How to Kill Your Chicken and Eat it Too

*Disclaimer: some images in this post may be considered slightly graphic in nature. I have chosen to present those images as thumbnails. Click to reveal a full-sized version. This post is an entry for Project Food Blog Challenge #4 which asks contestants to create an instructional photo tutorial. If you like it, vote using the Project Food Blog contestant widget in my right sidebar (scroll down) from 10/11-10/14.

As bloggers we have, at the minimum, a social responsibility, and, some argue, a journalistic one also.  Because of that, I inject a modicum of meaning into every wacky post I conjure. A how-to tutorial is a perfect place to make a difference, and I hope you take these words and pictures in the spirit in which they were intended. While this post is a departure from my molecular madness, I hope it becomes apparent that it’s all interconnected; after all, we need the raw materials before we can manipulate them in clever ways.

A brief history of why (sorry if you’ve heard this before, I’ll be quick): I was a vegetarian for over 20 years as a result of a traumatic experience as a child. My father bought me a calf one summer. I named him Slobber. I bottle-fed that wet-nosed gangle of awkwardness through his youth and we became best friends. Slobber had the run of our fenced acreage, but for me that wasn’t enough. I fashioned a leash for him from the ones we had for the dogs, and proudly walked him through the front yard, down the street, even to the neighbor’s house. I fed him the choicest scraps from my own plate and invented an imaginary world in which we were BMX racers, astronauts, or ice-cream vendors depending on the day.

waiting

At the end of the summer I went to stay with my grandparents for two weeks and when I came home, there was a hamburger on my plate. My dad asked me if I knew where it came from. The store? I answered, cautiously. No, we killed your cow so we would have meat for the winter. This was the first I had heard about eating our livestock; to me it was tantamount to cannibalism. Initially it catapulted me into my room in tears, and ultimately I made a stoic resolve never to eat a living creature. Nearly 30 years and a gradual return to omnivorism later, I look back at that as a missed educational opportunity. I should have been raising Slobber lovingly, but with the knowledge of why I was doing so.

with the babies

Now I know firsthand that an animal raised with utmost care and then slaughtered to be eaten by reverential people is a vital thing. It took many years to get to this place, however, and I don’t want it to be the same for my child, which is why I try to get him involved in the process even at the tender age of two. It is imperative that we know where our food comes from. Yes, this is a trend among us who preach to the choir, so forgive me for beating a dead horse, but farm-to-table should not be a trend, it should be a given. With that in mind, I am going to show you how a chicken raised on organic feed and grass from a top-notch sustainable chicken farm in Washington- Stokesberry- leaves the field and lands on your plate.

a chicken tractor- note the eaten grass versus the ready-to-be-eaten grass
a chicken tractor- note the eaten grass versus the ready-to-be-eaten grass

Once the chickens are old enough, they are taken to the pasture and are corralled in what are called “chicken tractors.” These are essentially 10x12’ floorless enclosures made from chicken-wire, wood and siding.  Every day, the chicken tractors get moved 10 feet to a new plot of grass. This is beneficial for several reasons. First, the chickens have fresh grass (and as much organic grain as they want) both to feed on, and to fertilize with their waste, thus creating a viable pasture for cycles to come. Next, the tractors protect the chickens from coyotes, raccoons and other predators.  Thirdly, because the tractors are not cramped, the chickens have plenty of room to roam within, yet not so much that they grow too lean and muscular, which is why chefs and consumers started taking issue with 100% free-range birds.

preparing to move the tractor (turkey in this case) to the next plot
preparing to move the tractor (turkey in this case) to the next plot

