How to process poultry

In a bid to A) learn more about where my food comes from and B) determine whether or not I’ll have the guts to kill, process, and eat ducks that we’re going to be getting; I signed up for a poultry processing class.  A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned to me that she was going to “winter classes,” which are the WSU Extension’s “Country Living Expo and Cattlemen’s Winter School”.  They took place at a rural highschool about 45 minutes from our house.  I signed up for a few classes, but I was really there for the poultry processing class.  I love eating duck, and I’d love to have duck that I know has had a good life, healthy food, and great living conditions, in addition to a minimally traumatic and respectful death.  The problem is, I wasn’t sure whether or not I had it in me to handle the process, or whether it would just be to grisly for me.  This class seemed to be the answer to my questions.  If you are squeamish at all, please, don’t read much further.  I don’t generally put a page break in my posts to reduce the amount of clicking necessary, but I’ll put it in this one for readers who don’t want to see what goes into meat production. 

When we arrived, they had a little pen with llamas and alpacas.  They were ridiculously cute.

me and a llama

We headed into sign-in, where we got a nametag with our class schedule, a swag bag, an info booklet with a map of the school, and other various bits of literature.  Sign-in was also where they were holding a “trade show,” which was essentially just people trying to sell yarn, quilts, and veterinary services.    I did buy a bottle of locally produced and raw fireweed honey.  It looks delicious, but I haven’t opened it up yet.

trade show

Following the sign-in, and coffee/pastry breakfast they had, we headed off to our first classes.  My first class was “Smoking Fish.”  I had high hopes for the class, but they fell flat.  It was taught by a guy and his daughter.  The gist of the 1 hour class was “I catch the fish, then use my special curing recipe (2 parts brown sugar, 1 part salt… that’s it), and then hand it off to my daughter, who smokes it in this electric smoker that we have.”  That was it.  They had no experience with using anything other than that particular brand of electric smoker, no info on using something like a kettle grill to smoke, vague suggestions about how to cold smoke, but no concrete information or photos of how to construct a cold smoking setup.  It was a waste of time. I didn’t learn anything at the class that I didn’t already know from random hearsay and references online.  Whatever.  I was really mostly there for the poultry processing class.

I wasn’t sure whether they’d have animals that were alive or dead.  I was kind of hoping that we wouldn’t have to kill the animals, but then I was kind of hoping that we would.  Not that I was looking forward to killing anything, but really, how do you know whether or not slaughtering a bird is something you think you can do, without actually doing it or seeing it done?  Anyway, I was the first person to make it to the greenhouse where the class was taking place.  Outside, they had a scalder and a plucker set up.

And inside the greenhouse, they had the menu: 4 chickens, 3 ducks.

I had a mini panic attack at this point, but overall, I am glad that we had to kill the birds. They were going to die either way, and seeing how it’s done with someone who knows how to do it was significantly more helpful than watching some youtube videos and having a meltdown when we are processing our own flock.

Here are the chickens in the cones.  It’s a pretty simple process.  You get a very sharp knife (she had a razor knife that we used) hold onto the beak and back of the head (if it’s a chicken), or just both sides of the beak (if it’s a duck), feel where the skull is, and cut between the feathers downward into the carotid artery and jugular.  You take (if you’re doing it right) one firm and decisive slice on each side of the neck. Using a sharp knife greatly lessens the pain involved in this.  Having cut myself with a dull knife and a very sharp knife, I can attest to the difference.  Oftentimes, you don’t even feel a wound made by a sharp knife until several seconds later when you begin bleeding. The bird quickly goes unconscious and proceeds to bleed out.  Ducks take longer to bleed out than chickens(they’re also bigger), and you have to be sure to hold their head down as they have a tendency to bend a little bit and not drain properly.  Right before the animal fully dies, the nervous system tries to keep the heart pumping.  In birds, it tries to get the wings flapping to pump the heart, so right before they die for good, there is a little commotion as the wings try to flap while the bird is in the cone.  You want to continue holding their head during this step, otherwise they’ll splatter blood on you.

