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How to Butcher a Chicken, Part 1: Preparing Your Work Space; Killing, Scalding and Plucking Chickens

Joy has helped raise and butcher poultry for 20 years, including chickens, ducks, geese, guineas & turkeys. The journey has been delightful!

These Birds Are All Ready to Go

how-to-butcher-a-chicken-part-1-preparing-your-work-space-scalding-and-plucking-chickens

Thoughts on Equipment

Butchering a chicken takes commitment. While not a hard process, is it messy, smelly, and can be time consuming. It is best done outdoors, unless you want your house to smell like raw chicken (and everything a chicken eats).

It doesn't require a lot of special equipment, but if you have many of chickens to butcher, I recommend making some investments.

My parents and I, plus one friend part of the time, did 100 chickens over three easy days, and calculated, with the help of certain equipment and our combined experience, that each bird took a total of 10 minutes from chicken house to freezer. WIthout the special equipment, the time could easily have been doubled.

If You Just Have a Few Chickens, Here's the Equipment That Is Absolutely Necessary

If you have just a few chickens, any picnic or kitchen table, kitchen knife, clean sink, and large pot of hot water will do. If you are cutting your chickens into pieces, you'll want to have ready a baking pan or large bowl to set the pieces in, as well as something leak-proof in which to put the guts and other waste.

But if you have many chickens to butcher (more than 25), here is a peek at some equipment that will help you streamline the process:

At least 3 tubs for hauling finished chickens. Knives designed for meat cutting. Freezer bags - we needed 2 gallon-size; if your birds are small or skinny, recycled bread bags may work. Frozen bottles of water are great for rinse water.

At least 3 tubs for hauling finished chickens. Knives designed for meat cutting. Freezer bags - we needed 2 gallon-size; if your birds are small or skinny, recycled bread bags may work. Frozen bottles of water are great for rinse water.

A chicken plucker. This one is based on the Tub Style Mechanical Chicken Plucker design, sold below.

A chicken plucker. This one is based on the Tub Style Mechanical Chicken Plucker design, sold below.

The "fingers" on the plucker grab the feathers as the bird(s) spin in the tub.

The "fingers" on the plucker grab the feathers as the bird(s) spin in the tub.

If you can keep it hot enough (wind is a problem here), a turkey fryer makes a handy scalding pot.

If you can keep it hot enough (wind is a problem here), a turkey fryer makes a handy scalding pot.

Add a bit of dish detergent to the water to help the heat penetrate and the feathers release. We kept the fryer in reserve, in case we needed more hot water in a hurry, and used...

Add a bit of dish detergent to the water to help the heat penetrate and the feathers release. We kept the fryer in reserve, in case we needed more hot water in a hurry, and used...

...an "ultimate" type scalder, made from a 50-gallon drum which is wrapped in insulation and fitted with a hot-water heater element on the bottom. It takes overnight to heat, but holds heat well.

...an "ultimate" type scalder, made from a 50-gallon drum which is wrapped in insulation and fitted with a hot-water heater element on the bottom. It takes overnight to heat, but holds heat well.

Our work table, a stainless steel sheet with "lips" on 3 sides. We also had 2 garden hoses with spray nozzles.

Our work table, a stainless steel sheet with "lips" on 3 sides. We also had 2 garden hoses with spray nozzles.

Indoors in the meat room (my father processes a lot of meat), a no-touch hand-washing station is excellent. The water is controlled by a knee-press pedal. That's an automatically-heated knife scalder next to the sink.

Indoors in the meat room (my father processes a lot of meat), a no-touch hand-washing station is excellent. The water is controlled by a knee-press pedal. That's an automatically-heated knife scalder next to the sink.

3 deep stainless steel sinks are proper, and required for licensed facilities.

3 deep stainless steel sinks are proper, and required for licensed facilities.

Scrubbing Sinks and Equipment, Sharpening Knives, Freezing Water

It had been a while since the whole room had been thoroughly disinfected, so we scrubbed...

It had been a while since the whole room had been thoroughly disinfected, so we scrubbed...

...everything, including the inside of the meat cooler, which was rather sticky.

...everything, including the inside of the meat cooler, which was rather sticky.

We sharpened a selection of knives, different makes and sizes for different hands and jobs.

We sharpened a selection of knives, different makes and sizes for different hands and jobs.

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Freeze more water bottles than you think you will need, as they take a long time to re-freeze, once thawed.

Freeze more water bottles than you think you will need, as they take a long time to re-freeze, once thawed.

Preparing Your Work Space and Equipment

Have all of your outdoor equipment ready in advance. If you choose to use a scalding barrel, such as the one shown, you would be wise to begin heating it the night before you intend to process your chickens. That is a lot of water to heat!

