Warning: For those squeamish about where their food comes from, this is a post to skip over.
I’ve been asked many times what method I use to butcher or “process” my birds. I won’t go into the “how I feel about it” in this post as that is summed up pretty well here. Rather, this post will be a straightforward how-to of my method, which has evolved over several years. Like any skill there is a learning curve and each person has to find the way that works best for them. Not too many generations ago, most people grew up watching Grandma butcher a bird each week for Sunday dinner, but in a short space of time we became so accustomed to buying our meat in styrofoam trays at the grocery store that when HWA and I first agreed to raise chickens and process excess males into meat, the “how” was something of a mystery to both of us. Without Grandma to teach us, we turned to YouTube, and spent several hours poring over a variety of videos, searching for a way that seemed the most humane and doable. We settled on a method wherein the bird is placed into a cone upside down, with the body securely held by the cone and only the head and neck emerging. From there it appeared to be easy to take a knife, slice across the artery, and the bird bled out quickly. This seemed humane since a single cut with a very sharp knife is almost painless initially (think about cutting a finger while slicing vegetables and how you can watch the blood start to seep before the pain is felt). By the time the brain has sent the message to the bird to say “Ow! That hurt”, it is largely unconscious.
So we set up a cone, sharpened the knife, caught the first bird, got it positioned…..and then each stood back to watch. You see, while watching the videos, we had each pictured the other doing the cutting. Neither of us was mentally prepared to make that first cut and while HWA did eventually do it, I can’t say either of us enjoyed it, or that we got it perfectly right that first time – or even over the next few tries.
After the first half dozen birds, there came a time HWA was unavailable and I had no choice but to do it myself. The learning curve started anew but since then, I have done all of them and over the last several years have honed my technique to one that I now feel confident will work every time – one cut – meaning a quick and painless demise of my bird. The key for me was learning that the best place to cut is immediately above the jawline. To this day, I gently hold and caress the bird’s head with one hand, while feeling up the jawline with a finger of the other. Once I have identified the best spot on each individual bird, I bring out the knife and with one swift – and quite forceful – cut, I slice and watch for the spurt of blood that indicates the artery was severed. I say forceful because the first few times, not wanting to hurt the bird, I was too gentle with my cut and only barely pierced the skin. I learned that it takes quite a bit of strength to cut deep enough to both penetrate the skin AND cut through the artery, so now I give it all I’ve got in order to cause the least pain.
It takes several minutes for the blood flow to stop, but the bird is only conscious for the first 20-30 seconds. I have found that in most cases there is a fluttering of wings at around the 20 second mark and a second about 20 seconds later. These are a muscular reaction to the loss of blood and NOT the bird’s attempt to escape – despite how it may sometimes look. After the second flourish, I walk away to complete a few chores, leaving the bird to thoroughly bleed out.
Once the bleeding has slowed to the occasional drip, I remove the bird from the cone and take it into the kitchen. Some people like to plan a butcher day and process multiple birds at once outdoors. I prefer to incorporate processing into my day, much as Grandmother did a hundred years ago. So I work at my kitchen sink, the height of which does not cause me to stoop, and where I have warm running water available when I need it.
Following the same order each time allows me to work efficiently.
- Remove the head
- Remove the wings from the “elbow” joint out
- Remove the feet from the “knees” down
- Remove the skin
- Remove the innards
I start with the head because my cut already has that started. With scissors I cut the remaining skin, then use the knife to cut through any muscle, and then simply twist off the head. For the wings and feet I use the knife. Feeling for the joint with my finger tip, I cut the skin at the joint, and the knife slips effortlessly through the cartilage connecting the joint, to quickly sever it.
Then, using the scissors, I cut the skin from the neck opening, down to the back. At this point pulling the skin off the body is not unlike undressing a baby. The skin separates easily – especially if I push my fingers between the skin and the flesh as I work. I pull it off the wings and legs as I come to them, until eventually I have a “hide” attached only at the tail. I sever the tail and voila.
At this point I rinse any loose feathers off the carcass, wash the knife and prepare to cut open the abdominal cavity. I make this cut laterally across the bird, close to the vent, cutting quite carefully through the flesh in order to avoid cutting into the intestines which lay close by. Once I have an opening large enough for my hand, I simply scoop out the innards in one big scoop. The lungs hug the rib cage closely and I use a finger to scrape them out, one lobe at a time. Each lung should come out in one piece.
Once the bird is empty, I rinse the cavity several times, then place the bird in the crockpot. No water, oil, spices – just the bird. The lid goes on, it is set to the “low” setting and for the next 8 hours it cooks down. By the end of the 8 hours, the meat is – quite literally – falling off the bones, into the liquid that has collected in the bottom of the crockpot. Once cool, I separate meat from bones and bag it in ½-pound portions in ziploc bags. These are “freezer ready” portions that are used in a variety of meals, from casseroles to sandwiches. The liquid is a protein rich broth that will cool into a jelly-like substance in the fridge. I use this as soup base, to cook rice or couscous, or in place of water or stock in many recipes.
And what of the innards?
- Heart – this is rinsed and goes into the crockpot to cook along with the bird
- Gizzard – I cut this open, dump the contents into a bowl, peel away the lining, rinse and this also goes into the crockpot
- Testicles – into the crockpot
- Liver – this goes into a ziploc bag into the freezer along with the livers of the previous few birds. When I have a half dozen collected, I cook them up and enjoy a highly nutritious and very delicious meal (recipe to follow in a future post)
- Kidney – birds only have one. This is also collected to be used at a later date when I have enough.
- Intestines. The intestines are really a marvel – when stretched out they are quite long, but in the bird they loop around and between the loops, fat collects. As the bird ages, the amount of fat stored between the loops of intestine increases. I unravel the intestines (carefully because I don’t want to pierce them and have the contents contaminate my work) and peel off all of that lovely yellow fat. This is rendered down in a fry pan until it is liquid, and then poured into my grease keeper to be used for future cooking. Once the intestines are free of fat, I place them in my “scrap bowl”.
- Feet. These I clean thoroughly, trim the toenails off and place in a pan covered in water. Simmered on low for several hours they make a very rich chicken stock. The toenails are placed in a container along with crushed egg shells, to be offered to laying hens who need supplemental calcium.
- Lungs go into the scrap bowl.
And what happens to the scrap bowl? It is fed back to the birds. I know this sounds cannibalistic but it is only we humans who think about such things. When I offer this bowl to the birds they don’t shun it because it used to be their flock-mate. They simply look at it as a high protein treat and there is fierce competition among them to get the “best bits” for themselves.
At the end of the day there is very little waste. The carcass – including the neck, which most people discard – is eaten by us. Any innards not eaten by us are eaten by the birds. The feet are turned into stock and once thoroughly cooked/simmered, are given to the dogs. The only waste then is the head, the wing tips and the feather-covered skin. I suppose I could try to save the feathers but we only need so many feather pillows. Even the bones get a second use. Once I have removed the meat from the bones, I put them back into a stock pot, cover them with water, and simmer for several more hours. The result is another nice pot of stock, which I use as a base to make soup. Only once the bones have been used twice, do I throw them into the compost, where they will be used a third time to enrich the soil for our veggie garden.
My birds sacrifice their life to feed my family – I don’t want any part of their sacrifice to have been a waste.