Tag Archives: sustainability

Home chicken butchering for part-timers, solos and softies

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.

Get prepared

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.

Skinning

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).

Gutting

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.

Why LED lamps are best

There’s a lighting revolution underway. You can no longer buy the old incandescent lamps that are still the symbol of a good idea . Instead there’s a bewildering array of alternatives. So which ones should you buy?

https://pixabay.com/en/education-a-good-idea-an-array-of-548105/

Here are the lamps I saw for sale recently at the supermarket. So many options, each with most of the fittings you could want – including the standard screw and bayonet fittings that are still standard in most older houses like mine.

LEDs and other lamps for sale - whole rack

They have a wide range of wattages, lumens, hours and price tags. What does is all mean?

close up of lamps for sale

  • Watts are the amount of power used. The higher the watts, the great the energy being used.
  • Lumens are the amount of light emitted. The higher the lumens, the brighter the lamp. In some places, like kitchens, we want lots of light. We may want less from our bedside lamp.
  • Hours of operation differ between lamps. If a lamp lasts for many thousands of hours, you may not have to change it for a decade.
  • To really understand the price tag, you need to put all of this together. A lamp that uses minimal energy, emits lots of light, and lasts for a decade is cheaper in the long run than one that uses more energy and blows quickly.

LEDs, or light emitting diodes reportedly have the lowest watts per lumen for any lights available in Australia (see the light globe conversion table at the end of this link). A key reason is that they convert electricity into light, and not heat.

I tested this using a thermal imaging camera to compare an old incandescent with a compact fluorescent and LED lamp. Each had been on for half an hour before I tested their temperature.

The hottest point on the incandescent lamp was 161 degrees Celsius. That’s a lot of electricity being converted into heat, instead of light.

The hottest point on the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) was 134 degrees Celsius. Still pretty hot.

The hottest point on the LED lamp was 65 degrees. Most of the power is going into light, not heat.

LEDs contain less toxins than other lamps, being free of mercury, lead and phosphorous and are also fully recyclable. So there are fewer waste problems with LEDs than with other lamps. CFLs in contrast, contain mercury so it is important to recycle those.

I’m convinced. I had already swapped all of my incandescents for CFLs. Now its time to change over to LEDs. And if the quoted hours are right on these new lamps they might outlive the house.

Steps on a carbon-neutral journey

How will I know that my home is carbon neutral? How will others believe me? The first steps are working out what to measure, and how to measure it. This post explains how that’s done.  It’s a little bit dry, so to keep you interested, here’s a snapshot of the next step which was the waste audit, described by the household 13yo as ‘totally gross’.

Myrle pouring rubbish for waste audit

The National Carbon Off-set Standard (NCOS) tells us to do a life cycle analysis (LCA) of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with home. That means working out a ‘cradle to grave’ assessment of all greenhouse gas emissions involved in running a household. The NCOS points us to the International Standard for Environmental Management – Life cycle assessment – Principles and Framework IS014040 identifies four phases for an LCA. Here’s how it looks for my house.

flow diagram for carbon LCA

There are some general standards, and some choices about the scope of a greenhouse gas inventory. These are well established for businesses and products, and they can also be applied to a home. For instance, the Scope 1 emissions from my diagram are really a must. Those are the direct emissions from gas heating and fires, and anything else burned or decomposing at a site. Strangely, human breathing is not included in inventories, even though animal farts may be.

pre-winter solstice bonfire 2015

Emissions from electricity used in a building are also a must in the inventory. But you don’t have to include the full fuel cycle emissions from electricity, like transmission losses from the poles, wires, and the times when high voltage loads are transformed to lower voltages. I’ve chosen to include the full fuel cycle. The interpretation stage gives me a chance to change my mind about this if it’s not working out. Similarly, I’d love to include the emissions associated with the stuff we buy for my home. I would, but the data gathering and calculations are way too complex.

The reason that we can exclude these ‘scope 3’ emissions is that they are all included in the inventories being done by other people or businesses. For instance, I’ll be counting emissions from air travel, even though airlines are required to record and report all of those emissions under Australia’s National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Scheme.

Keep your eye out for the next post, on my home waste audit. That’s when we’ll start to see how my emissions stack up, and what I can do to reduce them.

Towards a carbon neutral home

In Paris, 2015, the Council of Parties reached international agreement that urgent action is needed to prevent climate change. Then February 2016 broke all the records for breaking global warming records. More needs to be done and I can do some of it myself, starting at home.

New Commitment for 2016: Make my home carbon-neutral.

I’ll aim for my home-life to be healthy, comfortable and affordable, but not to contribute to global warming. I’ll also record the details in this blog, and encourage other households to join in.

