(This piece contains descriptions of killing and processing chickens. Photos are mostly harmless, but fair warning.)
In addition to the pigs we normally get, our farmer friend Olek also raises a variety of other animals including a large flock of chickens. These chickens are raised as meat animals, and this past weekend the time came to cull the flock.
We arrived at the farm early in the morning prepared for dirty work. All of the processing was to happen outside for reasons that will shortly become clear; it had rained the day before and the ground was damp and squishy. Olek had corralled the chickens in to mobile hoop pens the day before, and some of them began to crow as we drove in.
The chickens we were about to dispatch lived just about as good a life as a chicken can, with ample fields to roam and peck and freely available organic feed. They were culled at 13 weeks, a remarkably old age for meat chickens – commercial broilers are usually harvested at about 6 weeks.
The first step, of course, is to catch a chicken. This is easier said than done, even inside the pen; chickens do not want to be caught and they’re surprisingly quick. Once you have captured the chicken, you can move it by grasping both legs in your hand and holding the bird upside down.
Killing the birds is accomplished with a quick draw of a sharp knife across the neck. Since we were working with a lot of birds, Olek had built a frame with several cones nailed to the cross bar; each chicken was inserted in to a cone upside down both to immobilize it and to allow the blood to drain. After death, the carcasses will continue to spasm for several minutes; the cones keep them in place until they completely stop moving.
There is a variety of wasp in our area that is attracted to the chicken blood. Spreading lye on the ground helped neutralize the blood and dissuade the wasps from stopping by.
After the bird has completely stopped moving, it’s time to start plucking. We utilized a wet plucking method which involves scalding the whole carcass to loosen the feathers from the skin. Bring a large pot of water to 150 F; holding the carcass by the feet, dip and swirl it in the hot water for a minute or two until the wing feathers can be plucked by hand with only a small amount of resistance. If the water is too hot or the bird is left in the water for too long, it’s possible to weaken the skin and cause it to tear.
Out of everything, scalding definitely had the most unpleasant smell associated with it. Blood, dirt, and feces come off of the bird and mix with the hot water to produce an odor redolent of a dirty butcher case full of meat nearing its expiration. You may want to avoid doing this indoors if you can avoid it. Avoid overfilling the pots, too; as we found out (and probably should have realized ahead of time), dropping a chicken in to a mostly full pot displaces a significant amount of water, and we were struggling with repeatedly extinguishing the burners as the pots overflowed.
With the feathers loosened from the scalding, it is time to pluck them. We used an automatic plucker – The Featherman – which looks vaguely like a washing machine drum fitted with a set of rubber fingers. The base of the drum rotates, bouncing the carcass against the fingers; the fingers grab the feathers and a hose mounted around the top of the drum spray the carcass to remove any loosened feathers. The feathers are then washed down the sides of the drum and out a spout.
The Featherman saved a lot of physical labor but wasn’t a perfect solution. The birds’ feet frequently got caught between the rotating base and the wall of the drum, jamming the machine. Sometimes the carcasses simply didn’t tumble as well as they should have, which meant either the backs or the breasts would not get plucked. The machine also sprays water and feathers everywhere, and I found it useful to have a pair of safety glasses while operating it. As the water poured out of the plucker, it soaked in to the already damp ground to make a substantial mud hole. Waterproof boots proved to be vital.
We set up a couple of people downstream of the plucking machine to pull any feathers that the machine missed. Properly scalded, the feathers are very easy to remove by hand.
With the bird killed, scalded, and plucked, it is finally time to trim and eviscerate the carcass. Very little knife work is required here, but a sharp paring or boning knife will be required. A cleaver can be helpful to remove the neck, but it’s not required.
Removing the feet is a similar process to parting a roast chicken. Take the foot and bend it, looking for the joint with the rest of the leg. Using a sharp knife, slice around the joint to expose it and sever the tendon. With the joint visible, you can either twist the foot and pop it off or work a knife in to the joint to dislocate it. Feet can be cooked but need to be skinned first; we decided this was more effort than it was worth, so they were discarded.
To remove the head, start at the killing cut in the neck and trace around the whole thing down to the bone. Twist and remove, or take a cleaver and chop through the neck. Discard the head.
Place the carcass on its back with the neck facing you. Pinch the skin towards the base of the neck and make a cut about 1-2 inches wide; reach in to the cut and pull the neck through. The trachea and esophagus are attached to the neck with a membrane and look like translucent rubbery tubes; pull these away from the neck, and then chop off the neck as close to the breasts as practical.
The esophagus leads to the crop, essentially an expanded section of the esophagus used to store food before digestion. With the carcass in the same position as before, it is attached to the top of the right breast with a membrane. Follow the esophagus to find it, and then slide your fingers under it to remove it from the breast.
Turn the bird around so it is breast up and facing away from you. Pinch the skin about an inch above the cloaca and make a cut. There is a gray membrane covering a layer of fat just below the skin; cut through both of these to reveal the body cavity. Be careful not to cut too deep during this process, as you want to avoid puncturing the digestive system. With the cavity open, cut all the way around the cloaca to release it from the body. You can now reach in and start removing organs.
A person with some experience can remove the interior of the carcass in one motion, but the rest of us require a little bit more time. Position a bucket on the ground in front of you, grasp some of the intestines, and carefully pull them out of the body cavity. Drop the end of the intestines in to the bucket – this will keep things away from the carcass as you work, avoiding contamination if any of the digestive system breaks open. Continue to reach deeper in to the body cavity and pull organs out; trim the gizzard and liver off as you extract them. Carefully pinch or cut off the dark green bile duct attached to the liver to avoid spilling its contents and discard it. Pull out the heart and retain. The lungs are a bright pink and firmly attached to the walls of the body cavity; scrape them out with your fingers and discard. If the trachea, esophagus, and crop did not come out with the rest of the guts then pull those out and discard.
While eviscerating the carcass, you may learn how chickens make noise. The trachea flaps much like the throat of a whoopee cushion, and if you remove the neck properly and press the guts in just the right way the carcass may gobble at you. The first time you witness this could be a little disconcerting.
With the guts removed, trim up and loose skin and excess fat around the openings at the top and bottom of the carcass. With the back of the chicken facing up, you can optionally trim off the oil gland found at the base of the tail (the “Pope’s nose”). The gland can produce bitter flavors if left on the chicken.
The end product looks just like a whole chicken you would pick up at the supermarket. The processed chickens were kept on ice until we finished with the whole flock and then were bagged and brought home.
Cooking fresh killed chickens should happen either immediately after evisceration or several days later. While rigor mortis is set in, cooking the bird will yield tough meat so it’s important to get the chicken in the oven either before or after rigor. This timing is less vital if the goal is to stew or braise the bird.
We processed a total of 52 birds, yielding coolers full of carcasses; bags of livers, hearts, gizzards, and necks; buckets of entrails, feet, and heads; and piles of feathers. The waste was collected and buried in a horse manure compost pile – the high temperatures in manure compost will break down the animal parts and keep away scavengers and rot.
The work is messy and tiring. Compared to butchering a slaughtered and prepped half pig, processing chickens is dirtier and literally much more visceral. Parting out what is essentially a large piece of meat feels very different at a gut level than starting with a small live animal and turning it in to dinner. However, there is something satisfying in both experiences to understand and come to terms with the source of your food.
Olek is moving away, and this year’s pig will be our last unless we can find another farmer interested in raising animals for us. It’s been an excellent opportunity to learn about meat processing and come out of it with some top quality product at the same time.