Compared to a typical concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) where chickens are stacked a hundred deep and sometimes three high and never see the light of day, small-scale chicken tractors are palaces. (However Janelle and Jerry Stokesberry liken their chickens to urban apartment-dwellers. There’s plenty of space but it’s not McMansion-style living since that’s not a practical way to raise chickens- or people for that matter.) It is important to note that Stokesberry Farm is Janelle and Jerry’s livelihood. While they started the farm because they believed in providing healthy food to the community in a way that also fosters positive growth for the earth and people, they are not Pollyanna about what it means to run a business.  Their practices have to be streamlined and efficient while at the same time being mindful of good ecology. The concept of the chicken tractor is a great example of that because it is both humane and economically-feasible. Prior to the chickens being tractored in a particular pasture, cows are brought in to “pre-mow” the grass in order to achieve optimal height for the chickens, which drives home just how cyclically-sustainable this concept is. Incidentally, the chicken tractor was pioneered by Joel Salatin. You can read about his working farm and more on chicken tractors here.

weighing chickens
weighing chickens

Stokesberry farm grows mostly Cornish Cross birds, and they are typically ready for butcher within eight to twelve weeks. The farm sells to local restaurants, butchers, and also at farmer’s markets. Restaurant chefs order birds with precise weights, so on the day of slaughter, Jon, the farm’s right-hand man, gathers birds from the tractors and weighs them. Assuming they lose roughly 30% of their weight when they are dressed out, Jon is mindful to select birds accordingly.

a barrowful of chickens earmarked for Seattle restaurant Sitka and Spruce
a barrowful of chickens earmarked for Seattle restaurant Sitka and Spruce

After the birds are weighed, Jon cages them and brings them to Jerry, who operates the kill station. The kill station consists of three main areas: chicken slaughter funnels, a scalder, and a plucker. The slaughter funnels are conical with head-sized holes in the bottom. The chicken is placed upside-down in the funnel so that just the head peeks out-thus providing easy access to the jugular. There are several sizes of funnels, depending on the girth of the bird being slaughtered.

slaughter funnels
slaughter funnels

It is worth mentioning that the vast majority of chickens produced in the US are killed by a machine.  By removing the individual from the “dirty-work” aspect of the process, machine-killing also creates a disconnect from the accountability associated with taking a life. Because of this, we often forget that our meat was a living creature at one point, which can lead to over-consumption. Medium-scale farms like Stokesberry that still shoulder the burden of responsibility for their animals inspire their patrons to appreciate the valuable service they provide. If you can’t kill it you have no business eating it, which is why I jumped in and helped Jerry at the kill station, and later helped Janelle process the freshly-plucked birds. (I personally killed 12 birds of the near-100 we processed that day.)

plucker
plucker

Once the birds were upside-down in the funnel, we used a sharp knife to make a clean, deliberate slice across the jugular vein. It is quick and painless, I am told.

clean jugular cut
clean jugular cut
bleeds out
bleeds out

The birds bled out for several minutes, and then we moved them to the scalder. The purpose of scalding is to loosen the skin so the feathers will come out in the plucker. The ideal temperature to scald a chicken depends on the size and the skin thickness, but Jerry tends to make sure the water is between 145-150°F.

ready for scald
ready to be scalded

We hung several chickens by their feet from the dipping wand, then plunged them into the water all-the-while agitating them for 20-25 seconds (Jerry counts his seconds in “hippopotamuses” which I find endearing).

chickens in scalder
chickens in scalder

Plucking is perhaps the single easiest aspect of the slaughter process if you have a fancy plucking barrel, but the hardest if you have to do it by hand (like I did with these turkeys last year). We simply tossed the chickens (a few at a time) into the plucker, turned it on, counted 15 or 20 hippopotamuses, and all the feathers were gone, save for a few tail-feathers, which we took care of with pliers. Right after plucking, the head must be removed, which I found a little tricky, but got the hang of after I had done a dozen birds. You grab the legs with one hand and the head with the other, then stretch them apart while twisting the head upward, which causes it to snap free of the body.

chickens in the plucker
chickens in the plucker

At this point the birds get passed inside to a room which adheres to a strict code of sterility. When I helped Janelle with the gutting I had to wear a hairnet and a special suit.

removing the feet
removing the feet

Different gutters do things different ways, but Janelle’s way made a lot of sense to me, especially compared to how I had done it in the past (which took 10 times as long).  First she removes the feet at the ankle joint with a boning knife.

off go the necks
off go the necks
stray pin feathers get plucked
plucking pin feathers

