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Sunday, October 30, 2011

How to butcher a chicken

Today I'd like to show you how a chicken becomes food.  Many of you may think that a chicken simply lays down on a styrofoam tray, gets wrapped in cellophane and delivered to your grocery store.  I'm sorry my friends, that is simply not the case.

(Warning:  There are pictures of naked chickens so if you have young chickens in the room, they should probably go watch Foghorn Leghorn.)

Here is how it happens on the farm!

First, we have to go out and catch them.
Although we do not feed them in the morning, they are moved to fresh grass and given water.  Hubby will get in the pen with the net and push them over to the door and I will catch them (usually two at a time) and put them in the carriers.

After a nice ride in the back of the pickup, we're in the yard and ready to go!  Hubby will ask for volunteers and usually someone speaks up.

When I was kid, we butchered many, MANY chickens.  We cut the heads off.  When I say "we" I mean my mom did while I held the rest of the chicken.  Then in a shower of blood and feathers the chicken would flop and flop and run around like "a chicken with it's head cut off".  I'll tell you now, it wasn't my finest hour.

Hubby does the duty to our chickens (the only thing in the process I won't do mainly because I'm afraid of doing it wrong) but in a FAR better manner.  He puts them in these cones, hanging upside down.  Remember when you hung upside down on the playground and the slight buzz you got?  It's kinda the same for chickens, hanging upside down calms them.  Then Hubby quickly and efficiently slits the jugular on the neck.  He does NOT take the head off or slit the trachea.  This allows the heart to keep pumping and removing blood from the meat.  It is the most humane way to "harvest" an animal and it is in accordance with Levitical law (see Old Testament).  

What happens?  Not the violent thrashing around of my youth.  Instead, the chicken looks at the grass, gets a little sleepy and goes to sleep.  

One of them slipped out of the cone this summer and trotted a few steps away and sat down, bleeding from the neck.  Kiddo1 and Kiddo2 ran over and petted her while she went to sleep.  Then informed us that she went "night-night". 

Our processing set-up isn't fancy.  But we're out in the open air and sunshine.  The best sanitizers in the world are open air and sunshine.  As soon as you put walls around it then you have to start using horrible chemicals and you still won't get it clean.  (Did you know that factory chickens are chlorinated?  Multiple times.)

 When the chicken is dead, Hubby takes him to the scalder.  Did you know you could buy a chicken scalder on eBay?  You can!  It is thermostatically controlled to keep an even temperature at 150 degrees.  This is a far cry from the giant kettle of boiling water we used when I was a kid.  The first chickens would tear and the last chickens wouldn't pluck.  And just like Goldilocks, somewhere in the middle would be "just right"!

Why do we need a scalder?  Because the warm water loosens the feathers so they come out easier.  Yes, you could hand pluck them without scalding.  Plenty of pioneer women did it.  But really, haven't we come farther than that?

Hubby holds the chicken by the feet and he goes for a little swim.  (The chicken, not the Hubby.)  He continually moves the chicken back and forth, up and down to work the warm water around each feather follicle.  Remember, feathers are designed to shed water so you have to work it up in there.  

When the wing feathers pull out easily, you're done!  Wing feathers are the biggest and toughest to remove.  (We put the wood cover on the scalder when we aren't using it to conserve heat.)

Then it's off to the plucker, the single greatest invention of mankind!    Sure, some of you may like the internet or the automobile, but I can't eat the internet or a car.  We trade the use of our scalder for the use of our friend's plucker, what a symbiotic relationship!

Here it is in action.  The bottom plate spins and rubs the chicken against the rubber fingers which rubs off the feathers which exit out the bottom.  GENIUS!!  If you've ever had to hand pluck chickens as I did as a child, this is your AMEN moment.    

In about 20 or so seconds, a clean chicken!  Not even my mom could pluck a chicken that fast.

I deliberately took a picture of the worst chicken of the day so that I couldn't be accused of just showing the pretty ones.  There are still some feathers on the wing that I will remove on the table.  I am the Quality Control!

Under the wing is a notorious place for feathers to hang around.  Make sure you check!

You'll also have to check for pin feathers.  They sell a pin feather knife, but if you have fingernails of any kind this is a waste of money.  On rare occasions, there will be a stuck one and I will use the edge of my regular knife and my thumb to grab it.

