Chicken slaughter is often a tough topic for new, and even experienced, chicken keepers. Even if you theoretically know how to butcher a chicken, actually doing it is another matter entirely.
Even though we all know where meat comes from and what has to happen for it to make it to our tables, there is some part of us that wants to pretend it just magically showed up at the grocery store or farmer’s market booth.
Part of becoming a backyard butcher is facing your meat consumption habits head on.
The most important advice we can give you on butchering your first chicken is, don’t overcomplicate the process.
Historically, backyard butchering was the norm. It didn’t take weeks of planning and preparation. It just took the will to do it, a little skill, and some basic tools.
Do Your Homework
Most of us didn’t grow up learning these skills, so we do have to do a little homework to prepare in advance.
But, unless you want to spend an unnecessary fortune or will be processing a ton of chickens, you probably want to make your process very similar to what your grandma’s (or great grandma’s) would have been.
There is an art to home butchery that comes only with experience.
Your first time butchering will be rough on you and possibly on your chicken.
In fact, even when you have become very skilled at doing it, it will probably still be rough on you.
You are taking a life, and if you don’t recognize the sentience of the being on the other side of that transaction, then maybe you need to seek psychological help!
That said, if you have been buying chicken at the grocery store, you have already been an active participant in slaughtering birds that were likely treated with less dignity and respect than you have shown the chickens you will be processing.
For meat eaters, home butchering could be one of the least ethically compromising decisions you can make.
Philosophical considerations aside, let’s talk about a few practical aspects of processing chickens.
A clean kill starts with good planning. You need to decide how you are going to do it and what tools you are going to use.
Using a kill cone and sharp knife to slit a chicken’s throat on both sides is most common for small poultry processors. When using this method, some people put a straw bale under the cone area to collect the blood.
Since this is not a job you want to have to do twice on the same chicken, make it a habit to cut to the bone on both sides.
Chickens often try to back out of the cone in response to having their throats slit, so hold the head tightly and don’t let go until the chicken is no longer moving. This also prevents blood from splattering and making a big mess as dying chickens twitch.
You can also decapitate your chickens using a sharp knife and a butcher block or tree stump.
This method is easier if you have one person to hold the chicken and another to do the beheading.
One blogger decapitates her chickens using a feed bag to hold and then hang chickens during and after the kill. This method works really well and saves you the cost of a kill cone. Straw bale blood collection works in this scenario too.
You can also break a chicken’s neck. This method requires no tools for the kill, but as the blood is not drained during the process, it makes for a messier evisceration process. So be prepared to collect or clean the blood when you take the chicken to the table for evisceration.
Whichever method you use, speed and accuracy is critical. Watching videos of other successful kills and studying pictures in advance can help mentally prepare you for the task.
The neck has valuable stock meat and flavor, so the closer you can make your cut or break to the head, the more you get to keep.
Be Well-Prepared Prior to Culling
Set up your station before you start.
- Slaughtering at home can be messy, so a lot of us opt to do it outside.
- Having a hose with a sprayer makes it easy to keep things clean.
- A work table makes evisceration easier.
- Having some kind of hook for hanging to defeather helps.
- If you plan to scald, you need a burner to heat your water.
- You may also need electricity if you use a plucker.
- Some people like to set up a three-bucket cleaning station, with soapy water, bleach water (1 Tablespoon per gallon), and fresh water to use to clean your knife and other equipment as needed during processing.
- You also want to choose a location with good drainage so you don’t end up with chicken blood and scraps stinking up your backyard.
Once you’ve dispatched your chicken, the next step is to defeather the carcass.
There are a couple ways to do this:
- You can skin, dry-pluck, scald, and hand pluck.
- You can scald and machine pluck.
Some people skin the entire bird. However, for many, the skin is delicious and worth the extra work. You can check out this blog posting for a look at the process.
Dry-plucking is exactly what it sounds like. You simply pull out the feathers after slaughtering.
It helps to hang the bird by the feet and pull down to extract the feathers.
The rule of thumb on defeathering the body is to pull away from the direction the feathers grow in. For wings, you need to hold the tip of the wing and then grip and pull the feathers straight out. Tail feathers are also easier to pull straight out.
You can also scald a chicken before plucking, which makes it much easier to pull out the feathers.
You need a pot big enough to hold your entire chicken, a pair of tongs for dipping and stirring, and a thermometer (e.g., a fry thermometer) so you make sure you get the water to 135–145°F for scalding dry birds.
If I am processing a large flock, I like to use a garden hose to rinse my poultry thoroughly before scalding so the water does not need to be changed as frequently.
When I soak before scalding, I aim for a water temperature between 145–155°F since the cold water from the rinse, retained in the feathers, will drop my scalding pot temperature.
Also, birds like the Cornish Cross which have been breed for easier defeathering and are processed at a younger age scald well at around 135°F, and more heavily feathered birds are easier to pluck if scalded on the higher side of the scale.
- If you’ve got your water temperature right, it takes about one to three minutes for the feathers to loosen. Use the tongs to move the chicken around, up, and down in the pot to make sure the hot water penetrates the feathers and reaches the skin.
