Processing Chickens on Our Homestead, by Ozark Redneck

Growing up, we had chickens and I dreaded butcher day. Momma would get a fire going and put a huge pot of water on for scalding the chickens to remove the feathers. Dad had two cord loops one for their feet, which I held and one for the neck, which he held while he used a hatchet & a chopping block to dispatch the bird. If you have butchered chickens this way you know where the saying “she is running ‘round like a chicken with it’s head cut off” comes from. That scene and the smell of scalding chickens in hot water is enough to turn the stomach of any 9-year-old.

Fortunately, there is a better way. Somebody invented a chicken killing cone, that I have used for many years. This device inverts the chicken. Be sure to get their feet out of the cone at the top, I have had a few chickens actually push themselves out of the cone. I grab the beak/head, stretch the neck and quickly cut the head off with a sharp knife. One could use pliers to hold the beak/head if needed. After the blood drains move the bird to your butcher table. I use a folding white one from Sam’s Club.

I have used these fish cleaning stations, basically a folding white plastic table with a sink and faucet, so your garden hose just hooks up to the sink, makes everything handy and easier, especially if you are dealing with a large volume of animals to butcher.

I set up a large 39-gallon trash can with liner under the lip of the table, and as I work I put the waste into the trash can. I use a large stainless-steel bowl and stainless steel deep serving trays to put the clean birds into. I use poultry shears like these Fiskars. They make good products.

Here is another brand of poultry shears I have used, Gerior Poultry Shears out of Sheridan, Wyoming.

I like to use a boning knife, like this one from Chicago Cutlery.

I never used to wear gloves, but in a past butchering session I cut my palm on a bone that I had cut with the shears. Now I wear a ‘no-cut’ glove like these.

So, to recap what tools I set up for a butcher session:

  • White plastic table
  • Water source, garden hose or fish cleaning station with hose attached.
  • Killing cone (I hang mine on an Oak tree near the butcher station.
  • Large trash can with liner
  • Stainless steel bowls or deep pans
  • Poultry shears
  • Boning knife
  • Gloves (either nitrile or ‘no-cut’)

Once I have all my tools and set-up is ready, I start the process.

Dispatch the bird in the killing cone. Toss the head in the trash can and move the bird to the table, after the blood has drained from the bird. Use the poultry shears to remove the wings. I remove the wings right next to the breast as there is not enough meat to mess with on the wings and I don’t want to pluck feathers. Toss the wings in the trash can. Next I remove the feet, find the joint between the feet and the chicken leg, and bend the joint backwards until it breaks, use your knife to make a clean cut, and remove the feet and toss them in the trash can.

Okay, we are now going to skin this bird. With the bird lying on its back, and its legs facing you, may a cut under it’s breastbone with your knife, going under the skin but not into the abdominal cavity. Set down the knife, and use your fingers, get under the skin and start pulling the skin with the feathers off. Work your fingers in and around the legs and pull the legs free from the skin and feathers. Work around the back and finally pull skin and feathers completely off the bird. You want to remove the crop which sits above the breast near the neck, usually you can put it off or use the knife to cut loose. The tail will have feathers on it, I use the knife or shears and cut the whole tail off and toss it in the trash. There is an oil gland on the tail that most people remove, it’s a deep yellow color, if you want to keep the tail on, remove the gland first. I usually just cut the tail and the gland off and discard it. Now the bird is completely free of skin and feathers, I give it a good washing with the water.

A note on the crop, some folks don’t feed the chickens for a day (making them go on a fast) or so before butcher day, that way the crop will be empty. When the crop is empty it can be hard to find. Find the esophagus and follow it down into the crop. There are two tubes in the chicken’s neck, the trachea (which is ribbed) and the esophagus which is softer. I personally don’t worry about it, feed the chickens as normal, and then the crop is full, easy to find and easy to pull out.

Once again, we have the bird positioned breast up, with legs and bottom facing you on the table. I use my knife and carefully cut horizontally above the upper part of the vent cutting that skin and tissue but not the innards. Use your fingers and hand to work the opening larger. Be careful of fecal matter coming out of the vent, keep your bird and the table clean with water. Now reach your hand deep inside the bird’s cavity and pull the innards out into the trash can. When you reach in, the gizzard is the largest organ so be sure it is included, pull firmly and gently down and out into the trash can. Check your innards or inside the chicken to be sure you pulled out the green gall bladder, it may be a blueish-green. That is where the bile is and you don’t want to cut it or tear it, as it will ruin your meat.

Now some folks like I mentioned have the chickens fast before butchering, and if you do, you will probably pull the crop out after the gizzard, since it was empty. Just check both ends and make sure all the innards are out. Wash the bird out with water and set aside in one of your stainless bowls. If it is a hot day, use a cooler with ice, to keep the birds cool. Once butchering is complete, I cook the birds. Since we are on the grid, I use the ‘Insta-pot’.

It is big enough for two chickens to fit into. Once completely cooked, & cooled down, I debone the meat and prepare for pressure canning. I have both the electric Nesco 9.5qt Digital Smart Canner/Pressure Canner and the regular pressure canner that goes on the stove. The electric one is easier, as you can walk away and do other work once it starts its countdown, but it is smaller and only holds 5 jars. This is a time-consuming process so allow yourself several hours to complete it.

Be sure to read the directions of your pressure canner and Ball’s Blue Book on canning for the directions on pressure canning chicken. Canning meat can be dangerous if done incorrectly. Here are the CDC’s warnings.

This is the canning process that I use:

I use a small pan to put the flats (lids) in and bring the water to a boil, then back the temperature down to low. Clean all jars you are going to use for the canning batch with warm soapy water and rinse in hot water, examine for any defects especially chips on the rim, use any damaged jars to store spices or dry food, not for canning. Heat a teakettle with water to a boil, fill all jars with boiling water and set aside. Usually I lay down a simple flour sack style kitchen towel to put the canning jars on.

Heat the meat to a boil for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature. Empty a jar of water, and pack the hot meat into the jar, leaving 1” headspace. Add ½ teaspoonful of salt per pint or 1 teaspoonful for quarts. Use boiling broth or water to fill jars to 1” headspace. Remove air bubbles (I use a wooden chopstick). Wipe rims with a paper towel, get a flat (lid) from the pan and screw down the rim snugly (I use a magnetic lid lifter to help lift the lid out of the boiling water in this step).

Process pints for one hour 15 minutes and quarts for one hour 30 minutes at 10# pressure, or what your manual’s directions say. After processing the appropriate time, remove jars and set on a towel to cool. Remove rims and check seal of lids. Rinse jars with hot water to remove any residue, label and store. It seems like canning meat always results in a residue on the jars, so be sure to clean the outsides well. Store your processed chicken in a cool dark place and enjoy your hard work later.