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Field Dressing Poultry: A Beginner's Perspective

On a pleasant breezy day in November, homesteader Dan Settles invited me and a few others to his home to learn how to process chickens and ducks.  This experience started with catching the live animal and ended with dinner.  WARNING: The subject matter of this article may be disturbing to some as we will be discussing in graphic detail the processing of meat products from a living animal.  If this bothers you, please hit the "Back" button on your browser before proceeding any further.

Dan had a number of chickens and ducks on his homestead, but the chickens processed that day were roosters belonging to one of the other visitors that came by.   Dan's chickens were safe for the time being, but for his ducks that was another story altogether.

We started with the chickens, which I am happy about because they were much easier to work with in my opinion than the ducks.  I went into this worried about getting sick, about killing a living thing, and about the unknown in general.   But I was determined to give this a try and see it through.  To my pleasant surprise, all aspects of this operation were easier than I had imagined.  The roosters were perfect gentlemen, and gave us no trouble whatsoever.  Simply hanging a rooster upside-down by its feet seems to be all it takes to lull them into a near hypnotic state.  After holding them in this fashion until they had reached a complete calm, they were ready for hanging up.

Find a place outside, preferably over the soil, where you won't mind getting lots of blood and feathers on the ground.  We took advantage of an arched garden trellis that was just the perfect height to hang the birds from.  For this step, you will need one length of twine and one short stick.  We tied one end of the twine up to the trellis, and the other end to a three inch long twig.  Holding the bird upside-down, wrap the twine around his legs a few times.  Then push the twig through the legs and out the other side.  When the twig pops out underneath of the wrapped twine, it anchors the bird in place.  Double check your wrap that it will hold before releasing the bird.

Dan showed me a neat trick where you can fold the wings behind the bird in such a way that the wings interlock at the second joint, and the bird doesn't flap around as much this way after it is slaughtered.  Give it a try if you can pull it off without hurting the bird.

This part amazed me.  The chicken was hanging there, waiting to be slaughtered, and was perfectly still.  The chicken will not do anything to make you feel guilty when you do what must be done.

Tip: Use a very sharp, non-serrated knife.

Slaughtering the bird is the toughest part for some people, from a moral perspective, and also because this may be the messiest part of the operation if blood bothers you.  You have two objectives here: kill the bird quickly and humanely, and make a cut well enough to allow the bird to bleed out quickly and thoroughly.  Take the end of the blade closest to the handle to the bird's throat with the blade in one hand.  In the other hand, hold the head of the bird and pull it downward a bit to draw the neck out.  You want to position the blade just below the head, maybe a half inch to an inch.  Now only apply moderate pressure with the blade, and in one swift motion draw the blade completely across the neck.  If your knife is good and sharp, it will make a good cut the first time without needing to apply too much pressure. 

Stand back for a few minutes and let the bird bleed out completely.   If you are processing several birds at once, you can get started on the next bird now.  While the bird is bleeding out it may dance around a little and make random noises.  Don't let this bother you; it is a completely natural reaction and it seems to take place after the bird is brain-dead anyway so I believe it is just a phenomenon of the nervous system.

Now that the bird is completely bled out, you can get started on the next step.  We made a choice at this point to take the skin off the bird, feathers and all, as opposed to removing the feathers.  This is really a matter of personal taste.   When you take the skin off, the feathers come with it easily.  Also much of the fat content of the bird goes with it.  The bird will not have the appearance of a supermarket chicken without the skin, either.  On that note, I found it interesting that the finished roosters didn't look much like supermarket birds.  That is because supermarket birds are almost always a "Cornish Cross" where you take a white cornish bird and cross it with a white Plymouth Rock.  The resulting bird packs on the weight quickly and heavily, and finishes out with a tremendous double-breast that was noteably lacking in the birds we were working with.

At this point I cut off the head and discarded it.  Starting from he initial incision on the neck, start cutting a centerline through the skin down the center of the bird, like a zipper.  Do this by putting your sharp blade under the skin and facing out, as not to damage the precious meat underneath.  Slow down as you get close to the cloaca.  That will be the last part of the skin we work with, and it requires special attention.