Also, save some plastic bottles (we used 2-liter soda bottles), to freeze water in. You will want to place these in your chicken washing and rinsing water, to help keep the meat cool. Freeze them in advance, and keep them frozen until the moment you use them.

In your final finishing and packaging area (probably your kitchen), scrub everything in sight with soap and mild bleach water...meat is easily contaminated.

Sharpen all knives, have your hauling tubs rinsed and ready, and lock all interested pets away from your work areas.

As you can see in the following pictures, we had a quite professional work space to process chickens in. Adjust these instructions to fit your situation.

Step One - How to Kill a Chicken

There are, naturally, many ways to do the deed. Some are less disturbing than others.

My brother, for instance, felt a bit strange after the chicken he was trying to hatchet looked up at him with one golden eye, its head partially cloven to reveal the brain. He had missed the neck. Knowing the bird was dead did not help him to feel any less bothered.

Still, he was frantic with laughter while the same chicken somersaulted about without its (finally) missing head. I believe that is a sight everyone should see at least once.

If you are brave, you can try wringing your chickens' necks. I am not brave. I am afraid that act would leave me with the same feeling as the sound of my grandmother crushing large black beetles in her cellar.

There is another disadvantage to wringing chickens' necks. They do not always bleed out properly. This makes an impure final product. Chopping the heads off often prevents a thorough bleeding, as well, as it stops the brain and heart functioning too soon.

I will therefore show you one of the most sanitary and humane ways to do in your birds, by slitting their throats.

How to Properly Slit a Chicken's Throat

Unfortunately, Cornish Rock chickens are so heavy that their hips sometimes give out. This one's gave out the night before this photo was taken. He will be the first to go.

Unfortunately, Cornish Rock chickens are so heavy that their hips sometimes give out. This one's gave out the night before this photo was taken. He will be the first to go.

These are chicken killing cones. They hold the bird and usually prevent a lot of struggling or flapping, before or after death.

These are chicken killing cones. They hold the bird and usually prevent a lot of struggling or flapping, before or after death.

These Cornish Rock birds are easy to catch, because they are heavy and lazy. Naturally, some chickens won't be. Do your best to walk right up to one and grab its body.

These Cornish Rock birds are easy to catch, because they are heavy and lazy. Naturally, some chickens won't be. Do your best to walk right up to one and grab its body.

Transfer your hold to the legs...

Transfer your hold to the legs...

...and if needed, the neck or breast. These birds are heavy.

...and if needed, the neck or breast. These birds are heavy.

The Cornish Rock breed can be filthy, because of their lazy habits. You may want to wear gloves while catching them.

The Cornish Rock breed can be filthy, because of their lazy habits. You may want to wear gloves while catching them.

Insert the chicken head-down in the cone...

Insert the chicken head-down in the cone...

...gently pulling its head through the lower opening.

...gently pulling its head through the lower opening.

The chicken will usually become calm once enclosed by the cone.

The chicken will usually become calm once enclosed by the cone.

Insert your knife into the brain. This is supposed to stun the chicken, making the death more humane.

Insert your knife into the brain. This is supposed to stun the chicken, making the death more humane.

This photo shows just where to do this.

This photo shows just where to do this.

Quickly make one slice across the throat, without detaching the head.

Quickly make one slice across the throat, without detaching the head.

Let the bird's blood drain a few moments.

Let the bird's blood drain a few moments.

Sometimes a chicken will flop out of the cone, and finish bleeding on the ground.

Sometimes a chicken will flop out of the cone, and finish bleeding on the ground.

Even in the cones, there is some shaking and kicking (death throes), and you can see how blood-spattered things get. Wear old clothes.

Even in the cones, there is some shaking and kicking (death throes), and you can see how blood-spattered things get. Wear old clothes.

If your work station is not  near the chicken pen, use a wheelbarrow to transport the dead birds. It will get bloody.

If your work station is not near the chicken pen, use a wheelbarrow to transport the dead birds. It will get bloody.

Chicken Killing Advice From David, a Reader

Put a bleeding cup on their head to catch the blood in the killing cone so you don't have it splattered all over the place. Don't let your chickens graze where you butcher and eat the blood of your kill. slit the throat along the neck, not across, and hit the juggler for the best bleeding. open the mouth then pierce the brain behind the comb to release the feathers. Dry plucking would be so much cleaner than all that mess! It's not that hard!

If You Have No Chicken Killing Cones...

Milk Jug Chicken Killing Cones (Make Your Own)

How to Wring a Chicken's Neck

Notes On Scalding and Plucking Chickens

The next step in chicken processing is to scald the birds, so they pluck easily.