The plan is to systematically:

  • measure my carbon footprint,
  • look for ways to reduce emissions,
  • off-set whatever remains,
  • continue assessing and reporting so I can continue the journey, and maybe even become carbon negative.

The Australian National Carbon Offset Standard shows these steps together like this.

So what does it mean to be carbon neutral?

We humans are emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere faster than they can be absorbed back into the earth. As a result, more heat is trapped within the atmosphere than previously, and global temperatures are rising. This is happening even though some people don’t understand, or disagree with the science.

(If you are one of those climate change denialists, there’s no point me arguing with you, and you won’t be interested in this blog, so kindly head off and put your head in the sand somewhere else).

People who measure and reduce the greenhouse effect have worked out an accounting system to keep track of emissions. The basic idea is to get all of the emissions in the same units. Lots of different gases contribute to global warming. Each gas has a different impact, or global warming potential. A tonne of methane (CH4) for instance, causes about 25 times as much global warming as a tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2). And a tonne of sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) has about 23,900 times as great an impact. Because CO2 is both the most common greenhouse gas, and also has the smallest impact per unit, we simplify things, by using CO2 as the reference point. All we have to do is to convert all emissions to their carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), and we can sum the totals together.

Carbon Neutral Standard diagram

Being carbon neutral means minimising your emissions, then balancing any that remain with an equal amount sequestered or off-set. Basically, you absorb as much as you emit.

In the next few blogs, I’m going to measure the emissions my household has from:

  • waste,
  • electricity,
  • other energy sources,
  • transport,
  • other sources.

Wish me luck and come along for the ride.

10 beginners tips for practical food preserving

By Su Wild-River

Have you ever wished you were ‘one of those people’ with colourful cupboards full of bottled tomatoes, jams, pickles and fruits? Are you scared off by advice on the hazards of preserving? Here are some tips to make the transition so that you can make all the preserves you desire without fuss or stress.

But first, let us consider the costs and benefits of preserving food.

1) The only equipment you need is a saucepan and some metal-lidded jars

The professionals use custom-made products like Vacola and Kilna and perhaps one day you will too. But to make a start, all you need is some metal-lidded jars. So the next time you are in the supermarket, choose products in metal lidded jars. When you have used the product, clean the jar carefully and store it for your preserves. Build up your collection more quickly by asking friends to do it too.

Preserving food in Autumn for Winter and Spring.

Preserving food in Autumn for Winter and Spring.

2) You don’t have to grow it to bottle it

My entire fruit crop was taken out last year by a severe, late frost, but that didn’t stop me from making preserves. Buy bulk, in season, direct from farmers if you are lucky enough to have a farmers’ market or street stall in your area. Although it doesn’t have the same inner glow as food you grew yourself, it’s still fresh, probably cheap, and certainly has low food miles compared with supermarket fruit and vegetables.

3) Learn the basics

There are many wonderful recipes on the web and in books, and I won’t repeat them here. But its helpful to know the basic options available to you. The essence of preserving is to slow the decay of real food so that you can eat it long after it was fresh. This is achieved by removing the elements that make it decay and also by adding other ingredients that help keep it edible longer. The main elements that cause food to decay are moisture, air, bacteria, light and heat. Some common ingredients that help keep food longer are salt, sugar, acid (vinegar).

Here are some of the main options:

  • Simple bottling: Just as the name suggests, this is the easiest option and a good way to start. It generally involves just one type of fruit or vegetable (eg peaches, plums, apricots, tomatoes), optionally with a preserving additive. This method works by removing bacteria and air and is achieved by boiling the produce until it is well cooked, and bottling it while it is very hot. Avoid bacteria by using clean, sterilised jars. Avoid air by filling them to the top and banging or pushing out as many bubbles as possible. Because the jar and produce are hot when the lid is sealed, the small remaining air pocket forms a vacuum, and this essentially removes the air. You can easily check that there is a vacuum, because the lid will ‘suck in’ when the jar is cool. Some of the professional bottles allow you to cook food in the jars, and seal the lids when you are done. The big advantages is that the cooking process kills all bacteria in the jar, ensuring that the bottle is sterilised. I choose not to do this with my gathered metal-lidded-jars, because I’m not sure that the sealant will cope.
  • Bottle mixtures: Bottled mixtures include jams, pickles and sauces. All of the same principles apply as with simple bottling, so jars need to be clean, sterilised and full. Recipes for bottled mixtures include preserving ingredients like sugar (for sweet things), salt, vinegar, mustard seeds etc for savoury, along with a range of flavours.
  • Smoking and drying: These methods work by removing the water from within the cells of food. The food will last longer if it is kept dry, cool and dark and the more you achieve all three of these, the longer it lasts. So a smoked trout will last a very long time (years?), while one in the cupboard may last several days.
  • Freezing: This method works by cooling food down to avoid decay. Its very common for vegetables like peas, beans and corn. Its often good to boil before freezing, partly to kill any bacteria, partly because it makes the colour brighter, and also because they retain their fresh flavours and shape better that way.