- After the first minute, tug on the body feathers with your tongs every 15–20 seconds to check.
- As soon as the feathers are easy to pull, take the chicken from the pot, hang the carcass, and begin defeathering as described for dryplucking.
- Pluck quickly for best results.
- Also, don’t leave the chickens in the water too long, as they begin to cook and the feathers get harder to pluck.
Plucking manually, whether you scald or not, is about the hardest part of the process. It takes time and there are always some small feathers you have to pluck out with tweezers, torch off, or shave off with a straight razor.
If you’ll be processing chickens regularly, machine defeathering is a good option. You can build your own, like the Whizbang Plucker. Or, if that’s outside your budget and time constraints, you can buy drill attachments like the one that Marjory found at the Mother Earth News Fair a few years back. See her quick video about it here.
I like to think of plucking as a kind of meditation. And, sometimes, having company helps pass the time.
You can use the feathers for craft projects like jewelry, writing quills, and Halloween costumes. And anything you don’t use can be composted. Feathers are very high in nitrogen.
Once the feathers are removed, your next step is to eviscerate (remove the internal organs).
This is also usually the time you remove the feet, head (if not decapitated), and oil glands. Once you get the hang of it, evisceration is pretty easy to do. But it’s easier to learn if you have a coach or watch a few good videos, like this one with Joel Salatin.
Also, if you get your copy of the Mother Earth News Summit hosted by Marjory Wildcraft, it includes presentations from Joel Salatin and Patricia Foreman on raising and processing chickens. Patricia’s presentation on processing has very detailed pictures to make the process accessible to newcomers.
After you have a basic idea of the process, then keep in mind these few tips to have a successful first experience.
- Use a clean cutting board or table. Plastic or stainless steel surfaces are easier to clean and disinfect, so they are recommended.
- Have a hose at the ready in the event of accidental contamination, such as could be caused by cutting the intestines and contaminating your chicken area or work table with feces or by nicking the gall bladder when removing it from the liver.
- Lungs don’t always come out clean in scalded chickens, so rinse the interior of the carcass and use your fingers to scrape out residual lung tissue if necessary.
- Chill the heart, liver, and gizzard as soon as possible. The quality of organ meat degrades quickly once it comes in contact with air.
There are a lot of different techniques used to remove the head and feet, so feel free to use whatever works for you.
One method is to cut the feet above the orange socks and around the knee joint. Then, fold the knee in the opposing direction to loosen the tendon and cut through it. After that, twist and cut until the foot is off.
For the neck, you can cut the meat around the spine, twist the neck once around and then slice through the ligature.
Chilling, Aging, and Storing
If you are processing poultry professionally, your goal after evisceration is to chill your meat to an internal temperature of 40°F as quickly as possible. That usually means plopping it into a cooler of ice water, like you would a bottle of champagne.
The longer it takes for a chicken to cool down, the more risk there is for bacterial contamination of the meat. And unless you happen to have a flash freezer at home, ice water baths are the fastest, safest, and cheapest way to chill your meat at home.
Ideally, you want to leave your carcass in ice water for about one hour per pound of carcass to make sure it is properly chilled.
Aging and Storing
At that point, you can package your chicken and place it in your refrigerator for aging or in your freezer for storing.
Whether you age your meat right after processing or after you defrost it, your meat will be more tender if you give it a day or two to “rest” at refrigerator temperatures. You can do double-duty by letting it rest in marinade before cooking, as well.
Some people keep chicken in their freezer for years. But, for best results, you should eat chicken within six months of processing.
Safety and Sanitation
When it comes to keeping things safe at a molecular level during processing, the No. 1 rule is to use common sense.
- If you plan to process more than a chicken or two at a time, you’ll want to clean all your surfaces and equipment at least every couple hours.
- If you suspect any kind of contamination (e.g., chicken feces, fly-by droppings from a wild bird, etc.), stop and sanitize.
- A tablespoon of bleach in a gallon of water makes a good sanitizer.
- Use clean towels for handwashing.
- Avoid touching your face or other body parts while processing.
- Sharpen your knife before each kill and as needed during processing.
Again, use common sense. If your basic hygiene is bad, you could pass on norovirus and other nasty stuff, but only if you also fail to properly cook the meat before eating. Poor hygiene while processing and unsafe cooking procedures are both necessary for bad things to happen.
Just use your brain, and you’ll be ok!
You want to raise your own chickens, which means you’re probably a smart person. So use your own good judgment to keep risks out of your process.
After you raise, kill, and process your own chickens, take a few minutes to sit down, think about the experience, and figure out what worked, what didn’t, and how you want to do it better next time.
Then remember all that went into it—from picking your breed, to brooding your chicks, to moving them around in your pasture tractor, to watching them chase grasshoppers in your lawn.
Be amazed at all you learned in the process.
Celebrate your success in raising high-quality food for you and your family.
And of course, give thanks for the way nature provides, for the chickens who will grace your table, for anyone who helped you along the way, and for the fact that you have healthy food to eat and choices about how to provide for yourself.