We like to do this with the water at about 150* F. This is considered hot, and will sometimes make the skins come off during mechanical plucking. Some people prefer to do their scalding at about 135* or 140* F.

The idea behind scalding is to losen the feathers, expanding and softening the openings in the skin. It is necessary for efficient plucking. Of course, you can choose to skin your birds, feathers and all, as shown in the video below, and eliminate the need for scalding. It is up to you.

A mechanical plucker is also not necessary. It is convenient, and quick. But it takes an experienced person only 2-3 minutes to hand pluck a chicken, so it is not a huge obstacle. I will show below how best to hand pluck a bird.

How to Scald and Pluck a Chicken

Now is a good time to put some of the bottles of ice in your chicken cleaning water. First run the coldest water you can.

Now is a good time to put some of the bottles of ice in your chicken cleaning water. First run the coldest water you can.

A bit of dish detergent makes the water penetrate better, and so helps the scalding and plucking. Have a thermometer clipped to the side of the scalder.

A bit of dish detergent makes the water penetrate better, and so helps the scalding and plucking. Have a thermometer clipped to the side of the scalder.

Dip each bird by the feet, clear into the hot water.

Dip each bird by the feet, clear into the hot water.

Hold under about 15 seconds (the lower the temperature, the longer - up to a couple minutes), then pluck immediately.

Hold under about 15 seconds (the lower the temperature, the longer - up to a couple minutes), then pluck immediately.

Two to three birds in the plucker is enough at a time.

Two to three birds in the plucker is enough at a time.

Rinsing the plucker while it is running is a good idea.

Rinsing the plucker while it is running is a good idea.

The wet feathers will pile up in a clinging mess.

The wet feathers will pile up in a clinging mess.

The plucker whirls the birds against the "fingers" and strips the feathers from nearly every part. Once in a while, a wing or leg gets broken.

The plucker whirls the birds against the "fingers" and strips the feathers from nearly every part. Once in a while, a wing or leg gets broken.

Burn the hair off, if desired. Yes, chickens have hair. You may use a torch, or a stove flame.

Burn the hair off, if desired. Yes, chickens have hair. You may use a torch, or a stove flame.

A blow torch makes the job easy, but any flame will work.

A blow torch makes the job easy, but any flame will work.

A blow torch makes the job easy, but any flame will work.
You will still need to squeeze out the pin-feathers, which will inevitably be missed by the plucker.

You will still need to squeeze out the pin-feathers, which will inevitably be missed by the plucker.

A partially broken, partially-skinned bird. He had a rough plucker ride. Also, the plucker rarely takes off the wing-tip and tail feathers.

A partially broken, partially-skinned bird. He had a rough plucker ride. Also, the plucker rarely takes off the wing-tip and tail feathers.

"The Chicken Washer" - the Redneck Way to Pluck a Chicken

How to Pluck a Chicken by Hand

Begin by scraping (with a bit of a scrubbing motion) with your hand down the leg.

Begin by scraping (with a bit of a scrubbing motion) with your hand down the leg.

Make another pass or two down the side and under a wing...

Make another pass or two down the side and under a wing...

...then the belly...

...then the belly...

...breast...

...breast...

and thighs...

and thighs...

...and back.

...and back.

Pull out the tail feathers, if you intend to keep the tails (we cut them off).

Pull out the tail feathers, if you intend to keep the tails (we cut them off).

Lastly, scrub and pull out the wing featherrs.

Lastly, scrub and pull out the wing featherrs.

How to Skin a Bird, Feathers and All; Also, a Gutting Method

Total Process Shown (Clean and Low-Key)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Joilene Rasmussen

Comments

Joilene Rasmussen (author) from United States on May 04, 2016:

Dove, thank you! That's good news.

Joilene Rasmussen (author) from United States on May 04, 2016:

David, your advice is good advice. Btw, I have dry plucked, and in spite of the mess, I prefer the wet plucking with this many chickens. You have done such a clear job of outlining how to be clean that I have copied your comment into the article above.

Joilene Rasmussen (author) from United States on May 04, 2016:

Evelyn, you are unlikely to see this reply, but as your comment was labeled "Spammy" and I didn't see it 'til just now, I will answer it:

To each his own.

I, too, would be upset if anyone killed my pets. Yes, I have pet poultry. This may surprise you. Some breeds of chickens (and turkeys, ducks, etc.) make good pets; others don't. Cornish Rock chickens don't usually make great pets.

I also have lots of wildlife living around me (which I don't eat), sheep, a dog, cat, and have had milk goats. I grew up with beef cattle and guinea birds, among other things, and we respected the deer, rabbits, pheasants, and other animals who shared the farm. I am not an unbalanced killer bent on destruction. I am a teacher, who wishes to show people how to be both more responsible and self-sufficient.