Monday, July 21, 2014

Processing My Meat Birds (Heads are Going to Roll!)

Let me start by saying that if you are an animal rights activist or don't believe that animals should be killed for meat, this post is not for you. Further, if you fit into the above description and are here to leave harassing comments about MY choice to eat meat, the following articles will be considered Required Reading before you leave any comments...
Oh - and if you still choose to leave a hateful comment, I will delete it... because I am the Blog Goddess and I can do that.

And with that out of the way...
This blog is for anyone interested in raising and processing their own chickens for food. There are lots of different right ways of processing chickens, and the way I'm going to share is just one of them. I don't own any fancy processing equipment, and you don't need to either (though if you do, that's great).

Writing about killing and death is almost as difficult as writing about sex, so I'm going to do it my way and try to lighten it up for all of us with a bit of humor.
*** Warning ***
This blog post contains vivid images depicting naked chickens and other things that might disturb some readers. Discretion is advised.

If you've kept up with our Natural Chicken Keeping articles, you'll know that I raised my Cornish Rock Cross meat birds alongside the rest of my flock. They were given happy, healthy lives and were allowed to live like chickens. That was important to me, because I feel deep in my heart it would be wrong to treat them like goldfish... or cats... (Or factory-farmed chickens.) See how I raised my birds HERE.

I am NOT a fan of factory farms or how they treat animals. I would much rather eat the meat of an animal that lived a happy life in a setting that is as natural as possible. While I don't enjoy killing (because that would make me a psychopath) I see it as a necessity. We are ALL going to die some day. Hopefully we get to have a lot of happiness in our lives before that happens.


1. Killing / Culling / Putting Down / Offing (or what ever you are most comfortable calling it.)

Morning is generally a really good time to do the deed. It's best if the birds have not been fed and their crops are empty. It makes things a tad less... messy.

There are a number of ways to kill a chicken:
  • Bleeding out - a razor or very sharp knife is used to cut through the jugular. Many people feel this allows the bird to die in a relatively painless and quick manner.
  • Ax - Chopping off the head severs the spinal cord and ends pain and life almost instantly.
  • Lethal injection - this is one of the slower methods and will make the meat toxic to consume... so I don't recommend it.
  • Electric Chair - If you happen to have Old Sparky just sitting around in your basement or garage, this could be a great way to slaughter your chickens and cook the meat all at the same time... but please don't invite me over for dinner because you're probably a psychopath and that makes me uncomfortable.
  • Predator - Hawks, opossums, neighborhood dogs and raccoons are all very efficient killers of chickens. The drawbacks are that you may have to fight for your share of each bird, and your helper could be a carrier of rabies. Blech!
  • Ninja - My husband and son prefer to use a machete... because they're cool that way. Incidentally, the Spanish translation of the word Machete is a diminutive form of the word macho. (And you thought you were just here to learn about processing chickens!)

Ninja-ing the head off quickly and cleanly.

Be warned - no matter what method you use to kill your bird, there will be movement... and not just twitching. As the nervous system shuts down, oxygen levels drop and adrenaline releases into the muscles, the dead bird will move... and I mean these things will flail wildly about like a zombie on Red Bull for up to a minute. In fact once when we were processing guinea fowl, I put down a body that had finally stopped moving only to have it take flight and end up about half an acre from where I had set it. Those birds can be freaky both alive and not!

2. Hanging

No - this isn't yet another recommended means of killing birds (not that all of the ones I have listed seem practical, either) but a way of draining the blood out of the carcass so that your kitchen won't look as much like a scene from a Friday the 13th movie. If you're using a killing cone and bleeding your birds out, than this step is already done. But if you're a Ninja, you may still need to do this.

Just hanging out, waiting to be plucked.

3. Skinning

Skinning is a great option for those who don't want to deal with plucking. (If you DO want to deal with plucking, please continue down to #4.)

Skinning is actually pretty simple. Make a slice up the breastbone area of the bird and carefully peel off the skin. If you have used one of the fine decapitation methods, you will be able to skin from front to back, top to bottom. If not, you will have to remove the head at this time to skin.

The areas around the wings are tricky and one simply needs to develop a feel for it. Don't worry if you mess up - I mean, you're not planning on curing it and using it for a wall hanging, are ya'? OK, well that can be done also, but I'd need to do a different post for that. (Yes - one of my daughters DOES have the cured pelt of a beloved bird in her room... I probably shouldn't have told you that.)