Sometimes I have a pint-sized helper with the feather inspection.  Kiddo1 thinks chicken butchering is a major event and requires a party dress.  (Before you have a heart attack that I would let my daughter wear such a fancy or expensive dress out to butcher chickens, you have to realize that she's wears this dress for a time just about every day.  It's how we know she thinks whatever we're doing is special.)

When the feather patrol is all finished, it's time to take off the head.  See that black hole in the head?  That's the chickens ear!  I'd never seen one until we started butchering chickens.  (Because we don't chop off the heads, the feathers on the head get plucked as well.)

Some people (like Hubby) just pull off the head, but I prefer to cut with a poultry shears.  Just a firm cut and you're through.  The head goes into the gut bucket.

Then I'm going to take off the legs next with the same tool.  One cut right at the knee to open it.  Exert downward pressure (the chicken is laying on it's back) and the joint is exposed.  Cut through the joint, between the bones.  Chicken feet are the favorite of our dog so we usually save them for him.  (Don't worry about those tail feathers, we'll deal with them soon.)

Now we move to the top.  You want to cut a slit in the skin above the sternum.

This exposes the crop.  The crop is just a thin storage sack for the food before it goes to the gizzard.  You will pinch it between your thumb and forefinger and pull it away from the skin.  This crop is empty because we didn't feed them this morning.  If we would have fed them, it would be stuffed with grain and very difficult to deal with.  That's why our chickens don't get a "last meal".

You will also want to pull the esophagus (connected to the top of the crop) out of the neck.  (Why?  You'll find out in just a minute...)

Like this!

Now we move to the back.  Again make a small skit, I mean SLIT.  This time beneath the sternum.  Be careful here as there are intestines back there!

The small slit allows you to work in your fingers and tear an opening.  Don't go wild here.  We just want an opening big enough to put our  hand in.

Why tear instead of cut?  Remember, we have digestive organs in here and we don't want to risk opening any of them on our chickens.  
(Keep in mind that factories have mechanical eviserators and break open organs routinely.)

Now slide in your hand along the top.  Just follow the sternum.

Reach up to the top of the breast and loop your finger around the crop/esophagus.  (That's why we loosened them first.)  I often use my other hand to help with this part.  Then pull back firmly but gently.

Almost everything will come out as one unit which is the way we want it.  

Now what do we do?  Well, we have to remove it all in one piece so we will cut around the vent (fancy word for anus).

Hold the large intestine up with one hand and cut around the vent with the other.  Use the hip bones as a guide.  Once you're done, it all goes in the gut bucket.

Ta-Da!!!  All clean and pretty.  Eviserating is a very clean and tidy business.  Just keep all the fluids where they are supposed to be and all will be well.  If you should happen to puncture or tear something, rinse and rinse and rinse with a pressure hose.

Now, about that tail.  The only thing you really have to remove is the oil gland right above the knife.  You can just clip it out with the knife point.

But most of our customers don't want to see a chicken tail and we don't want to take all those feathers off.  So we just remove the tail behind the hips.

Like this!  

We're almost done!  See the pink parts, one on either side of the spine in the middle of the photo?  Those are the lungs and they are nestled into the ribs.  You'll have to go back in for those.  Put one finger in each rib's crease and scrape toward the spine.

There's one!  Now go get the other one.

The trachea is still attached to the neck and we want to remove that as well.  Just pull it out and the bronchial tubes that lead to the lungs will come out as well.

After another quality control check by yours truly, the chicken is cooled in tubs of icy water.  We do three different cooling stations to get them cooled down quickly.  

When the fat is hard, they are ready to go into the freezer.  We bag them up, weigh them, label them and in they go!  

And that is how chickens become meat.  
(No styrofoam trays are used in the production of this food.)

What do we do with the gut bucket?  The contents get composted with wood chips keeping the circle of life continuing on the farm.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Sign of the times

This is how you know you have pint sized kitchen assistants...
When a Strawberry Shortcake car appears next to the scrambled eggs.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The one you know

All my growing up years, we ate our own meat.  Which means we kept an animal or two of each variety back from the sales barn and they went into our freezer.  This means that we often knew our food.

My mom tells the story that when I was three, she had the new pastor and his family over for dinner.  She made roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy.  I piped up from the end of the table, "Mom!  What part of Hildegaard are we eating now?"  Now THAT'S local food!

I'm passing the torch to my three year old daughter.  Two weeks ago we bought three grassfed lambs from a local farmer.  I was raised on lamb, I love lamb.  If I was ever to commit a capital crime for which I would receive a last meal it would be BBQ lamb ribs, wild rice and creamed peas.

