Chicken butchering is a conflicting experience for me. I am gratified that I can kill a chicken when needed. I’m satisfied when I turn it into food. I am also distressed that I can take another life. My belief in sustainable food production wins out, and I try hard to turn chickens I can no longer keep into food for the table.
Until recently, it was touch-and-go whether my dead chooks made it to the table, or were buried as compost. So here are my secrets for tipping the balance in favour of the table.
First – why do I kill chickens? I don’t just kill them after they stop laying eggs, but instead allow them to retire for as long as they stay healthy and happy. But eventually they get , and it is cruel to keep them alive. I bury my old, sick ones in the ground. But I also keep a rooster, and breed chicks each season. Somehow I always end up with more young roosters than new hens.
If you’ve ever tried to keep a whole lot of roosters together with hens you’ll know it doesn’t work. They’ll fight each other constantly, drawing blood and causing distress, and they fight over then hens and make the whole flock miserable. So keeping roosters, and raising chicks inevitably means killing young, healthy birds, which are brilliant part of sustainable food production.
It all adds up to killing about 2-5 roosters in a batch, once a year, and putting down another couple of birds at odd times. Today I butchered four young roosters, and was only mildly traumatised.
In summary, I use “the broomstick method” to kill, and then skin, rather than plucking. There’s virtually no blood, no feathers and no noise. These features make it possible for me to get the job done well by myself, without a lot of skill, experience, preparation or time.
First, recognise that you need to be quite determined and focused to kill a living animal, and turn it into food. Some of the tasks need strength, others need great care and some feel unnatural. Prepare yourself mentally before you begin.
Starving a bird for at least 14 hours makes gutting easy. If you can’t easily separate the target birds, remove the food from the whole flock the night before. In the morning, the others can wait for breakfast, and knowing your other chickens are hungry will help keep you on track too. The added bonus is the roosters may be cross enough to come up and peck at you, making them easy to catch.
Work out what you are going to do with the leftover feathers, guts and other leftover bits. I bury mine in the garden, so I dig a hole first.
Here’s my set-up:
Outside and out of sight of the hen-house, target birds
- Make up a processing area including a sharp knife with a pointed end, a cutting board and large, clean kitchen bowl big enough to hold finished chicken. An optional extra is a pair of bone-scissors.
- Hang a hook above your head height, within easy reach of the cutting board, and with a large bucket underneath, and twine to tie the bird up by its feet. I use a piece from a hay bale.
- A broom, rake or other long, wooden-handled implement somewhere nearby.
- A hose with a strong jet nearby to clean the bird before taking it inside.
Inside, in the kitchen
- Another chopping board and knife, near the sink.
- Adjacent to that, glad wrap and a clean bag for each bird.
Honour the bird
An important step for me personally is to honour the bird and its short life and sacrifice. I hold each bird for a while, talking with it about its life, and what I’ve loved about it. I tell it I’m sorry that I can’t keep it alive, explain why and tell it to look at the beautiful world around. This process gets me centred and ready, and maybe even helps the bird too, as it always relaxes in my arms. We are both very relaxed for the next bit, and I keep talking until I have worked up a clear, calm determination to carry through with the whole job.
Use the Broomstick Method
I learned the broomstick method from a Backyard Poultry fact sheet on How to kill a chicken for food. It’s mentioned in just one short paragraph copied here, with some extra tips of my own below:
“Lay the chicken on the ground, holding the tail and legs together, and gently rest a broomstick across the neck behind the head. This doesn’t hurt the chicken until the last second, when you place your feet on the broomstick to either side of the head and pull the chicken’s body swiftly upward. Done properly, this remains a quick and clean method, as the blood drains into the gap between vertebrae and remains inside the skin until the head is cut off.”
My extra tips are:
- The correct hold is high up on the feathered part of the legs so that you can also pull the tail down and hold it together with both legs in your dominant hand. This hold confuses the chicken, and it will stop thinking about you, and stretch its body out, while staying pretty still and making it easy to get into position.
- Lie the bird’s chin on the ground, then put the broomstick across the back of its head, right up against its skull. Stand with both feet on the broomstick, one on either side of its head.
- Minimise distress to the bird by working quickly with the right force, speed and angle.
- Force and speed depend on the bird’s condition. Don’t be too quick or strong with an old, sick bird or you could accidentally pull its head right off. Go quite hard and fast for a strong, young rooster.
- For the right angle, use both hands and start down between your legs so that the bird is stretched out, then flick forward as if you were ten-pin bowling or throwing a softball. At the end of the movement the bird’s body is across the top of its head at a hard angle, and you’ll hear a small noise, which is not as clean as a pop or a snap, but is still a definite bone-and-gristle noise.
- You can tell you have succeeded because the bird will immediately flap as a reflex action. Usually it will flap about 10-20 times very hard, then hang still, and then flap again a few more times in shorter bursts. Its legs will move a bit at this time too, but its head will hang down loosely.
There are three parts to a bird…..
Think of the bird as having in inside, an outside and the meat and bones in the middle.
The outside includes the feathers, head, tail, feet etc. You need to remove all of these outside bits before you can eat your chicken.