Another area of note is the back of the bird just before the tail. The feather shafts are much deeper here and you may have to use some corporeal negotiations to get them out of the meat.

4. Scalding 

I wish I had an automatic plucker, but I don't. (But this blog IS accepting sponsors! Hint... hint...)

You will need a large pot in which to scald your birds in to make plucking easier. The larger the bird, the larger the pot. Or if you graduated from Hogwarts, you can just use your cauldron if you like. I use an old crab pot.

For scalding your water needs to be right around 145 °F. For comparison's sake, boiling point is 212°F and far more uncomfortable to work with when you drag a sopping wet bird out of the water and walk it over to your plucking area. (I keep a large mixing bowl on hand to transfer hot, wet bird carcasses to my back deck where I pluck. My floors and flip-flopped feet prefer this method.)

You also will need a wooden spoon or spatula to hold the carcass under the hot water for about 40 seconds, or until you are able to pull out the wing feathers easily. Then transfer the carcass to your mixing bowl and take it to your plucking area. 

Before you get to work, rinse the body with cold water so you don't burn yourself. The last thing you want to do on processing day is experience the sensation of having your hands tarred and feathered! It is so not a happy feeling! (Ask me how I know.)

4. Plucking

Plucking is messy. I have done it in my kitchen in the winter in order to prevent neighbors from mistaking me for a yeti (and to stay a bit warmer), but there is a real advantage to being able to use a hose when needed!

My back deck provides the perfect staging area for this process. See? (Ain't I just the fancy one?)

The plastic hanger is waterproof and it has an open hook on it where I can hang the carcass for plucking and water-boarding hosing off. I use a zip-tie (cable-tie) around the legs for ease of hanging. 

With proper scalding, the feathers should come off very easily and because they are wet, they will stick to everything within a 10 foot radius... unless the wind is blowing...  If the rest of your flock free ranges, they will come to help you!

Don't worry about perfection (especially if you have other carcasses awaiting your denuding expertise) - just get the majority of the feathers off and move on to the next contestant.

5. Cleaning / Evisceration

Before cutting each bird open to remove the innards, it's always a good idea to wash the carcasses thoroughly so that no unnecessary bacteria is introduced into the body cavity. Warm water should do the trick nicely.

Make sure you have the right tools for dressing your birds. (Skinny-dipping in the kitchen sink is one thing, but they need to be properly dressed for dinner!)

A sharp knife, some good quality poultry shears, a clothespin and a strong stomach are recommended for the next step.

First, make a cut through the skin down the front of the neck. 

This will allow you a little more room to insert your hand. (Yes really. You didn't think those guts were going to pull themselves out, now did you?)

While other descriptions might say, "Gently insert your hand and loosen all the skin and connective material around the windpipe, GI tract and gizzard," this would be very misleading. There is nothing gentle about this. That stuff is tough! The heck with being gentle - this process is more like Rooto-Rooter with a lot of ripping, tearing to the music of some really obscene noises. (And there will be an odor... hence the clothespin which you may now place on your nose... because it's going to get more... pungent...)

Once you have loosened up all the bits and pieces at the front of the bird, it's time to move to the back of the bird.

First, pinch the loose skin on the belly just below the vent and make a cut. Be sure you don't cut too deeply - you just want to get through the skin and not release the minions from the bowels of hell. Then, very carefully cut all the way around the vent, leaving what lies beneath attached and unscathed.

While it's not the end of the world if you mess this up, you will be faced with a rather noxious mess in and around the meat you will some day be eating. It can be washed with a lot of hot water and gagging... but really - try to avoid this if you can!

And now for chicken gynecology 101.

 It's a good thing this bird is dead, because... Oooowww!

Now, hold your breath (optional) and reach in and grab all the innards. There will still be plenty of connective tissue to challenge you and make your job ever more exciting! Disconnect the connective tissue all the way around the inside of the body cavity and pull eeeeeeevvvvvrrything you feel in there out. (Oh - and breathe.)

You should get almost all the goodies out - the intestines, heart, gizzard, liver and more. The lungs and a few little bits and pieces up in the ribcage will be all that's left. Now go through all the goodies and pick out a few special things to keep for yourself for future soups and meals, like the...



and Liver.

What? Not a liver fanatic? Look up some good recipes - there must be 50 ways to love your liver! There will be a nasty green thing attached to the liver - that's the alien spawn gall bladder, and not exactly a delicacy. In fact, if you pierce it, it will leak green ooze all over the liver and change its color to "Ewwww!"

