Homestead Poultry Butchering:
Table of Contents
If promptly chilled, freshly dressed poultry can be held up to a week in the refrigerator. If you do plan to keep it that long, though, do not keep it tightly wrapped in plastic. Instead, set it on a plate and loosely cover with wax paper or freezer paper.
I dry the carcass inside and out before freezing. To package, I have used loose plastic bags (double-bagging if the plastic is thin), freezer paper (again, double wrapping), zip-seal freezer bags, and shrink wrapping. That is the order of my preference as well (from least to most desirable). Whatever method you use, expel all the air you can. And make sure the wrapping is thick enough to prevent loss of water vapor from inside the package (through osmosis) to the drier air of the freezer. These two precautions will prevent or delay freezer burn.
When using either a loose or a zip-seal freezer bag, I use a drinking straw to suck the air from inside the package, then seal tightly with twist-ties or the zip seal. If using freezer paper, I wrap as tightly as I can.
The best package for long-term freezing is shrink wrapped. In the past few years, home vacuum heat sealers have become widely available where kitchen appliances are sold. They come with a range of features and prices, but need not be expensive. I have used one for several years now—the resulting packages keep better and longer than those I produce using any other method.
The greatest limit with a home vacuum sealer is size. The manufacturers seem not to have anticipated that the homesteader might want to shrink-wrap an entire goose, a roasting chicken, or a turkey. For those, use one of the other methods.
Cut or leave whole?
Our usual practice is to freeze almost all our dressed poultry whole, then cut as desired after thawing. It may be that the meat keeps better in larger pieces. What is certain is that—if you cut before freezing—you create pointed ends of sheared bone which can puncture wrapping. When freezing cut pieces with exposed points of bone, I take care to tuck the jagged points inside other cuts with a smooth exterior. It is occasionally necessary to fold a piece of freezer paper several thicknesses to pad an exposed point.
A major exception to the leave-whole preference is the processing of duck carcasses. Many cooks have discovered how difficult it is to cook a whole duck satisfactorily: Either the breast overcooks while waiting for the legs and thighs to cook through; or the breast is au point, while the legs and thighs are under-done. Our solution is to cut up the carcass, and use the parts in separate preparations.
I use my thin, short blade to fillet the breast off the breast bone in two portions. I use my heavier, stiffer blade to cut off the wings, thighs, and legs. The remaining bony back is saved for the stock pot. The breast fillets are reserved for meals for the lord and lady of the manor (that’s us!) and are cooked like small steaks. For us, that most often means pan-grilling “hot and quick” in the fat that renders from the skin as grilling begins. Duck breast is best served rare. The “bits and pieces” (wings, legs, and thighs) are passed on to the peasants (that’s us, too!), and are usually braised, with onions and red cabbage, sometimes with apple as well. After such a meal, we sigh with satisfaction and muse, “Hmmmm, wonder what the rich folks are eating tonight!”
Processing “The Goodies”
Feet (you did save the feet, right?), heads, necks, and the skins from around the neck can be saved for the stock pot. Dry thoroughly and freeze in appropriate size packages.
If you cut up a carcass, the bonier parts such as the back can also be reserved for the stock pot. In addition, we always freeze the bony carcasses from roasted fowl until ready to make stock.
You don’t like liver? Forget that! This is your chance to appreciate real livers, not the pale yellow-brown, tired looking livers your mother may have bought at the supermarket. Livers from your poultry are more likely to be dark red, plump, and glistening—signs of healthy livers. Saute some onions, then saute fresh livers “hot and quick” in the same pan, deglazing the pan with a little wine or sherry. Do not cook beyond “rare.” Delicious! (Freeze extra livers in small packets for later use.)
The hearts and gizzards can also be sauteed and added to soups, sauces, or stir-fries. (Or they can be added to the stock parts.)
Processing the gizzard is complicated by its structure. It is a mass of lean muscle around an inner pouch with a tough lining, containing bits of stone the bird uses to grind its feed. You can cut through the muscle to reveal the outer surface of the pouch, then peel the muscle back with your fingers, leaving a butterfly-shaped cleaned gizzard. It can be tricky peeling off the muscle without splitting open the pouch. Sometimes it helps to chill the gizzards a little before peeling them.
Another option is to brace the gizzard against a cutting board, and slice off bite-size pieces, keeping the blade’s edge away from the interior pouch and leaving it intact.
Remember Your Pets
Actually, at our house, all the necks, hearts, and gizzards are reserved for our dog Nyssa. Before dogs started eating that dry crunchy stuff they ate raw meat, right? And bones. So we decided several years ago that Nyssa could only benefit from raw meat and bone as a substantial part of her daily diet. I cut the hearts, gizzards, and lungs, and freeze in mini-packets. I also freeze the necks, wrapped individually in plastic wrap. Each day Nyssa gets one or the other, thawed to room temperature. She loves them!
Yes, I know you’ve been cautioned never to feed chicken bones to dogs. That’s excellent advice, with reference to long bones (thigh bones, drumstick bones), cooked bones, and bones from commercial chicken generally (which are poorly mineralized, softer than homestead chicken bones, and apt to break into long dangerous splinters). Raw chunky neck bones have never been the slightest problem for Nyssa. Chewing them helps keep her teeth clean and healthy; and they are unmatched for promoting good bowel function.
We used to offer our cat the same raw tidbits, but she didn’t seem much interested. She was a good hunter who regularly ate her kills, so I suppose she considered our offerings a poor second best. I’ve read, however, of cats who relished such raw tidbits.
You will end your slaughter day with a pile of wet feathers and a bucket or two of entrails. I throw the feathers onto the deep litter in the poultry house. The birds will eat some of them (feathers are almost pure protein), while the rest get buried in the litter, where they quickly break down.
The entrails can be composted or buried. If you compost, take care to build a pile which heats up rapidly and does not become an attractant to dogs and other curiosity seekers.
I have at times placed the entrails out in the edge of our woods, as an offering to friends—Fox, Raccoon, Possum—who live in the neighborhood and who need to eat as well. It's my way of honoring our kinship, and saying “Thank you” that we are able to coexist peacefully while my flocks stay (mostly) intact.
Another option I’ve been using the past couple of years is processing the entrails in the maggot breeding buckets to generate high-protein live food for the chooks.[Addendum September 2007: I had a few deaths of birds in my flock this season which seemed consistent with the botulism poisoning the oldtimers called “limberneck”, after I cycled some slaughter offal through the maggot buckets. It is possible that enough feed remained in some gizzards discarded by a friend working at the slaughter table with me to give rise to the sort of “soured mash” medium for botulism I referred to in the maggot breeding article. At this time I am avoiding the use of offal from the slaughter table in the breeding buckets. However, I have seen no evidence whatever that the use of beaver carcasses and other such carrion has presented the slightest disease problem for the birds when used for breeding fly larvae.]