Butchering Basics

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By Shaye Elliot | Jun 20, 2018

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Butchering is never fun, but it is a necessity for those of us who have taken on the joy, and burden, of raising our own meat.
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“Welcome to the Farm” by Shaye Elliot is a comprehensive guide for all readers wanting to grow their own food and live a homestead life from their backyard.

InWelcome to the Farm: How-to Wisdom from The Elliott Homestead, Shaye Elliot teaches readers how they can live a homestead lifestyle without a farm. In this fully illustrated how-to, Elliot shows readers how to harvest their own vegetables, milk a dairy cow, cam jams and jellies, and more! The following excerpt is from Chapter 5, “Raising Meat in Small Places.”

Butchering is never fun, but it’s a necessity for those of us who have taken on the joy, and burden, of raising our own meat. I won’t pretend that I don’t often pawn off the actual killing on my husband. Chickens are a great starter animal for you to learn basic butchering skills. Prepare yourself for feathers — lots of them. And make sure you’ve got a sharp knife!

How to Butcher a Chicken

Place the chicken upside down in a kill cone. Using a sharp knife, slit the artery in the throat (which runs right on the backside of the earlobe) and allow the blood to drain out and the chicken to die. This usually takes around 30 seconds to 1 minute. Apply more pressure to the knife than you think you’ll need. Getting a knife through the feathers can be tough and multiple attempts are not desirable for anyone involved, chicken or human.

Once the chicken is dead, remove its body from the kill cone.

Gently dip the chicken into a large pot of 145- to 150-degree Fahrenheit water for 3 seconds, shaking it gently while it’s submerged. Pull the chicken from the water for 3 seconds. Dunk it again in the hot water for 3 seconds, shaking it gently. Again, pull the chicken out of the water for a few seconds. Grab a feather from the bird and pull it out. Does it slip out easily without resistance? If yes, proceed to the next step. If not, continue to dunk the bird for 3 seconds at a time until the feathers pull out like warm butter.

Once the chicken has been scalded, begin plucking the feathers by hand or transfer the bird to a plucker. To pluck with a machine, just place the scalded chicken into the plucker, flip on the switch, and spray the chicken with water while the machine is running (this helps to remove all those little feathers that would otherwise stick to the skin). This makes it much faster and much easier!

Transfer the chicken to the “evisceration station” (as we like to call it). At this station, you will remove the head, feet, and guts.

Halfway up the chicken’s legs is a joint that connects the leg to the foot. Cut right in the middle of the joint so the feet can easily be removed. I use a filet knife for this and it works just fine.

Next, the head. For this you may need a pair of regular garden pruners. It can be a bit tricky to remove. Once the neck bone is broken, though, it’s easy enough to cut through the remaining skin. Bust out your meat cleaver if you’d like.

After removing the feet and head, flip the chicken over so it’s breast-side up. At the narrow end of the breast, grab the skin with one hand and use a knife to cut a slit in the skin. Get all your fingers in there and use your hands to gently pull open the body cavity, revealing the innards.

Once you can see the innards, it’s easy to reach in with one hand and pull out all of the guts. Using your fingers, it’s nearly impossible to rupture the intestines, but be careful nonetheless. It’s important that no poop gets onto the meat, as this will contaminate it. Pull, pull, pull. At this point, you’ll likely notice that there is a long straw-like thing at the top of the bird that’s keeping you from removing the guts completely. That’s the windpipe. Reach in there, wrap your fingers around it, and pull really hard. It’ll come out. There should be nothing left in the body cavity when you’re finished.

But, wait! The guts are still attached to the chicken, aren’t they? Yes, they are. So what you have to do is take a sharp filet knife and gently cut a V shape around the vent of the chicken. Be careful not to puncture the intestines or the vent. Just cut around it and remove it completely.

Place the chicken into a large bucket filled with ice and let it remain there while you finish harvesting the rest of the birds if you’re doing more than one.

Once all the birds are cleaned, I take them inside to wash them out and do quality control. Any stray parts left in the body cavity are removed, leftover feathers are plucked, the entire chicken is rinsed with water (both inside and out), and all of the chickens are placed into individual shrink-wrap bags, along with the head, the feet, and any other bits we will keep.

Place the chickens, in their open shrink-wrap bags, into the refrigerator for one to two days. This will allow the chickens to “air-chill” — an incredibly important step in the process. Without this, the chicken tends to be stiff and chewy. During the air-chilling, the meat has a chance to rest and relax, resulting in a much more tender bird. After this time, shrink-wrap the birds (following bag manufacturer’s instructions) and move to the freezer. Booya.

How to Cut Up a Chicken

“Piecing out” a bird is a skill most of us have lost in this day and age, thanks to the supermarket. It’s funny, but here on the farm, meat doesn’t come in packages. Whole, skinless, boneless, chicken breasts? Nope. As convenient as that may be, it just ain’t the way the good Lord designed things. Chickens come with two wings, two thighs, two drumsticks, and two breasts. The neck, feet, and carcass can be used for stock, and the liver is fabulous mixed up into pâté.

I’ve gotten a lot better at piecing out a chicken over the years, though I’m still far from an expert. But that’;s never stopped me from anything. Here’s how you do it:

  1. If the chicken still has its feet attached, you can simply cut those off at the joint by gently pushing through the joint with your knife. They’ll come off very easily. Save the beautiful feet for the richest chicken stock ever. Same goes for the neck.
  2. I like to start with the breast. Lay the bird on its back with the breasts facing upward, toward you. You’ll know the breasts when you see them because, well, they’re breasts. The back of the bird has a defined spine that runs down it and is stiff to the touch. The breast side of the bird is squishy and smooth.
  3. Find the center line that runs between the two breasts with your knife and gently begin to fillet the breast. A bone runs right through the two breasts, so your knife can simply stick close to the breast bone as it fillets the breast away from the bird.
  4. With the chicken still on its back, it’s mighty easy to push the legs down to the counter with your palms, which will separate them a bit from the carcass. Then, all you need to do is simply use your knife to gently cut through the skin and thin pieces of flesh that attach the leg and the thigh to the bird. You’ll continue this as you also remove the thigh from the bird, separating it at the ball joint where the entire leg attaches to the side of the chicken.
  5. Lastly, remove the two wings by using your knife to push through the joint. Don’t try to cut through the bone, just find that joint and cut through the cartilage and connective tissue — this is much easier.
  6. Last, if you’re super talented, you can remove the “oysters.” These are two teeny tiny little pockets of the most flavorful and tender meat on the entire bird, located on the bird’s back right above its thighs, on either side.

Ta da! I knew you could do it.

The Best Roast Chicken

The very best chicken is made by simply covering an entire broiler chicken with about 4 tablespoons of olive oil before sprinkling liberally with fresh or dried herbs of choice. Rosemary, lemon thyme, and parsley are my personal favorites. Roast, breast side down, in a 375 degree Fahrenheit oven for 2-1/2 to 3 hours until the skin is crispy and the juices run clear. Let the chicken cool slightly before fighting off your various family members for the drumsticks. And Amen.

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Excerpted with permission fromWelcome to the Farm, by Shaye Elliot. Published by Lyons Press, © 2017.