Now get in there with your hands and start pulling the skin off like a set of clothes.  Use the knife if necessary to work your way through tough connective tissue.  But be aware that most of it will come loose with some light pressure.   The torso is quite easy to skin, and only gets tough around the limbs really.

When you get to the back, take the folded wings apart.  Start cutting through the wing until you get to the second joint.  Take the wing in both hands and crack it right where the joint is.  This doesn't break bones, but it breaks the tough connective tissue in the joint that makes it very difficult to cut through.  Once you hear the crack, get your knife back in there and finish the cut (it will be easy at that point).

You will also need to do a similar maneuver with the legs.  Crack at the joint where you wish to remove the rest of the leg from, and slice through.  The skin around these joints is very well connected and may require extra effort and some cutting to remove completely.

Pull the whole thing all the way back as you get towards the rear.   No doubt the skin will come apart in pieces and this is okay.  Once you get within a couple inches of the vent, you will need to practice your steady-hand surgical skills.  If I can do it, though, you can do it because I can't butter a slice of bread without mangling it yet I did okay with the birds.

Take the point of the knife and start making a shallow incision in the skin surrounding the vent.  Make it as far away from the vent as possible before you hit the bone.  On the top of the bird, above the vent, there is a gland to cut around the outside of (be careful not to break open).  As you work your way all the way around, the vent will just about be freed.  With the remaining skin connected to the vent, gently start lifting upward.  The digestive tract will come with the vent.   Be very careful not to rupture anything here.

As you life the vent, you will see connective tissue inside the bird holding stuff in place.  Most of it can be broken free with a finger or two. After the intestines come out, you will see the other major organs in there.  Take your hand, work it into the cavity, and get your fingers underneath of these organs.   Being careful to not rupture the gallbladder, gently pull the organs from the ribcage.  You should expect some connective tissue but light pulling will easily break them free.  In the case of our roosters, the testes also need to be pulled out and generally don't come out in the same handful as the other organs.

You are almost done, really.  And you've gotten through the hardest part without vomiting!  The rest is easy.  Just be careful not to rub your eyes or anything at this point because that would be gross.

At this point you need to go to the front end of the bird and remove the windpipe, crop, etc.  This should pull right out.  You can also cut the neck off, close to the body, if you'd prefer (I do).  This is probably the hardest cut to make as the vertebrae can be rather dense.  Just don't muscle it and make the knife slip, cutting yourself and mangling the bird in the process.

Your bird is more or less done now.  Get it to the hose or washbasin and thoroughly wash it off, inside and out.  Put the finished bird on ice or in a refrigerator and proceed to the next bird.

Later in the day we did a few ducks.  These were big male Muscovy ducks.  The Khaki Campbells were smart and stayed in the pond the whole time.   The Muscovy's are very large ducks, and the males are much larger than the females.   Since Dan didn't really need more than one or two males to fertilize all of his females, and there is so much meat on the males, we culled a couple of the males out of his small backyard flock.

Let me warn you; the ducks were not as straightforward as the chickens.   If you feel the least bit of personal guilt about killing animals, the ducks will make you wish you were dead.  When you cut the duck's throat, he picks up his head, turns, and looks you in the eye while he leaves this world to go to the next.  He will also thrash around a bit and make more noise, making you feel guiltier still.  I didn't have a problem with any of this personally but I know for a fact my wife would be crying and wouldn't be able to go any farther.  Be warned.

But the fun doesn't stop there.  The duck has skin much more tightly connected to the body.  You can't just undress him like you can with a chicken.   Nope.  Get your knife and keep it in your hand at all times, because that skin must be cut off one small piece at a time.  I tried pulling harder and just ended up ripping some of the meat off with the skin.

Also, I don't know if I am just a clutz but the integrity of the "guts" in the duck seemed less resilient than those of the chicken.  They came apart way too easily and made a mess of things.

Dan was generous enough to send one of the ducks home with me.  We ate it for dinner that night.  One thing we noticed quickly was a really rotten smell coming from the oven while it was cooking.  Also, the meat was rather tough.  I am told both of these things would not have been a problem if we aged the bird in a cooler or refrigerator for 24-48 hours first.  The flavor and texture of the bird was very much like a good roast beef, but without the fat!  I have also heard it described as being like veal, which I could believe if it were more tender (again, didn't age the meat long enough... darn).

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