Next she cuts off the neck with a cleaver and uses pliers to pull out any remaining feathers. Then, she opens the cavity by cutting an incision around the anus of the bird and removing the scent gland. Next, she pulls out the entrails and gizzard, and finally the organs. The lungs are tricky- they stick to the ribcage and you have to sort of dig to get them loose. None of this goes to waste. They sell feet, necks, and heads to anyone who wants them, including private individuals who make stock or pet food. If something doesn’t get sold, it gets composted in their state-of-the-art compost pile. I know it’s odd to think of compost as state-of-the-art, but the Stokesberrys have it down to a science and it works like a well-oiled machine.

making access hole, removing scent gland
access hole / scent gland
pulling out entrails
pulling out entrails

After the birds are processed, they go into a cold water bath, where they stay overnight.  This is because by law, within 4 hours the chickens must be cooled to below 40°F.

water bath
water bath

I fear I have waxed too-verbose to explain the next steps of what to do with a chicken, but most of you reading this have probably roasted, barbecued, boned, sous vided, or grilled a chicken before, no? Three things are worth mentioning regarding post-gutting should you ever wish to bring a chicken from field to feast. The first is that rigor mortis sets in within a few hours after a bird is killed and you do not want to eat a chicken in rigor mortis. It makes it tough and gamey. The solution? Wait 24-48 hours, or until the legs move freely. This ties in nicely with my next tip- brine your bird. You’ve heard it before, but it really is imperative for succulent meat. You can do it during rigor mortis. I use a 5% salt/water ratio and I like to add sage, thyme, garlic and lemon to my brine. If you are going to roast the chicken, be sure to remove it from the brine, pat it as dry as you can, then let it dry further on a rack in the refrigerator. That way you will have perfectly crisp skin to go with your perfectly tender, personally-butchered chicken.

me n my chicken

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100 Responses

  1. I also believe it’s imperative that we know where our food comes from. It’s great that you were able to show us in this pictorial. Another impressive post. You got my vote and good luck!

  2. Bravo to you for taking on such an intense “how to”. As a girl who married into family with a century of farm experience, I really admire your story and your treatment of the issue of respecting what we eat. Well done!

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I attended Quillisascut Farm School last summer and witnessed/participated in the slaughter and butchering of a goat and several ducks. It’s not pretty, but it wasn’t the gory bloodbath I expected, either. Rather, it gave me a good appreciation for the beauty of the animal. You’d better believe I treasured every bite – down to the duck skin cracklin’s and the goat testicles and kidneys.

    (BTW, those slaughter funnels are genius! Some of the ducks were pretty wily on the chopping block, necessitating precision axe-handling.)

  4. Joyce @friendsdriftinn

    I agree wholeheartedly that the whole farm-to-table movement should not be viewed as trendy, but a return to our roots.

    Growing up in the country, one learns early where dinner comes from. So many kids today think milk comes from a box at the grocery. I hate that disconnect!

    The world would starve without farmers.

    Thank you for showing “real life.”

  5. I grew up slaughtering our animals to eat. Pigs, cows, chickens, rabbits. These pics capture the mood and tone of the butchering days very well, and the smell and sound of those days came flooding back.

    I have a hard time eating meat now, but when I do, I don’t take it too lightly. I think that’s good. Burden of a meat eater.

    Excellent post. As someone who has been in that situation repeatedly, you nailed it.

  6. I truly appreciate the people who do this for me. I wish that all animals that were killed for our benefit were respected and revered. Nice job.

    : )

  7. I totally admire you for this one! I’ve often said that if I had to butcher my own meat, I’d be a vegetarian. It’s awesome that you shared your experience with all of your readers… Whether we do it ourselves or not, it’s so important to understand where our food comes from. And, I’d much rather know that an animal lived a good live than a lousy one!

    Yet again, I think you have won my prize for best PFB entry :)

  8. Very (thought) provoking post, and good on you for doing it. I grew up in Asia and watched chickens bought live then killed at home by my amah (sort of babysitter). Completely agree that those of us who eat meat must be aware of where the meat comes from and how the animal was raised. Good luck for the rest of the PFB journey.

