Processing Your Chickens at Home
This informative article is far from glamourous, but let’s be honest, raising chickens isn’t for the faint of heart. One of the main purposes of raising chickens is butchering them to eat. Who doesn’t love some good fried chicken? You can butcher any chicken, but generally people who raise chickens for only their meat have raised quite a few to fill the freezer. You have the option to take all your chickens to your local butcher, but that might be a bit expensive. The other option you have is to gather your family and friends and have a butchering party at your home. We’d like to help you understand the entire butchering process before you jump in headfirst.
There are five main steps to processing your birds,
- Removing the blood
- Removing the feathers
- Removing the organs
- Chilling the carcasses
- Preparing your meat for storage
Before you begin any of the above steps, you will want to remove your flock’s feed no less than 4 hours prior to processing. Removing their feed will help empty the intestine and reduce the risk of having any of the contents spilled in your bird during processing. You will also want to remove their water about an hour before processing for the same reason as above.
Step 1: Removing the blood.
If you want to complete this step as they did in the olden days, you better sharpen your axe! With the new ways of processing chickens, it is not necessary to remove the head. Simply restrain your chicken so it can’t flop around and nick the carotid artery by cutting the neck just behind their ear. After the artery is cut, hang the bird upside down and its heart will do the work and pump the blood from its body. You want to remove the blood, otherwise the meat will be left with a metallic or iron taste.
Step 2: Removing the feathers.
This step of processing your chickens is the most time consuming. To help make this step a bit easier, you will first need to scald your bird. Scalding in hot water between 125ºF and 130ºF loosens the feathers making plucking them easier. Using a large pot of boiling water, submerge your bird including its feet for 1.5 to 2 minutes.
After removing your bird from the pot, push the feathers in the opposite direction from which they normally lay. This will loosen and remove the feathers. If you’ve never done this process by hand, let us help you by suggesting a mechanical feather plucker! Removing the colored feathers will be easier than white due to the white blending in with the carcass.
Step 3: Removing the organs.
You can skip this step, leaving all the organs, head and feet attached. That kind of processing is called a “New York” dressed chicken, which is commonly found in Asian markets. Most of the U.S. prefers to remove all organs and have it cleanly dressed.
First, you will want to carefully cut the skin in a circle around the vent using the side of a sharp knife. Using the point of the knife at this step increases the risk of nicking the intestines and spilling intestinal contents all over the inside and outside of the bird. If you should accidentally break or nick the intestines, then you will need to clean the bird so that no feces are visible before the carcass goes into the chiller. You will also need to clean the workspace and knives.
Once the vent has been released from the rest of the skin, then widen the opening with your fingers. Turn the bird around and work on the head end of the bird. Remove the head using a pair of sharp chicken shears. Run the knife up through the skin along the back of the neck to avoid hitting the esophagus and larynx. Pull back the skin and locate the esophagus. It is the soft tube along the front of the neck, whereas the hard tube is the larynx. Grab the esophagus and work it loose from all the surrounding tissues. Then work toward the crop and carefully loosen it from the skin and all surrounding tissues.
Honestly, this is the hardest part—most people don't realize how strongly the crop is attached to the other tissues. Work carefully but use a firm touch. Reach into the neck cavity and loosen all the tissues inside so that the crop will be pulled smoothly into the body cavity when you pull on the intestines from the vent. Once loosened, you will be pulling from the vent. The crop and esophagus, as well as all other attached organs, need to slide out with almost no resistance. Remove the larynx and lungs as well as the reproductive organs. The lungs are bright pink and are wedged in between the ribs. Use your fingers to gently remove and discard them.
Flip the bird back to the vent end and reach inside along the breast plate to grasp the heart. Pull out the intestines and separate the liver. Make sure that you do not nick or break open the gall bladder which is the small green sack attached to the liver. The bile within the gall bladder will stain your hands, your clothing, the carcass, as well as your work surface. You can also cut the gizzard out of the intestines. The heart, liver and gizzard are all considered giblets, which you can keep to cook and eat. Discard the remaining sections of the intestine.
Using the poultry shears, cut the neck off the carcass as close to the shoulders of the bird as possible. Keep it for use in soup stock. Cut the top part of the heart off where the veins and arteries enter and exit. Squeeze out any blood that may have coagulated within the heart. Cut open the gizzard and wash out any remaining feed or other contests. You will notice a thick leathery yellow lining which is called koilin. This will need to be peeled free from the rest of the gizzard and discarded. Wash the gizzard thoroughly. Remove and discard any excess ducts as well as the gall bladder from the liver. Save all your giblets and the neck separately in a small plastic bag or other container as they are great for adding to soup stock or gravy.
Flip the carcass onto the breast and look at the tail of the bird. The preen gland will need to be removed or it can impart a strong flavor to the carcass. At the head end of the gland, use a knife to cut straight down the bone and then scoop the gland out by sweeping the blade back toward the tail. Discard the preen gland. Remove the feet (otherwise known as paws), at the hock joint, which is the joint where the skin and scales meet. These can also be used to make soup stock if there are no lesions caused by ammonia anywhere on the foot pad or toes. Wing tips can also be used in soup stock.
Step 4: Chilling the carcass.
Thoroughly wash both the inside and outside of the carcass with clean water. You shouldn’t see any fecal material at all after washing. Chilling your carcass in a chill bath helps ensure you have tender meat. Without proper chilling, your chicken will be tough after it is cooked. Prepare an ice water bath using a bucket, bin, or any container large enough for the chickens you have processed. Your carcasses will need to remain in the ice water bath for around 4 hours. During this time, you will need to continue adding ice to your water to make sure the water stays around 40º.
Step 5: Preparing your meat for storage.
After you’ve chilled all your carcasses, you can either place them in the freezer whole until you are ready to eat them or cut them into pieces and freeze them. If you’ve processed a large amount of chickens, preparing some both ways would be helpful for different meals you might want to prepare. Using high quality freezer bags or vacuum bags will help keep your meat from becoming freezer burnt over time. We have a wide variety of processing supplies available to help you as you become a professional chicken processor!