backyard butchering workshop
Friday night while Brett and I were finishing up work on the barn, I scrambled around chasing chickens in the yard. A triumphant moment later I walked over to him with a Cornish Rock in each hand, suspended by the legs. I held them up in the air at my eye level. "Which of these, you think? Both?" He gestured to the fatter, white bird on the right. I agreed, and set the left-handed bird free to scuttle off for bugs. He would need some more time to fatten up, back to his happy job of eating and chasing crickets in the grass. But the chosen bird… for him it was Solitary Confinement.
All chickens destined for the roasting pan have a 24-hour fast prior to their demise. The workshop bird went into a comfortable wire cage with fresh bedding and water. He was safe from sunlight and stress in the shelter of the coop. While he threw back water I came to terms with the fact that the next day I would be showing eight people how to kill and eviscerate him. This is a new thing for me.
I have now been raising chickens for half a decade, and eating my own meat birds for two seasons. I feel very confident about my reasons and my skills, and was excited to do the slow-motion magic trick of turning a live chicken into a perfect roasting bird just like you’d see at the grocery store. That moment when the headless bird goes from wet feathers to drumsticks and wings: people start to put together the "TA DA" notion that chicken the product is also chicken the animal. It sounds weird to have admit that understanding sets in, but it does. Even for me, who lived on a farm in three states — raised laying hens for years before I ever ate my own birds—to me this realization did not engrave into my cranium until that first squawking rooster turned into a perfect grocery-display ingredient. The process still surprises me.
I’m ridiculously careful now about bacteria, and my precautions are almost laughable (like always wearing rubber gloves, and Clorox wipes on doorknobs after I walk through a room I handled raw chicken in….), and between my Chicken Safety OCD and my trusty Dexter boning knife: I was looking forward to a full day spent with new friends. For the rare occasion my farm would be full of folks who understand why I do all this, and who want to learn how to do it too. It's a whole afternoon of conversation I can doggie-paddle in till I'm drunk on it: composting, fence testers, raised beds, pea varieties, chicken breeds, and wool carders come up as often as the Red Sox do in the office. For me, it's revelry.
By 10AM folks from Maryland, Connecticut, New York, and Maine were in the kitchen enjoying farm quiche, coffee, and friendly introductions. People who were just jpg avatars and comment names became faces and hugs. After everyone said their hellos I explained the certainty of electric fences and the dangers of letting a Siberian Husky outside, then we were ready to start.
We started near the brooder. (A proper beginning station if there ever was one.) Everyone’s chicks were waiting for them. As part of the workshop, every person who signed up got five meat birds (25 eventual pounds of healthy chicken meat!) for coming to learn the dirty work. We talked in detail about brooder care, heat lamp safety, supplements and signs of illness. Everyone got to pick up a chick and get a feel for the animals. Those tiny yellow fluffballs will be white giants in just 8 weeks, ready to meet their makers as well. You know, It still amazes me how efficient and cost-effective raising your own backyard meat birds is. I ordered those chicks for $2.50 a piece and with two dollars of feed each, time, and a little messy effort you can be the farmer, chef, and quality control officer all in one. I’m not sure you save tons of money, but you save some, and you get both the skills and understanding of the task. You get to realize that what’s chomping in your maw was the intentional work of your own hands. I won't set a price on that.
Throughout the workshop side conversations and stories were shared, everything was casual since all of us felt comfortable. Mike and Rachel from Maryland just seemed happy to be around people who didn’t think they were crazy for raising their own food, and Bridget explained her coop plans to them while Angela asked questions about the different classifications of harvested chicken (i.e. Cornish hen, fryer, roaster, etc). The whole mood was interested and kind. I was really happy with the group. These people were ready to get their hands dirty. More than one recipe was swapped.
After a lunch break of pulled pork, salad greens, and leftover quiche we headed outside for the big event. I had already put the big canning pot on the stove to hit the magic number (145 degrees) and prepared a folding table with the knives, sanitizer, a plastic sheet, and other tools. Soon as all was ready I headed to the coop for our bird.
I brought the chicken out by the legs (inversion calms them) and showed the workshoppers how I bind the feet. It's a large loop of baling twine cinched around both feet and then tightened off so no amount of thrashing can set him loose. Soon the bird was hanging from the tree branch (Thanks to Connecticut Mike, who so kindly broke it for my new backyard abattoir).
Using my trusty hedge clippers, the chicken’s head was quickly removed and the animal thrashed as it bled out. I use the hedge clippers because it is a foolproof and fast method. One quick snap and his neck was instantly broken and main artery sliced. Another quick snip and the head was gone. It took possibly 5 seconds and the only person to get bloody was me, being the closest in proximity and even then, only a few splattered drops. No one screamed or looked horrified. Diane commented on how un-bloody the whole event was. She was expecting a horror show and all she got was some wing action. This is good. The act of taking a life, chicken, rabbit, pig, or cow should not be gratuitous if done quickly and humanely.