The other part that will need a little TLC before you consume it is the gizzard (unless you like a little crunch in your meat). The gizzard allows the bird to digest its food using gravel to grind it down - because chickens don't have teeth... because if they did, I'd have bite-marks around all the freckles on my legs...

So - to clean out the gizzard, find an opening and stick one blade of your poultry shears into it. You'll notice the gizzard has what looks like a seam most of the way around it. This is a good place to cut - right along this seam.

Once you have it opened like a clam shell, peel the inner lining out of the gizzard (complete with all its contents). I highly recommend doing this while standing over the garbage receptacle of your choice. That grit and partially digested grass will make a leap for freedom once the inner lining is loosened!

6. Resting & Storing

OK - now, don't turn the oven on just yet! Just like any other corpse, chicken carcasses go through rigor mortis. I can't count the times someone has complained about their freshly-processed chicken being... tough. Well, yeah. You should never eat a stiff stiff!
It takes about 24 hours for the carcass to relax. One of the best things to do with fresh meat like this is to Brine it in a solution of water, sea salt, herbs and spices. This not only helps keep the meat tender (after it's out of rigor), but adds flavor to your meat.

I also brine meat for 24 hours prior to freezing it. 

Decide what you want to package for later use. Do you want to have boneless, skinless breasts? Whole chicken? Drumsticks and thighs? Are you looking forward to wing night? Now is the time to dismember the corpse cut and quarter your chicken as desired. Have large freezer bags ready as well as a marker to label each one. You'd hate to plan a dinner of chicken breasts only to defrost a pile of livers. (Hey - 50 ways. I'm tellin' ya!)

And don't make the mistake I did and assume you can fit an entire Cornish Rock Cross in a one-gallon freezer bag. I tried it... a few ways... with the Jaws theme song playing softly in my head... before telling my husband in hushed tones, "We're going to need a bigger bag!"

And finally - enjoy the meats of your labors! 

"Tastes like chicken?"

NO! This meat tastes nothing like the stuff they sell at the local grocery store! This meat will redefine what chicken tastes like for you. And I can guarantee you that alligator does NOT taste like this chicken, no mater what Uncle Thibodeaux tells you!

So - now you know. 

~ Leigh


  1. In reference to people who eat meat(myself included):
    this is how I see it.
    Allah(swt), GOD, Buddha, Kajeeze, etc... made people in many different ways....
    some have different color shades of skin, some have "kinky" hair, some have straight hair, etc., etc., etc....
    Some like to eat meat while others are repulsed by it...

    Nobody is putting a gun to any vegetarian's head & forcing them to do a darn thing...SO,
    you have protested against meat till the dinosaurs come home made your point a millennia ago....GIVE IT A REST EH?

    We are the way we are because we enjoy eating meat,

    we(all humans) have done this since time began(somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 or 15 BILLION years)

    and if we have not changed by now, I think it's a safe bet that we ain't a gonna change for maybe another 14 or 15 BILLION years.

    Now granted some of you(very small minority actually) have shown enough respect to us meat eaters to make your point, then remain silent for a while(again, a VERY SMALL minority). to those that have done this, I thank you.
    and for the rest of you, get the *cough, cough* outta here! we're tired of listening to your propaganda!!!

    *kindly steps off his soap box & goes back to processing his chickens...

    1. Ms.Leigh, I hope my comment is ok...I just wanted to say my piece and get a few things off my chest....
      if you choose to delete this, I'll understand, for this is YOUR web/blog not mine & you have the right to do whatever your wee heart desires.

      If you wish to use any or all parts of my comment, pls feel free to do so. I myself am a farmer & I raise/grow/produce/butcher about 85% - 90% of my own food...something most vegetarians just can not understand.

      Take care Ms.Leigh, & GOD bless

    2. James - I think many of us get so used to hearing the views of the vocal minority - it was a refreshing surprise to find your views on my blog this morning.

    3. I am a vegetarian. I feel that if you are going to eat meat this is the way to do it. It's better for the animals, it's better for the people. Heck, it's better for the planet. It also reconnects people to their food. I am also pro hunting.

    4. Thank you for your perspective, Anonymous! It's great to hear from vegetarians too!!

  2. Thank you so much for this informative post! The last time I "assisted" with a processing was about 50 years ago with my grandmother, and my memory has, uh, dimmed a little. I remember clearly that she used to wring the birds neck first, by holding its head and twirling it about. Instant death. Then on to the wood stump and hatchet. Your method sound so much easier! Thanks again!