The inside is the guts and organs, all in a big, strong cavity inside the ribs and between the back and breastbone. There are two tubes at the top, and one coming out of the bottom, and they are all connected together. The goal of ‘gutting’ is to remove all of the inside bits in one big piece, without puncturing the digestive tract, which is a continuous tube from mouth-to-cloaca. The cloaca by the way, is the ‘pooh hole’, and also the ‘egg hole’ (or rooster equivalent), which is the only opening in the back end of a bird. If you’ve starved your bird overnight, there’ll be enough room on the inside for all of those parts, and your hand as well, which is what you’ll use to pull the insides out.
Once you have removed the outside and the inside bits, you are left with the foody part in the middle. The skin is in between the feathery outside, and the good bits in the middle and can be treated either as part of either. Pluck the chicken if you want to eat the skin, or skin it as an easier alternative.
Learning to skin a bird was the turning point for me between reliably turning chickens into food, or usually burying them. Plucking takes more time, makes more mess, and involves some complicated heating and timing. You have to ‘scald’ the bird for a few minutes in hot-but-not-boiling water, so you need a large, clean bucket and new water for each kill (unless you are doing it production style with many on the go at once). Wing feathers and some others are really hard, and I always managed to tear some of it. Do this when you are processing lots of chooks with a bunch of friends, but consider skinning if you are working solo on a small scale.
There are lots of skinning methods explained on-line, but the one I explain here works well, because it minimizes the number of times you move the bird around, and gets the whole process going quickly. Know that the skin is stuck on pretty well, so you need to be firm and determined to pull it off.
While the bird is still flapping, tie its feet tightly together with twine, then hang it upside-down on the hook. It will stay like this until the final steps.
As soon as the bird is hanging still, take hold of its tail, and locate the cloaca. Slice upwards into the tail, without cutting all the way through, then cut towards one side slicing around the cloaca. Keep cutting until you can see open space between the skin and the very end of the digestive tract – inside the bird. What you have to do is to cut all around the outside of the cloaca, without puncturing that tract. The tail and the cloaca will stay together as the end of the ‘inside’ part. Keeping them together makes it easy to keep track of the cloaca so that you don’t puncture it.
While working around the cloaca, start preparing to skin the bird. Think of the skin as a tight-fitting outfit on toddler who wants to keep it on. You’ll be pulling firmly, while keeping in mind the basic shapes (arms and legs) that you are working around, and how each one of them bends. Make a few definite cuts through the skin.
- forwards from the cloaca, between the legs and towards the breastbone,
- All the way down the front of the bird from breastbone towards the shoulders,
- Up the back of the legs towards the feet, pulling the skin off from the muscle as you go. Also cut around each knee, just below where the feathers meet the scales.
Start skinning from top of the leg-feathers, one leg at a time. You may need to do some more careful cutting between the legs once you have stripped them. Skin comes off the belly easily, and is harder on the back, but a firm pull, while loosening with fingers or knife will do it.
For the wings, I recommend cutting them off at the first joint, which means they’ll be shorter than a shop-bought bird. You can try to skin the whole wing, but the feathers are stuck on very tight there. To remove the wing-tips, cut the wing membrane in towards the first-joint elbow, then firmly bend the wing backwards, dislocating the joint. Then you can easily cut through between the ball joints, and then pull the skin off around this bit of wing.
After you’ve skinned the wings, you’ll quickly have the whole skin hanging down over the head. Now you can see that while you’ve been working, nearly all of the blood has settled around the skull, so the meat is nice and white. Don’t worry about getting the skin off the head, but instead cut the neck off up close to the shoulders (this is where the bone-scissors are useful).
Take the bird off the hook now, and remove the twine. Also cut off the feet by bending the knee-joint backwards at the end of the ‘drumstick’, and then easily cutting through the tendon.
The trick to gutting is to loosen everything, make as much space as you can, and not puncture the digestive tract. Start by cutting carefully around the windpipe and digestive tract at the neck. Then use your fingers to reach in and loosen the inside from the outside, by running your fingers along between the organs and the ribcage, all around the inside of the shoulders.
Then ensure you have a good hole around the back of the bird up towards the breast. This needs to be large enough to get your whole hand right inside. The insides will already be detached from the breast, but all of the organs will be sticking to the back. As with the neck, just run your hand between the inside and the outside, breaking the connective tissue. While you are doing this, hold the bird above the bucket, gradually easing out the whole inside part. The wing-tips, skin, feathers, head and insides are all in the bucket now, a chicken that looks nearly like a bought one in your hand, and there’s barely a drop of blood spilled anywhere.
Cleaning and storing
Use the hose to clean off any feathers, and the inside of the carcass. Put it in the bowl, and take inside for a final clean-up, and packaging in a plastic bag. Pull the legs and wings in tight, so that it is compact in the fridge. The best option is a vacuum sealer, but I don’t have one, so I tightly glad-wrap all around then put it in a clean plastic bag.
Rigor mortis is the condition where a recently-dead animal becomes stiff for about 48 hours, starting about 20 minutes after death for a chicken. If you cook or freeze a bird in this state it will be very tough. You need to leave it in the fridge for 48 hours so that it becomes tender again, and then either freeze or cook.
Want to see pictures?
I can’t easily work out the ethics of showing this process in pictures. Post a comment if you want photos added to see how it is done.