When I was growing up, our family spent a few weeks every summer at the dairy farm where my father had grown up. The memories made there are some of the best from my childhood. One of the fun events every summer, and event for which other family members took off of work to be at, was chicken butchering. My aunt and uncle raised about 40-50 chickens every year, and they were all butchered off every summer. We children were in on the fun, of course, and as I got older, I participated in more and more of the butchering process. The entire process was done outside of one of the machine sheds, using old tables and 3 or 4 big coolers filled with cold water.
One thing I’d like to mention at the beginning is that while we were obviously killing animals, it was NEVER done with any kind of macabre glee at being able to kill something. There was NONE of that at all. While my parents and aunts and uncles and grandma would have never thought to use the word “respect” as a description of how they treated the chickens, that’s essentially what they did. These animals were not tortured or cruelly treated, but since these chickens were raised purely for their meat, butchering them was the only way to achieve that final goal.
So, if you’re interested, here’s how to do it:
- Catch the chicken by its feet, bringing it to the chopping block hanging upside down. (I only ever observed this job done by a male member of the family, either my father or my uncle.) Whack the chicken’s head/neck on the chopping block to make it unconscious, lay its head/neck carefully on the chopping block, and use an axe to chop off it’s head. (I asked once why the chicken had to be knocked out before it’s head was chopped off. My uncle responded that it would be impossible to accurately chop off the head of an active, flapping chicken. Good point.) The headless chicken will start flapping it’s wings, but don’t be alarmed. Lay it down on tall grass, and hold it down until it stops flapping. (This job was delegated to the children of the group, like me. Part of it was kind of gross, the headless chicken flapping, spurting blood all over, but once you got into the groove, it was kinda fun. It’s a harder job than it seems, however. I remember times when it took both hands and as well as some of my body weight to hold down a big chicken!)
- Once the chicken was lying still in the grass, pick up the chicken by it’s legs, and dip it into a bucket (I believe we used 10-gallon pails) of boiling water. Dip it up and down a few times. This hot water loosens the feathers, making them easier to pluck. Once the chickens are soaked, put them immediately down on a table covered in newspapers, and start pulling feathers off of the chicken. Fun! Just know that wet feathers are sticky, so be ready for that.
- Once the feathers are plucked (and make sure to get ALL the feathers out, including the pinfeathers. It annoys me to this day to buy a whole chicken from the store and find feathers still on it. Grr.), put the chicken into cold water (usually in a cooler) to cool down.
- After the chicken has cooled (I’m not sure, but it seems like it took around 15-30 minutes), get ready for gutting the chicken. (This process I’m a little sketchier on, but I’ll say what I remember as best as I can.) First cut off the “butt” of the chicken (called the “oiler), straight across, and reach your hand up inside, and start pulling out innards. If you’re into using the entire chicken, save the liver, gizzard, and heart for eating or adding to soup stock. (I don’t remember which family members these were, but there were various family members who liked each of those parts.) Be sure to get the lungs out. I remember my mother specifically teaching me how to get the lungs out of a chicken, because it can be a little tricky. (To this day, whether it’s a whole chicken or a whole turkey, it seems like I still have to take the lungs out of half of those birds that I buy from a store.)
- Once the chicken is gutted, cut off the chicken’s legs at the knee, so that the yellow part of the leg is gone. (This was me and my cousins’ favorite part of the chicken to play with, as there’s a tendon that sticks out on the leg, and when you pull it, it makes the whole chicken claw move. So, we would chase each other around with those chicken legs, pulling on the tendons. Our parents were NOT amused. They would instruct us to “Go throw those legs into the manure pit.” Spoilsports.) This step of cutting off the legs might have ocurred before the gutting of the chicken, I’m not sure. I don’t think it matters too much, actually.
- This next step is one I only ever observed, for reasons you will soon figure out. My uncle would light a small oil fire on a metal can lid, and he would take the plucked and gutted chicken, and he would expose the surface skin of the entire chicken to that fire, in order to singe off any remaining fine hairs, hairs that were too small and fine to be plucked. (As a side note, because these chickens were so well plucked and singed, when my mother baked these chickens in the oven, she would sprinkle seasoning salt over the chicken skin, and once it was baked, that skin would be crispy and delicious. That was one of my favorite “treats” growing up — fried chicken skin. You may think it sounds gross, but it is absolutely delicious! Because these chickens were essentially “free range” chickens, they didn’t have a whole lot of excess fat on them, either, so there wasn’t a whole bunch of fat sticking to the skin. I wouldn’t dare eat the skin of chickens I buy from the store today, even the organic ones. The skin is usually not singed, and there’s always a lot more fat on them than there was on these chickens from my childhood. So sad.)
- Put the chicken back into a water-filled cooler (but not the same water as before, because now the chicken is gutted, and you don’t want it to be in the same water as an ungutted chicken). Now the chicken is ready to be cut up into pieces and frozen for later use. Of course, if you were at our family’s chicken butchering day, we always had fresh chicken soup for lunch, complete with a few livers, gizzards, and hearts thrown in for the people who liked them. In my opinion, liver is okay, gizzard is too chewy, and heart is somewhere between liver and gizzard, but not my favorite. But the fresh chicken soup was always delicious!
Congratulations! Enjoy your fresh chicken!
(It’s possible that I may have missed something. If so, please add it to the comments. Also, if you have an alternate way of doing any of these steps, please add that to the comments as well.)