Grateful acknowledgment is made to my friend and “chicken buddy” Mike Focazio, who took the photographs for this article.
Table of Contents
Butchering skills are almost essential for anyone serious about keeping an ongoing homestead flock. Whether you breed your own stock or buy in day-olds straight run, you face a large surplus of males for whom there is no long-term place in the flock. Even if you keep a flock of hens only, they usually cease or greatly decline in egg production long before the end of their natural lives. Maintaining them “on welfare” is a fine option if you are keeping “pet chickens”, but hardly a practical choice for those tending their flock as part of a productive homestead. Whatever your reasons for culling the flock, you will find that the meat from your own birds is orders of magnitude superior to the remains of the sad creatures from concentration-camp industrial poultry production.
Flock keepers often try to find someone else to do their culling chores for a fee. Most people find, however, that individuals interested in providing such a service are few and far between. I expect there may be a growing number of small custom butchering services in the future, even “mobile processing units” that arrive on site and butcher, leaving neat packages for the freezer behind, but at the moment most homesteaders are stuck with doing their own butchering.
It is easiest to learn butchering skills working with someone more experienced. In lieu of that better option, I hope you will find the following guide useful. Read it thoroughly, study the pictures, and don’t be discouraged if there are points that do not make sense. When you have your bird on the butchering table, you will recognize key anatomical features from the pictures, and obscure points from the text will become clear. It can be helpful to work with a partner who assists with point-by-point reference to the guide, while you do the hands-on work. Good luck.
Some General Observations
Starving the birds
I strongly recommend isolating birds to be slaughtered overnight without feed. (Provide water free choice.) The brief starving of the birds clears the gastrointestinal tract, making for easier, less messy butchering.
Be prepared to chill the carcasses as you complete them. You can ice them down in a cooler, or pop them into the refrigerator after each bird is finished, but do think of freshly dressed poultry as highly perishable.
I arrange the kitchen refrigerator with space to cool my birds, loosely wrapped in plastic bags. (The wire rack shelves are preferable to the solid shelves if there is a choice.)
This guide focuses on butchering chickens. Processing geese and ducks is anatomically quite similar, but there are thousands more feathers in these species. You pay your dues when you dress waterfowl!
Use it all
You honor the bird who has made such a contribution to your homestead by utilizing it to the maximum extent possible, minimizing the parts you define as “waste”. Learn to make stock from what I call the “spare parts”. Learn to love liver.
Set-up and Equipment
The key operations are: killing the bird, scalding, plucking, and eviscerating. Set-up requires at a minimum a scalder of some sort, a work table, cutting tools, and running water. You can work indoors if you like, but I prefer to work outside, setting my work table in the sun if the day is cool, and in the shade of a big white oak if it is hot. I use a 15-gallon fiberglass scalder heated by a thermostatically controlled electric element, just like in an electric water heater. (I encased it in 2-inch foam insulation for greater efficiency.) You can use instead a large enameled canner (as shown in the “Dunking” picture) on stove top or portable burner. I also use a mechanical plucker featuring a drum driven by an electric motor, into which are set many stiff rubber “fingers” that “slap” the feathers off the bird as the drum rotates. The considerable expense of a mechanical plucker would likely only be justified if you process a lot of birds, but a plucker does speed up the operation considerably.
You will be more comfortable using a table at a good working height. My father and I put mine together from scrap lumber, a double stainless steel sink donated by a friend, and a single stainless steel sink with drain board which I picked up at a junk yard for four bucks. (For use when friends join me for slaughter day, I put together insets for the sink wells to provide additional work surfaces. They are simply small synthetic cutting boards screwed onto wooden “feet”.) Note the supply hose hooked onto the leg of the table. The pistol-grip sprayer is just the thing for that quick splash of water whenever needed.
I like to have on hand a tray (for carrying dressed carcasses into the house for chilling in the refrigerator) and a stainless steel bowl with a lid to hold the usable “innards” until I get them inside. And of course, the homestead revolves around 5-gallon buckets. I use them under the table to catch the rinse water (so the area doesn’t become a muddy mess), and position them on either side of each work station, to catch feathers and offal.
About Cutting Tools and Knife Technique
Do yourself a favor and invest in good cutting tools. (Yes, the good ones are expensive.) One of my greatest frustrations in my butchering workshops is the wretched cutlery many students bring to the work. Knives that are badly designed, or that will not take or hold a keen edge, are clumsy and fatiguing to use, and of course, a dull tool is always more dangerous than a sharp one, because of the greater force required to cut with it. You will of course discover your own preferences for cutting tools. I prefer two knives: One with a thin, flexible, 3-inch blade for more delicate cuts (e.g., around the crop); and the other with a stiff, heavier, 6-inch blade for more hefty, resistant cuts. I recommend a good pair of shears as well (for cutting off the neck). Poultry shears vary tremendously in quality, and I have broken at least half a dozen over the years. After eventually breaking the spring on the best model I ever found (the black-handled “Soft Touch” shears in the picture), I lost patience and bought a Felco No. 2 pruner (red handles). Don’t expect I’ll ever break that one.
Let me emphasize two points about knife technique, based on the most common mistakes I see beginners make. Never use the point of the knife when cutting. All the cuts you need to make are slicing cuts, some of them rather delicate (to avoid piercing the entrails), so always use the edge of the blade, and keep it sharp! You may have wondered about my preference for a stainless steel work surface, having expected a chopping-board surface designed for contact with the blade. Using my methods, the blade need never come in contact with the work surface. Either make downward cuts from above, so the carcass itself prevents contact of blade and work surface; or pull on the part to be cut, using the weight of the attached carcass to create tension, and make your cut against that tension (rather than sawing or chopping down onto the work surface, as when using a chopping board).