4) Get on a roll

Preserving doesn’t have to be a big event. I have learned to bottle up tomatoes every time I have enough to fill a saucepan. That’s a few times a week in the mid-season. I just cut them up and put them in a pot with a little salt when I’m starting to make dinner, and then leave them cooking until bed-time, because the longer you cook them the better they are. At bed-time, I take them off the boil and ladle them into clean jars (see ‘clean your jars’ below) and presto – preserved tomatoes for winter.

You can get on a roll most easily for simple preserves with one main ingredient, but once you master jams, pickles and other preserves, you’ll find you can do it with them too. A friend of mine regularly cooks up one or two jars of raspberry jam.

5) Treat it as an adventure

Your preserves don’t have to win awards, or be textbook perfect every time. The beauty of practical preserving is that every batch has its own personality. My very best jam was the ‘burnt heatwave apricot jam’ of 2013, which was burnt on the stove, not by the heatwave. I’m down to the last jar now and everyone is mourning it. But my ‘runny apricot jam’ from 2012 was great as a topping for pies, and the chooks eventually enjoyed ‘crystallised apricot jam’ of 2011.

The thing is, we are not preserving food to make products like the mass produced stuff of supermarkets. We do it for the love of good, local food that contains delight as much as nutritional value.

6) Label your preserves

Since each batch will be a bit different, you probably get the message its a good idea to put labels on your preserves stating the date they were made, and naming any special features. I don’t bother with the tomatoes, as I end up with so many jars each season, all pretty much the same. But jams are individuals, and so are pickles. Make your last, half-filled jar the taster, and name the batch a few days after cooking, once you have tasted and evaluated your results.

7) Look after your food needs

Preserving your own is the perfect way to avoid the foods you can’t eat, while favouring those you can. Last year a health practitioner advised me to slow down on the sugar….. just at the start of the stone fruit season. I wondered how I could preserve the abundant local peaches without sugar. I did some research and it turns out that the trick to making preserves without sugar is….. don’t add sugar. The peaches aren’t as sweet as they would have been with sugar, and they are not as brightly coloured. Apparently they won’t last as long either, but luckily I know how to deal with that (see ‘check your preserves before eating them’ below).

8) Clean your jars

If your jars have any bacteria on them, the preserves will go off very quickly. So make sure your preserves go in spotlessly clean jars.

Most importantly, you need to clean them well before putting them away for storage, since that’s the easiest time to clean them. The trick is to check that all of the ‘bits’ are gone. Check the inside of the lid, and all the way to the bottom corners, and be meticulous. If you can see, feel or smell anything that isn’t part of the jar then the jar isn’t clean.

Sterilise the jars again before you put in the food. A simple approach is to collect up the jars you plan to put your food into while your preserves are cooking, then boil the jug and pour boiling water into both jars and lids. Wear some rubber gloves and be careful to avoid burning, swirl the water around and then discard it into the sink. Be careful not to touch the inside of the lids or jars after this sterilisation process, and also to keep the rims up so that they don’t touch the benches. The remaining water will evaporate, and you’ll have a sterilised jar.

9) Keep them in the dark

Yes, they are beautiful. And they are a source of pride. But if you have them on display the light, and variable temperature within a living room will cause the food to decay faster. Better to keep them in a dark cool cupboard.

10) Check your preserves before eating them

OK, so there is a risk that your food may go off before you open the jar to eat it. This happens every so often, for the same reason that shop-bought preserves can go off. Maybe you left them too long and the few bacteria that were alive in the bottle grew babies. Whatever happened, the thing to remember is that it is within your power to make it safe.

When you first remove your preserve from storage, check it thoroughly. Can you see any mould? Has the lid popped out? Is there a discharge from around the seal of the container? When you open it, continue to check for mould, but also assess the smell. In particular, take a good, big sniff of it the moment you open it up. It should smell pretty well the same as when you put it away for storage – that is, delicious and totally edible. If there is a bad smell, or a release of air from a jar (like when you open a carbonated drink like beer or soft-drink), then its probably no good and to be on the safe side, you should throw it away and reach for another jar. I will occasionally still eat produce that had a tiny amount of mould on the top, but only ever after I have scraped off a good inch, and then repeated the sniff test and tasted a bit as well.

The thing is that one of the definitions of REAL food is that it CAN go off. Any food that doesn’t go off needs serious questioning about whether indeed it actually is food. So the mere fact that your preserves can, and sometimes do go off is a source of celebration, not distrust. Use your senses and your smarts to decide whether to eat what you have preserved, and you will be able to keep yourself, your friends and your family safe and healthy.