The Basics of Butchering Chickens
The spring and summer months are always busy on a farm. First there are new lambs, new piglets, planting garden, and raising chicks. Then comes the harvest and butcher time.
This week, we harvested carrots and replanted the bed for fall. I also harvested my onions and laid them out in the sun for the required three days to cure. They are now hanging on the back porch in a mesh bag.
We take our pigs and the occasional lamb to our local butcher shop, which is family owned and operated. The owner now is of my generation and still does the same excellent job as his father and grandfather before him. But when it comes to the chickens, we butcher them ourselves.
I’ve been butchering chickens all of my life. I started helping when I was about six or seven because my small hands could reach inside and remove the guts easier than mom’s. I didn’t mind. Life and death on a farm is all part of the process, and I quickly learned which animals to name and have for pets, and which ones would become food.
Shortly after we came back to the farm I started raising chickens for food. Greg had never butchered chickens, but he has become quite adapt at it over the years. Daddy always used an ax to behead them, but Greg uses a pair of ‘dehorners’ left over from the days of raising cows. Its a bit like a guillotine and is quick and clean.
While Greg is doing the actual killing, I lay out my work area. Greg made me a lovely table for the back porch, and I place a cutting board covered by newspaper on it with my knives and a pan for the chicken parts.
Once the beheading is over, we dip the body in scalding water to make removal of the feathers easier. We use a turkey deep fryer to heat the water as opposed to the big cast iron kettle of my youth. A lot of people now use a chicken plucker, but I never have enough chickens to butcher to make the expense worth while for us. We just hang the wet bird up by its feet and strip the feather off into a wheel barrow below. Greg always take care of this and leaves the actual cutting up of the carcass to me.
Did you ever play the game ‘Feely Meely’ when you were a kid? Its a square box with holes in the side that you put your hand into and feel around inside trying to find and remove specific objects according to the card you’ve drawn. Gutting a chicken is a lot like this. You learn by feel the heart, liver, lungs, etc. These must be carefully removed in mass once the abdominal cavity has been opened.
If you intend to keep the liver for frying, you have to be very careful not to damage the gall. This is a long green organ attached to the liver and assists with its function. If damaged, it releases a bitter bile that will ruin the liver, or any chicken meat it contaminates. It takes lots of practice to learn how to cut around this to remove the liver. My son loves the gizzards, which must be partially cut open so that the lining filled with corn and gravel can be removed. The gizzard acts as a grist mill to grind the corn into something digestible for the chicken as it cannot chew its food.
Once the guts have been removed, you have to work on the upper end of the chicken before you can start to cut it up. A chicken has a craw which is a sack below the throat that is used for food storage. The grain here passes into the gizzard, then into the stomach for digestion. If the craw gets damaged, grain will spill into the body cavity and make cleaning the chicken every difficult.
Now, here’s where the newspaper comes in. Mother taught me to work on a stack of unfolded newspapers so that once the messy part is over, you simply lift up the hollow carcass, roll the organs into a couple of newspaper sheets, and your area is once more clean. We keep an empty paper feed sack to toss these bundles in and once we are finished, Greg can easily burn everything, sack and all.
Once the cutting up is done, I move into the house to wrap the parts in butcher paper, put them into freezer bags, and we have fresh meat for future meals. Believe me, there is nothing so good as homegrown chicken without the GMO or chemicals. Butchering yourself is hard work, but well worth it in the long run.
Photos property of Leah McAllister.
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