We waited a few minutes and a few of the men headed inside to grab the large pot of heated water. I untied the bird from the tree branch and then dunked him into the 145-degree tank for one minute, holding him down from floating (I guess he wasn't a witch) with a stick. This is the perfect combination of temperature and time. When the wet chicken was removed by his glowing-yellow feet he was already shedding feathers. With gloved hands I started removing the breast feathers first, and they came off easily. Within a few moments he was nearly naked, starting to look like those rubber chickens from 1960's gag shops. Most onlookers were happily surprised at how fast this whole business was going. From beheading to near-featherless was just about 5 minutes.
We walked over to the table where I could get a bucket of colder water for cleaning the bird. I use a 5-gallon bucket of cold well water refilled every time it gets too red or dirty. It's easier to do a clean job of final feather removal, and keeps the meat and skin pristine. By this point rigor mortis has set in, but it will relax after a few hours in the fridge or at defrosting.
When the bird was plucked, it was time to show how to remove the feet. Showing them the perfect point in the joint in which to cut, I used the boning knife to easily snap them off. I also cut off any part of the neck left with clots or mess. What is left is almost pretty in that cookbook way. But the next task wasn't as pretty...
After removing the gland right above the chickens bum (untasty as all get out), it was time to remove the entrails. Next I removed the anus and any leftover feces, which was minimal, and washed the whole bird again carefully in the cold, fresh water. To do this right, it takes almost half an hour a bird without a plucking machine. Factory chickens come out about 6,000 an hour and several bleach and chlorine baths. I have no interest in eating bleach or pool supplies anymore.
I showed them how to cut the bird low, under the breast bone, and shallow enough to not puncture anything inside. This is your biggest safety concern. You do not want anything inside those intestines or gall bladder getting into yours. Trust me on this. There's a reason I Clorox doorknobs, folks.
When the rear of the chicken was opened, I did the big trick. You reach all the way into the cavity and using the eyeballs on your fingertips, remove the organs from the spine and pull out the guts in one big pile. Slow and steady, you don't want that magical green sack in there to burst. We looked through the gut pile, seeing the green grass still in the bird's crop. It must have been some of the hay it was resting on. It looked as fresh as it must have been before it was cut last summer on Nelson's farm.
When this final work was done, the bird was cleaned again, the cavity flushed with water, and then held up. A modest applause. I brought it inside to rest in ice water in my steel kitchen sink. While it chilled we sat on the grass chatting, laughing. It was as if we all just put in a fence or mucked the barn. It was as it should be.
The last step was sharing how I prepare the birds for the freezer. Once out of the water, it was towel dried with a clean, cotton, kitchen towel and then covered in a generous layer of plastic wrap. Once it was coated, I wrap the bird in freezer paper and secure it with freezer tape, and then place the whole thing in a Freezer gallon bag. It should hold in there for 6 months in this sarcophagus.
And that, dear readers, is how you get the job done.
If you think you want to give this a try at home, I found this great online tutorial!
The afternoon was mostly conversations and folks leaving with their little Jumbo Cornish Chicks in cardboard boxes. I was proud of them all, for coming, for supporting the farm, and for literally taking the plunge with me. I'd like to say we ended the day with a calm shaking of hands and thank yous, but instead Brett, Mike, and I raced around like idiots trying to catch ram lamb number nine so Brett could load the firecracker into the back of his Tacoma. It was his fair payment for the door he built, and his shoring up the barn with posts and beams. He was excited to have him, but I don't think he realized how hard it would be to collect.... Catch a 3-month-old ram lamb is like trying to catch a marble with chopsticks in a flushing toilet. We darted and dashed like idiots. Diane, a seasoned hand at this place, laughed kindly with Mike, who was not wearing lamb-scooping footwear. "You should wear your boots if you come here. You never know what you'll get suckered into..." Damn right!
Teamwork paid off and we caught the sucker. I carried him down to the gate and handed him over to Brett. We loaded him into the truck's wooden crate, gave him some Safeguard to deworm him, and set him up with a bed of hay and a bucket of water. We thought all was well until he nearly jumped five feet in the air and escaped it. Brett nailed a plywood cover to the top. It would be a hard situation to explain on the Northway if a copy pulled him over for a ram escape.
The night ended with hotdogs on the grill, a campfire, fiddle and banjo music, and smores. Not a bad day, folks. Not bad at all.
And just wait till you hear what we have planned for the fall Backyard Farming Workshop. Here's a hint: Jasper is going to be helping Brett log some farm timber!
photo from efowl.com.
And folks, don't freak out, everyone agreed to the waiver.