  9. I grew up in a developing country where it was totally normal to see chickens in the market one second, and chicken pieces in your bag the next and yet, I’ve never really thought about the process. I love how you documented the process in such a thought provoking way. Looking forward to seeing you in November, friend! :)

  10. Normalou

    Those chickens are not leading a “normal” life by any means, though. No perching behavior permitted, little room for dust bathing or fully exploring. Clearly they’re not being tortured as factory farmed chickens are, nor slaughtered in an industrialized warehouse of machinery, but they are still being exploited.

    This is an interesting post, and this is a bandwagon a lot of people are hopping on right now, a lot of formerly conscientious people who once saw killing animals as immoral, unethical, and wrong. Personally, I don’t get it. Raising animals for food will always involve killing them, and killing is never humane. Nor is it necessary. A plant based diet is the way of the future.

    Ben Reply:

    @Normalou, I think you make some valid arguments, particularly in paragraph 1. But the characterization of former vegetarians as “formerly conscientious” and “hopping on a bandwagon” is presumptuous and dismissive. I don’t intend to debate you on whether killing animals is humane, necessary or inevitable–clearly you have well-formed views on that. But please understand that people other than you do consider the ethical implications of their choices.

  11. Wow, that’s a daring post. Both you and Diana from A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa went head first for this challenge. Great job!
    It’s important to know where our food comes from. Think people would have always butchered their own animals in order to eat. Perhaps the great disconnect from this step is why people aren’t overly concerned about where their food comes from or how is was raised or grown.

    You have my vote!

  12. This is a great post Linda. It is so important for people to see this process and understand why humanely-raised animal products cost so much more than conventional ones. Thank you for the great reporting! As more people support small farms like Stokesberry, we will hopefully see factory farming practices forced to change…someday.

    mitzi mager Reply:

    @Sonja, I am glad you mentioned humanely raised and not humanely ‘killed’ cuz I don’t believe there is a way to humanely take somethings life against its will…

  13. Alright, so I guess I am in the minority, but I did not enjoy this post. This definitely does not make me want to eat any type of food!

    Linda Reply:

    @Caitlin, I’m happy we can have a discourse, Caitlin. The post wasn’t designed to make you want to eat, but instead to make you think. In fact I would say my goal with the end result is for people to understand more about where their food/meat comes from so they appreciate it more, which often means eating it less since it is a valuable commodity. I’m grateful you were brave enough to post dissent and I’d love to continue an ongoing dialogue, should you wish to share your views.

    mitzi mager Reply:

    @Caitlin, Yeah, I have to agree, I find it more disturbing now that I see the process… I guess I just don’t like killing no matter how wonderful people try to make it sound :( It’s just me…

    Adam Stevens Reply:

    You were disturbed by this? Check out Food Inc.

  14. fantastic entry. i think you brought an important point to light and were able to show the humane process well without it being gory. best of luck – you have my vote!

  15. Oh, and I’ve been talking about your mozzarella balloons for days now. :)

  16. Scary. A little. But impressive. I think it’s important to recognize food as FOOD, and not prepackaging.

    Amy Reply:

    @Mariko, i agree, if we had to kill our own chickens to eat we would all eat way less meat i think

  17. Being close to your food is so important. Love that you dared to roll like this. Wonderful.

    You’ve got our vote.

  18. Fantastic post. Good on you for going the ethical route! My attempt at a socially responsible contest entry backfired and I didn’t get to round 4, so I hope you and Diana have better luck. Voting for you!

  19. GREAT yet controversial topic to cover here. So many people would like to believe that chickens just fall beheaded, plucked and gutted off a chicken tree. Once we learn to respect where our food comes from, we will appreciate it so much more. Voted!

  20. I am so happy to find your blog. It speaks to so much of my personal beliefs on food, sustainability, and our connection to what we eat. Regardless of the outcome of PFB, this is a winning post worth reading! Thank you for your bravery in ‘going for it’ and writing about this experience – it does everyone a world of good. Well done, and I look forward to following you regularly. :)

  21. If you have misgivings due to the subject content; then I respect even more your going forward and speaking about something that is important to you. It’s much easier to believe that Santa (or some other equally endearing character) just drops off those nicely packaged chicken parts.