    1. Lynn - you are very welcome! So glad it the information I post is helpful.

  3. Leigh, I just got my first chicks this year and have read quite a bit about raising and culling your own meat birds. I have gained a greater understanding of how people can do this and I want to thank you for going where no has gone before by showing the entire process. I don't know if I can do it, but I am a step closer to thinking of at least getting my own meat birds, and letting someone else do the processing. Thank you so much for your post. The only thing I disagree with you about is that you took it down. It is your blog, and your right to post anything you deem important. And to hell with the people that don't approve!

    1. You are very welcome. And as for the Facebook post that got taken down... the response from those in support of the post has been humbling to say the least! NCK has some of the most wonderful readers around!

  4. As kids we all had to help butcher the chickens. It was always the joke to hand the newly headless body to the new kids/city kids and have it run away from them lol. That is until the one day Grandma went to chop a head, and chopped her finger off instead. >.< They sewed it back on, but it was always a bit crooked. This takes me back and reminds me how much I hate plucking chickens lol,

  5. Personally, I prefer to peel and disassemble. SOOO much easier. LOL

    But for those who like to find feathers EVERYWHERE for about a week, they do make a handy shrink wrap bag for freezing, that eliminates the worry about freezer burn. Just Google shrink wrap poultry bag, you'll find them.

    That's what I'll be doing with the 3 turkeys, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter. Sooner than later. *evil grin*

    1. Turkeys getting on your nerves already? LOL!
      Great advice about the vacuum bags. :-)

  6. Thanks for this post. We have a rooster who will need to be processed in the next month or so and this step by step guide with photos will be invaluable.

  7. I have been so curious about this process. I don't have the stomach to do it myself, but really wanted to know what went into it. I am trying to be more informed about what I eat. Very informative post.~May

    1. May - I'm happy if I've answered any questions for you.
      Do keep in mind that factory farmed chicken goes through a MUCH different process. I won't go into details. The only way to know that your meat was raised and butchered humanely is to buy from someone you know or raise the birds yourself. I completely respect your choice NOT to do it yourself... it is not an easy thing to do from a psychological standpoint.
      Have a wonderful day -

  8. Thank you for your post! I just got around to reading it today, and nearly spit out my coffee, laughing, several times! Even had to drag my husband over to my computer to see the "skinny dipping in the kitchen sink" photo! (Loved the wine box in the background, too!) We could have used this a year or so ago when we first attempted butchering, but it's nice to know that you really can't just pull that stuff out GENTLY. Oh, and our choice is to break the little dears' necks and then cut the jugular after they've finally stopped flailing about. This keeps them from making the whole area look like a crime scene. I think we will invest in a cone before we do another large batch, though. Thanks again, for the article!

    1. Always happy to be of service! (And very glad you enjoyed the article!)

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed this article. My husband and I have raised and processed our own meat birds for two years. We will continue! My husband is a bit of a jack of all trades and built a plucking machine for almost nothing and it has worked fabulously. It was so interesting to see a few different twists on what we do on our "farm" here in Maine.

  10. have you looked into controlled atmosphere killing?? its supposed to be far more humane and less stress on the chickens! just get a large cooler and put them in there, after awhile they'll be dead. they'll die in their sleep so no half acre freak flight.

  11. You just crack me up! I loved reading your blog and will be subscribing if possible. I am interested in raising meet birds, I hunt so this who cleaning business is no big deal, cracked me up non the less.... it was the means of execution that I was interested in. I have not killed an animal other than hunting since my days of working for the (IN)Humane Society and had to euthanize. I have no issue hunting if I know I can make a clean kill shot. . IF only I could do that to the birds/cows etc that I intend to raise someday and use for food for me and my family. . I raise egg girls and am very attached to them and have rare chickens as well that I am trying to raise and breed to help reintroduce (I call them my wee ones as they are SMALL even though grown, Old English Game and Nankin) But I do have a few big girls and plan to get more for eggs but have been giving some serious thought to meat ones, I plan to use the ugly white ones like you so I will be less likely to name and get attached but still be able to allow free ranging with my egg girls and spoil with yummy treats and good feed as well as love.
    My Grandpa raised meat rabbits (another I was giving some thought to, I hunt them but with pollution the way it is I worry) and I had a hard time seeing him cull the pinkies so he didn't get have too many. I was a young child and learned about the facts of life real quick. How did you handle the first time you did the deed?


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