in it, i.e., right between the legs, grab the skin and pull it out and as taut as you can, and make a small, careful, one to two inch incision in the skin,a and just the skin. You want to create a hole large enough to get a couple of fingers in, keeping the blade well away from the cavity.

Stretch the hole until it's large enough to get your hand in, and reach into the cavity and feel around gently for a roundish, hardish thing.  That's the gizzard and it makes a great handle for pulling out the guts, so grab it and pull out the guts.  (I was shown as a kid how to cut up a chicken and part of that lesson included gouging out the kidneys which are nestled in the back, so I didn't find pulling out chicken guts all that distasteful. You might feel otherwise.)

Look around for the bile duct which attached to the liver. The bile duct is that little black thing that looks kind of like a slug, and it's full of really nasty stuff, so very, very carefully cut it off the liver without nicking it and throw it away.  Save the liver for pate de volaille.  Rae likes the gizzards, and she can have them as far as I'm concerned, and LJ likes the heart and he can have that, but everything else is garbage so throw it all out.

Lung is that dark pink thing on left
Next gouge out the aforementioned kidneys with your thumbs, and make sure you have the lungs out as well.  Those are the pink spongy things toward the top of the cavity. The last thing you want to do is cut the vent off with the tail.  Commercial birds have the tails on and I've never really understood this because I don't find the Pope's Nose particularly edible; it's most skin and fat and that's just icky to me.  So taking it off with the vent make sense to me because it makes getting the vent off a lot easier.   Give the bird a good rinse, and ice it down, or package it up and ice it down. I've never been one for the vacuum food sealer, but in this instance one makes a great deal of sense.  At any rate, you want to get that bird as cool as possible as quickly as possible to keep the bacterial growth to a minimum.  Chickens spoil very quickly.  Leave it in the fridge for a day or two at the most to let it go through rigor before you try to cook or freeze it.

So that's it.

The de rigueur chicken puppet
The whole experience was interesting to me because I noticed that I felt curiously unsentimental and detached about these birds, maybe because they were such a huge disappointment.  It also made me realize that I could do it again.  This summer's garden was not the glorious success that last year's garden was; the climate in the Pacific Northwest continues to get more difficult for amateurs like me to grow in because the springs are getting longer and colder and wetter, which makes planting problematic (not to mention figuring out what to plant a lot harder) and the summers are also getting cooler and shorter.  My tomatoes appear to be a bust this year; only half are ripening, and by that I mean the bottom half of the tomato is ripening- the tops are staying stubbornly yellow, and I've not clue what's caused it.  So this whole enterprise of learning how to feed ourselves from the backyard just in case we have to someday is starting to look like we'll starve.  I've been thinking about keeping rabbits, which were very popular during WWII. In fact, they kept the wolf from the door for a lot of people at that time, but I've also been worried that I'd start up a rabbitry, get a mess of rabbits on my hands, and then not be able to kill them.  This past weekend's exercise has put that fear to rest for me; I'm certain at this point that rabbits will be part of the homestead.  And if that's the case, we'll stand a lot better chance of not starving to death, if push comes to shove at some point.  I also figure that if it does get that bad, I'll probably be feeding the neighborhood as well, but I'm okay with that. We all have to look out for each other, and it was in that spirit that Rae and LJ taught us to to kill and butcher a chicken.

Since it also taught me something about myself as well, I'm profoundly grateful to them for the lesson.

Editorial note:  this is my 400th post, so I'm glad I was able to commemorate it with something useful.


Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

It's a milestone, and an important one, to kill your own livestock, so my congratulations on reaching it -- and on your 400th post, too.

I felt much the same way you did when I slaughtered my first bird. Our system is very similar to yours, and I was surprised by the speed with which the bird turns into something you think of as meat, rather than as live animal.

The only technical comment I have is that evisceration is a bit easier if you first go in at the neck at detach the crop from the carcass. Then, when you go in the back, you can pull everything out in one pull.

Like you, I wasn't looking forward to killing animals. Like you, I found I could do it, and do it properly. Instead of its feeling icky and bloody, it felt constructive and humane.

It sounds like you did a very good job. Enjoy that rooster.

rugosarosefarm said...

I have seen pictures of chicken processing before and thought yours were very tasteful. The last one gave me a good giggle.

Rae said...

I'm glad you feel our animals are happy. We think so too!

One thing, as far as the water bath is concerned- as long as the water is hot enough, less than 10 seconds swish in the water should do. Any more and you may end up cooking and then tearing the skin when you pluck. Best we've found is to swish for a couple seconds, pull it out, and tug on the feathers to see if they come out easily. Easy pluck, go for it, not easy, back in the water. You'll have to come out when we do the turkeys, and we'll have coconut mango daiquiris. :)

Paula said...

Tamar- that sounds like good advice, and I'll try it next time.

Thanks rugosarosefarm- I think maybe that last picture was a bit questionable in the taste department, though...

That is the good thing about discussing things here; I'm glad to get corrected about the time to dunk, because then everyone looking for instruction here gets the same information I do at the same time. Ten seconds. Got it.

Paula said...

Rae I thought your comment was important so I went back and edited the paragraph on dunking.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post! We haven't had to 'process' any of our chooks yet, but that day will come.

John said...

Very informative, thanks! Our nineteen chickens have gone from giving us a dozen eggs a day to about 4 eggs a day. Not being inclined to run a retirement home, we may be culling our first bird here soon. Your post has given me some much needed confidence to approach the task unsentimentally. Keep up the good work!

Jennifer said...

Well done. I always tell people "it's not as hard or as violent as you think it is." It's never a fun task, moving animals from living to dinner, but it is a valuable lesson. I am very glad it went well for you! Nice and informative post.

I found a picture by picture tutorial if you ever need a refresher course. (I always check it before I butcher any chickens.) It's a forum post from B@ck Y@rd Chickens website. He shows removing the crop first like Tamar suggested.

Here's the link:

Jennifer Montero said...

That was an expert explanation of the whole process. And I am absolutely adding the daquari step to my next batch of poultry processing. Let us know how the bird tastes.

Congrats on post 400 as well.

Paula said...

I'm glad it was good for something, John.

Thanks for the link, Oxray- I'll go take a look at it.

Paula said...

Thank you Jennifer. Coming from you, of all people, is praise indeed!!

becky3086 said...

Very well done. Just one little warning though-rabbits are a lot cuter than chickens. I have done both and am not sure we will do rabbits again.

Paula said...

Thanks Becky. Yeah, most rabbits are, but not the Florida White. Steve and I both think that if there could be an ugly rabbit, the Florida White is it. Which is probably what we'll raise....

Unknown said...

I'm pretty impressed that you were able to do it. Ours have become very much pet-like, being named and all by the kids in our neighborhood. I think even if they stopped laying, I would probably just keep em. I know, I know... but I only started eating meat again at all 6 months ago, and I am still uncomfortable eating it around the chickens :)

Toni aka irishlas said...

Very well done, Paula. You have indeed reached a milestone.

Congratulations on your 400th post!

Love the pic of you, too!