So when the opportunity to have lamb for the winter arose, we jumped on it like a lamb headed for the gate.  Hubby, Kiddo1 and Kiddo2 went to get the sheep.  Kiddo3 and I went to the office for a few hours.  We all met back at the farm (not THE FARM), the kiddos running to inform me that we had sheep and I had to come see!  I did.  We fed them grass.  Then all the kiddos went to take a nap.  The Hubby and I went to "harvest" some sheep.

Like I said, I grew up with sheep.  I've wrangled literally thousands of them.  The Hubby not so much.  His only lamb experience was the roast I made for him last year.  (He loved it!  Hence the reason we had three live ones in the back of the pickup.)  Now we had to get the live ones into dead ones.  I'm good with sheep, not so good with killing things.  I'll spare you the details, but there was some sheep riding (me) and pistol packing (Hubby) and knife wielding (Hubby) and leg holding (me).

And betwixt the two of us we got two lambs from this:

To this.

Then the kiddos woke up from their nap.  To be honest, the kids like watching us butcher chickens.  But I wasn't sure how the last lamb would go since they were so excited about getting them.  We had a talk which went something like this:
"The sheep that you brought home today are not pets, they are to eat.  Just like the chickens.  The chickens aren't our pets, they are food for us.  And just like the chickens, we're going to take the skin off the sheep.  We're going to take the head off.  And we're going to take the guts out."

Kiddo1 looked at me with her big blue eyes and said, "Mommy, for my five birthday, can we get sheep we don't eat?"  (This one plans birthdays well in advance, her four birthday is her kitty birthday and that's in May.  Plan accordingly.)

And that was it.  They were completely fine with it.  They got their lawn chairs and sat and watched us shouting, "What you doing now, Dad?"

Hubby sent me this quote today:

“How can you bear to eat an animal you've known personally?”

To which the logical answer seems to be: "How can you bear to eat one you haven't?!"
There is a reverence to harvesting and processing your own meat.  There is nothing (short of natural childbirth) that is as empowering as packing away food you've worked for, harvested, prepared and loved yourself.  And no one wants to give birth three times a day...
The one you know tastes the best.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sweetness and a new goal

While I have every intention of doing a step-by-step pictorial bonanza of how to process a chicken, I don't have the time right now.  But what I do have the time for is this:

I found Kiddo3 standing, STANDING MIND YOU, in her crib the other morning.  Apparently the brand new skill of crawling wasn't fascination enough.  (And we're not even 9 months old yet!)

And to tell you that I have a new goal, thanks to my dear friend Heather.  She sent me a little note saying that she was thinking of me and praying for me.  And she hoped that today would be a better day.

Heather and I go way back.  Back to grueling basketball practices and The Holy Grail.  It meant so much to get "real mail" from a friend that I made it my goal to send a piece of "real mail" every week to someone who is on my mind and heart at the time.

Join me, won't you??  Let's brighten someone's day and give them something in their mailbox besides bills and junk mail.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A New Record (answer revealed)

My friend Carol was correct when she guessed that the mystery photo was a chicken plucker!  And we did 78 chickens on Friday, a new farm record.

This fantastic invention has made is possible to enjoy butchering chickens.  And I'm not even kidding!  Growing up we had no such thing as a plucker, we had hands.  And we plucked and plucked and plucked and we were halfway done with the first chicken.  The wet feathers stuck to your hands, it was misery at its finest.

But the chicken plucker we use is a wonder, plucks 'em clean in 20 seconds!

I'll post a complete chicken processing tutorial after the last batch is done (in two weeks).  By the end of the season, the Hubby and I will have done about 360 chickens.  We're getting really good at it!

It's a far cry from last year when we had to read from the book how to do it!  Now you may be saying, "Didn't you just say you butchered chickens growing up?"  Yes, I certainly did.  But chicken butchering is not like riding a bike, it doesn't come flooding back to you after 20 years.  So, yes, we read how to butcher a chicken from a book and look at us now, look at us now!

Do you know how we know we've arrived as chicken butchers??  When we can go in for lunch and eat chicken and it doesn't faze us a bit.  And Kiddo1 asks "We eat that one?" as I'm pulling out the "entrails". (You should know that we don't refer to them as "entrails" but I don't think my mother wants to read the words "chicken guts".)  

Happy Butchering everyone!!  (or maybe just us)