On a cool, cloudy day last week, we harvested our six hens. They went from blessing us with six brown eggs a day to stocking our chest freezer with four quarts of nourishing chicken-vegetable soup and ten jars of beautiful, clear stock.
No, we don’t just keep hens as pets; yes, we use them to their full potential. This post details why and how we harvest our own birds and what works for us in a descriptive, not prescriptive way. This is not a comprehensive tutorial or chicken butchering 101, but a look at our simple cull, by request from readers and followers on Facebook and Instagram.
When I saw that this post would fall on October 31 in the editorial calendar, I thought, “What better day to share a photo essay of chicken butchering than on Halloween?” There certainly are plenty of gory posts are floating around with edible eyeballs, worms, and the like, although this is probably one of the few with actual entrails to be found.
That said, I think the images honor the chickens. And it’s not really that gross; it’s just the prequel to your classic chicken dinner. And it’s probably one of the nicer prequels, if you know what I mean: fresh air, fall leaves, scrubbed stock pots, and a bright orange apron.
Photos begin after the jump.
See our small coop? As Danny shared in our journey to backyard chickens, it is a three-season coop, and we don’t winter the chickens. The shelter is not wired for heat or light, two elements the hens would need to survive our Canadian winter. We’ve always planed to harvest our hens in the fall, before the temperature drops too much.
Danny and a friend, Duy (who’s here to learn some basic skills), catch the chickens by the legs. It doesn’t hurt them, and they are easily transported without struggle.
Danny thanks the hens for providing us with food. They’ve led a good life. They will continue to nourish us, just in a different way. We are teaching our children where meat comes from and making the connection between farm and fork.
The nitty-gritty. You can shape a holding funnel from tin or sheet metal, but Danny just cut the top off of an old traffic cone we had in the shed, nailed it to a tree and voila. This is an old farm trick that is fast and simple; the cone contains the bird until the flapping stops and the blood is drained. No chickens running around with their heads cut off on our lawn if we can avoid it – Halloween or not.
Do I need to explain more? I think not.*shudder*. Although I have done this part, I much prefer to step in just afterward.
I’ve done enough butchery in restaurants and on farms as a kid to be able to matter-of-factly take my butcher’s knife to the chickens once Danny brings them over to my outdoor ‘station’.
I’ve got a simple set up:
- a beat-up tin bucket for feathers, feet, viscera and the like
- a large cutting board
- a Mac butcher’s knife
- a large stock pot filled with cold water for cooling down the carcasses
- rubber gloves
Our hens are layers, which means they don’t have much meat on their bones since their energy has been focused on laying eggs. They are also semi-free range, and this activity toughens the meat. That’s okay; they gave us terrific eggs, it just means that they will not be suitable for roasting.
Since the hens are intended only for chicken stock and soup, I don’t need to pluck them (the tedious process of removing the feathers and pinfeathers). By skinning them, I can remove the feathers in under two minutes, leaving all the meat intact. This is what I do.
I remove the feet by cutting through the leg, just below the hock joint. I slit the skin open down the breast bone and peel it back. It requires a little loosening around the legs and back, but for the most part, it peels right off in a feathery cape, leaving a very skinny chicken indeed.
Eviscerating is next, or removal of the internal organs. This was always my job when we were growing up, and has always held a strange fascination for me. Especially those partially-formed eggs.
See what I mean by a skinny bird? Those boneless, skinless chicken breasts are only about 1/2 inch thick. Here I open the body cavity and remove the entrails, keeping the heart and gizzard for stock.
I also keep the perfectly formed eggs with their soft, papery shells that I find inside the bird. These are very nutritious and I use them for baking – opening them with scissors as there is no hard shell to crack.
Where are the children? Noah and Mateo opted out of the butchering this year, but fully understand what is going down today. They skipped out to say goodbye to the hens (and Noah shed a few tears), then settled onto the sofa with the cats for some Netflix.
While we work, Clara has her afternoon nap, and a friend hangs out in the house to keep an eye on everyone.
Six hens are harvested, then the empty coop is cleaned and stored for the winter. Danny takes care of this part, shoveling most of the nitrate-rich manure onto our compost. His boss has requested a bag for his garden, so Danny fills a sack, and plenty of jokes fly about giving the boss crap on Monday.
My work is done in under half an hour. Old school knife skills collide with modern day technology as I take time to Instagram a a few egg yolks I left in a carcass. It turns out pretty well and garners a slew of comments such as “Cool!”, “Wow!” and my favorite, “whuuuuuuut.”.
Yes, these healthy layers have dozens of eggs inside them, all in various stages of development, from tiny caviar-like clusters, to the fully formed, soft-shelled egg pictured above. If you’ve ever wondered where the egg comes from…well, now you know.
The cleaned chickens are thoroughly washed and are ready for the stock pot. Danny finishes cleaning up my outdoor station and I head for the kitchen.
On the way, I stop by the garden to gather a big bunch of Italian parsley for the stock. It feels really, really good to be raising even a smidgen of our own food.
Disclaimer: This post is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. This method works well for us, but we are not proclaiming that this is the singular best way to butcher chickens. Please check your state or province regulations on animal slaughter for human consumption. Thanks!
Thanks. To my friend Melissa for shooting the chicken harvest project and for not being squeamish. Not once.
Are you interested in chicken farming?