slaughtering a duck
slaughtering a duck
slaughtering a duck

After the bird has bled out, you move onto the next step, which is scalding it to loosen the feathers. This happens in a pot of 145 degree water that’s had a little dish soap squirted into it, to help break down the oils in the feathers so that the water gets to the skin of the bird and does its magic.  You dip the bird into the water and swirl it around for several seconds, then check the feathers to see if they come out easily.  If not, dip again.  If you dip it too much, the skin will begin to cook and will come off during the plucking process, not a good look.

scalding a chicken before plucking
scalding a duck before plucking

Following the scalding process, you pluck.  We had the luxury of a plucking machine, which was pretty awesome.  It’s basically a washing machine tub, with a domed agitator that spins.  There are little rubber fingers sticking off of every surface, and when the agitator gets going, the feathers stick to the rubber fingers more than they stick to the bird.  There is also a hose that squirts fresh water onto the birds while they’re spinning to help rinse the soapy water off.  Unfortunately, we were experiencing temperature control issues with the scalder, and the water got too hot, making it so the ducks couldn’t stay in the water long enough to loosen the feathers sufficiently before the skin began cooking.  The temp was closer to correct for the chickens, so we were able to get most of the chicken feathers off in the plucker, and got some of the duck ones off, then had to hand pluck the remainder.

scalded duck in a plucker
pulling chickens out of a plucker
plucking a duck

Once the feathers were removed, the birds were essentially just meat.  We needed to gut them, but at that point, they quickly began looking like something you’d see at the grocery store.  The first part of the process was to remove the head and feet.  The instructor (who sells chickens) uses a pair of pruning shears.  Actually, she uses the exact pair of pruning shears that I have.

Removing a chicken's feet

After the head and feet have been removed, you slice open the skin of the neck, and use the pruning shears to clip the neck down as far as you can cut it, and set it aside (you usually get a neck tucked back inside the chicken cavity when you buy a whole chicken at the store).  If the birds have been fasted for 24 hours before slaughter, which the instructor recommends, the bird will not have anything in it’s “food sack,” however, someone else brought the chickens and they had been eating, so the food sack had to be removed from the neck end.  You basically work it loose from the surrounding tissue, and pull.  Then you’re done on the neck side, and are ready to go in from the bottom.  We were shown where to cut the chicken open, down the middle, then circle the vent (without cutting into anything important!).

where to cut a chicken open

Then, you basically work your hand inside, and grab onto the hard ball, get a good grip, and pull it out.  The hard ball is the gizzard (which btw – is full of gravel.  Very strange).

eviscerating a chicken

A couple of the hens were laying hens.  We got fully shelled eggs out of them when we cut them open, and then were able to see the progression of yolks developing.  If you look inside the chicken, all of the little yellow balls are developing yolks.

undeveloped yolks
yolks developing inside a chicken

And that’s pretty much it.  You see the hot pink things inside the bird above?  Those are the lungs.  Apparently they’re left in.  Keep an eye out for those next time you buy a chicken at the store!  You just rinse the bird out, and get it into a 3% salt solution icewater bath to chill.

chilling recently slaughtered chickens and ducks

My personal experience of this was not quite what I expected.  I expected to be a lot more upset by the actual killing process of the birds.  It was far less traumatic than I expected.  Once the chickens are upside down for a few seconds, they get very calm with the head rush and just relax.  The throat cutting was minimally violent and they bled out faster and I imagined they would.  That said, I think that I would have trouble cutting the throat on an animal that I had raised.  If I could get a friend to do that, I feel confident in doing the rest of it.  The plucking wasn’t bad, and I was unsure how yucky the eviscerating process would be, it wasn’t any yuckier than breaking down a raw chicken from the store.  Surprisingly, I feel better about the idea of growing our own animals for food that have had a good life and a fairly calm and respectful death than I expected to.  I’m still processing the experience a little, and don’t expect to have meat birds this year, but maybe next year if I’m feeling adventurous.

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