Going cold turkey

Back in the spring I had the incubators running….pretty much full time.  One day, as HWA watched me pulling another dozen or so newly hatched turkey poults out of one of them, he asked me nervously, “Um….what are we going to do with all these turkeys?” to which I blithely replied “Eat them”.  It sounded so easy in the abstract but after weeks and months of raising them – and learning how very personable and friendly a turkey can be – I realized it wasn’t going to be as easy to follow through.  Still, a promise is a promise and a commitment to raising your own food is the whole job — not just fluffy chick antics.

As the turkey chicks mautured, I was able to tell the toms from the hens, I advertised and sold a few pairs and trios, and was happy to see them go to their new homes.  Nevertheless, leading up to winter, I had three toms and only need one for breeding purposes.  Although a heritage turkey breed, they are big enough that they go through quite a bit of feed and the prospect of feeding them through the winter just so they could fight over the hens next spring spurred me on.  Mid-summer I had 20 of these running around:

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A few days ago I went “cold turkey”.  I’ve butchered plenty of chickens and a couple of ducks, but this was my first turkey and I was understandably nervous.  I never want any animal to suffer, so the first step was to have HWA ensure my knife was as sharp as it could be.  Then, into the “killing cone” he went.  I bought the turkey sized cone just for this purpose and the seller assured it was the size needed for a heritage turkey.  My turkeys, however, were sufficiently dedicated — and talented — hunters of grasshoppers, beetles, worms, toads, turkey feed, and kitchen scraps that they grew into BIG birds, and the tom only barely fit.  Talking to him gently the entire time, he was pretty relaxed and my cut was spot on.

My method of slaughter is as humane as possible.  Using an extremely sharp knife or razor, I cut the jugular in a single stroke.  I use a razor sharp knife so that the nerves are cut cleanly and completely to minimize pain and trauma — similar to when you cut a finger chopping vegetables and don’t realize it until you see the blood.  I completely sever the jugular so that unconsciousness comes in seconds and death quickly follows.  In short, my goal in butchering poultry is that by the time the signal is sent from the cut to the brain and the brain sends back the message “ow – that hurt”, the bird is already unconscious from loss of blood, so does not suffer at all.  That seemed to be the case with my tom turkey – for which I was enormously thankful.

The next decision to make is whether to pluck or skin.  Plucking allows the bird to be roasted.  But – to pluck, the first step is to dunk in hot water – optimally 150-170 degrees.  Too cool and it won’t help loosen the feathers but too hot and it will cook the skin, causing it to tear while pulling feathers out.  Getting the water just right can be a challenge, and heating it to the correct temperature in a pot big enough to dunk a chicken can take awhile.  And, I don’t have a pot big enough to dunk a turkey.

That left skinning.  I won’t pretend it was easy – in fact, it took a lot of strength and an hour or so.  Who knew you could combine your food preperation and your workout routine?  The skinning was the hard part, but it was my first time skinning a turkey and I suspect — like everything else — it will get easier and quicker with practice.  Eviscerating is relatively easy.  When I was done, I was left with this:

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From here he went into a turkey roasting bag, in the oven at 200 degrees for about 12 hours. Cooking him slowly like this, and allowing him to steam in his own juices, the meat was literally falling off the bones.  Once cooled, I removed the meat from the bones, diced it and put it into freezer bags.  The breasts alone yielded 2-1/2 pounds of meat!  There was another 2-1/2 pounds from the rest of the bird, and that didn’t count the drumsticks which I left whole to be eaten as is.  Each freezer bag contained 1/2 pound of meat, ready to go into casseroles.  Doing it this way they take up very little room in the freezer and I only need to defrost 1/2 pound of meat at a time.

In addition to the meat, I ended up with about a 1/2 gallon of juices which will be used to flavor anything from rice to soups, and a small amount of fat – this guy was not quite 6 months old so had not had time to lay down much fat at all, but I gleaned what I could, rendered it, and that is used for cooking (I find cooking with animal fat to be far superior to any vegetable oil).

The innards are divided into organ meat or intestines.  I have not found much use for the intestines – the dogs won’t eat them and neither will the birds.  However the organ meat is a wonderful source of protein.  I don’t particularly care for it, so I feed it back to my flock.  SAB has accused me of forcing cannibalism on them but they don’t see it that way; to them it is just a source of protein – and one they will happily eat.  The feet I put into a pot, cover with water, and simmer for several hours.  At the end of that time I have some wonderful stock and the dogs consider the cooked feet a great treat.

The only things thrown away then, are the head, skin/feathers and the intestines.  Very little waste allows me to feel okay about the decision to butcher – I love these birds but am also thankful that they will feed my family in the months to come.

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