Processing poultry: a step-by-step guide

Author: Tim McAuliffe

There are a multitude of ways to dispatch a bird.  But they all usually revolve around some sort of quick kill, bleeding them out, plucking and gutting.  I’ve read about methods that use a metal rod, an ax, cutting the nerve under the throat, etc.  I prefer the following, but no one way is right or wrong:

  1. I’m a fan of the “mise en place” mentality…set up ahead of time to save headaches later.
    • I put on some old clothes that I don’t mind getting bloody; Johanna sometimes puts on an apron.
    • I make sure to sharpen my knives every time – I can’t stress how important this is. I also keep a hand-held sharpener on hand, or at least a honing rod, which makes a huge difference.  I prefer to use a small 4-6 inch curved blade and a large heavy cleaver.
    • I usually find a good shady spot under a tree where I set up a large bucket, a chopping block (usually a wooden stump), a butcher block, a hose, and a hot pot filled with 160F water.
  2. I hang the bird in upside down in a killing cone with the wings pressed along the back. Chickens will literally almost fall asleep in this position while larger birds may not. When they’re rather calm, I slip an old sock over their head and eyes (children’s socks work best). I do this to keep them from flinching at the last second.  (Recently someone who worked at one of these massive kill factories as a younger man was busting my balls and asked me if I also gave them a massage. I guess if you’re used to killing a thousand birds a day you might have a different point of view. Again, that’s another conversation)
  3. I slowly take the cone down after about 5 minutes and lay the calm chicken and cone on the stump; the head slightly hanging off the side. I have a large antique cleaver (thanks, Christo) that has some serious weight to it; I keep incredibly sharp for this task.  One quick chop and it’s done.  The only thing left connected is the feathers, if anything.
  4. I hold the whole cone above the bucket and let the blood drain out. Heads up to anyone who doesn’t know this – birds can continue moving for up to 5 minutes even with the head cut off. Trust me, they’re dead. (Although Johanna will religiously ask me “Do you think it’s dead?” every time.)
  5. I make sure the head is completely off with a final chop (if necessary) and then while holding the legs, I submerge into a large pot of 160F water for about 20-30 seconds to loosen the feathers. (I highly suggest getting some BBQ gloves that can handle the heat) You can tell if it’s enough by swiping your finger on the bird – the feathers should come out easily.  With water fowl, it helps if you add a little dishwashing liquid to the water to break through oils in the feathers and allow the hot water to reach the skin.
  6. Plucking chickens is easy. Turkeys are a little more work.  Ducks and Geese SUCK!  Without one of those plucking machines that spin with the rubber fingers, you’ll be plucking for a loooong time (a reason to consider sending your birds to someone else for processing). Re-submerging in the hot water also helps, but be careful not to actually cook the bird in the process.
  7. Once the feathers are gone, I cut through the skin on the throat and then through the trachea and esophagus, which look like little straws. I turn it around, and carefully pick up the skin above the vent and slice open the abdomen. Just reach in (yeah, it’s warm and slimy in there) and pull out the guts. I like to grab the large gizzard and pull on that; usually everything comes out with it. Be careful not to rupture the gallbladder, which is a little green sac attached the liver. If you see any green liquid, get those guts out as fast as possible and rinse out the inside – a broken gallbladder can taint the meat if left in for too long.  Scrape out the lungs or anything attached to the inside. Finally, I cut off the feet and the gland on the top of the tail.  The feet are easy, just hold the foot and cut through the knee tendons.  I final rinse with the hose and we’re done.

I usually keep the liver to make pate, the extra fat to render for schmaltz, and the heart (roasting a heart on a stick over an open fire with a little salt and cumin is insanely tasty). I know people keep the gizzard, feet, lungs, etc. for all sorts of culinary preferences; we typically compost them with the guts and blood.  Everything else we hose down and wash thoroughly.

This process sounds like a lot of work, and at times it can feel like it.  Doing it in the summer is not my favorite – it’s amazing how wasps are attracted to the smell of blood like little yellow air sharks. It drives me nuts to have them buzzing around while trying to butcher birds.  Doing it in the colder months, especially with the long process of water fowl, can make your fingers ache to the bone.  In the end you may look like you’ve been tarred and feathered.  But I guess if you’re like us and aren’t happy with the supermarket factory birds, it’s worth it in the end.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. commonlifer says:

    Thanks for the post Tim its has helped clarify the process i think ill need to look up some info on the anatomy of chickens for the cleaning of the innards. I have 2 questions if you don’t mind how often do u process your birds? and how do you keep the water hot in the dipping pot?
    p.s Its nice to see you have uses for other parts of the bird not just the meet


    1. jbumke says:

      We process them twice a year. The broiler chickens and ducks only take about 7 weeks to raise and are ready to be slaughtered in early summer. The turkeys and geese take 20 weeks to reach maturity and so the second culling takes place in autumn. Sporadically, we need to process a bird that got attacked by a predator or is not fitting in with the rest of the flock.
      The water in the pot actually stays warm for a long time. When we notice that the feathers aren’t coming off easily anymore, it’s time to put the pot back on the stove (about every fifth bird).

      Liked by 1 person

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