    I also applaud the company you highlighted and commend their acknowledgment of a need to have a sustainable business while still achieving an operation that shows consideration for the fact they are dealing with a living entity. While we sit at out table and demand change…we also have to be expected to pay for that change.

    The only part I question? Who is that young girl you had stand in for you?

  22. Despite my not eating meat (or i should say rarely) I am so impressed that you did this. I strongly believe that we should know the entire process of how our food got to our plate… and as hard as it is to stomach, killing our food is a part of it (if you eat any kind of meat). Bravo!

  23. Linda, you Food Ninja you… This was an incredible post, it might be a touchy subject for some. However, I thought you got the message across in a very delicate and informative manner. Well done!

  24. good stuff.

  25. Linda! This is absolutely fascinating and something that I think every meat eater should learn, or at the very least OBSERVE.

    I cannot believe you were a veggie for so many years, but I can imagine that experience was traumatic and had the adverse effect of what your father probably originally intended. (It’s all about how it’s presented to a child. Certainly NOT as a burger on a plate.) ;-)

    Huge kudos to you. And man, you look gorgeous even when you’re slaughtering! HAH!

  26. I have so enjoyed reading your posts through PFB10, and am just sorry it’s taken me this long to stumble upon your blog. Thank you for this post, and for the thought and meaning behind it. You’ve definitely got my vote.

  27. wonderfully unique. Great post: educational, emotional, real.
    I will be voting for you :)

  28. You are such a culinary ninja, and I love the sweater you wore to butcher chickens, how chic. I would put an exclamation point to exclaim my emotions, but I’m not allowed …;)

    In any case, I commend you for writing this piece, as it is something any omnivore should see. I raise chickens myself, but have yet to slaughter any (they are egg birds for now). But come the day I need to, I know which website I will be referencing. Thank you again.

  29. you are seriously such a bad ass — your husband is lucky to have a wife that can kill her own dinner :) Awesome post Linda, best of luck you’ve got my vote!

    Linda Reply:

    @Joy, thank you Ms. mover and shaker- congrats on the launch of Artizone, btw.

  30. Amazing post. As a matter of fact, it is my favorite post (ok, other than mine but I am a loser and not in the challenge anymore) in this whole challenge up to this point. I love how you took such a provocative subject and explained it with so much sensitivity. You rock.

    Linda Reply:

    @Janis, Your post was lovely and you are clearly not a loser. Thank you.

  31. Beautiful post. I’m so glad you chose this topic. This is something that needs to be out there as much as possible. And I’m with you 100%—field to table is where we need to be, and if we can’t lovingly/reverentially raise our animals for that purpose, then we have no business eating meat. You rock Salty Ninja!

    Linda Reply:

    @Fuji Mama, Thanks, Fuji Ninja- does this qualify me for true ninjahood?

  32. This has been on my long term goal list. I am really impressed by you (but you already know that). Thank you for sharing. Sure, the post is “graphic” – literally – but it is not inappropriate or obscene, in fact, it really is important to acknowledge meat for what it is and to be aware of what we eat. Only then can we give up our feeling of entitlement to cheap animal products and pay what they are worth. Thanks.

    Linda Reply:

    @Lara Alexander, I’m taking you with me next time, strap on your wellies, babe.

  33. Nicely done, you totally went to a different place, but did it with thought and care. We all know a little more about where our food comes from now. thanks!

    Linda Reply:

    @Ethan, Appreciate your thoughtful comment, merci.

  34. Love your post! Growing up, my mom would buy live chickens which we would have for dinner that same day… and I would squirm watching her kill it. Love your post!

    Linda Reply:

    @Jun Belen, that’s one tough mama you had:)

  35. Good luck in 4…with all the meds I’m on..this does not seem graphic to me at all!

    Linda Reply:

    @Kathy Gori, I, for one, am enjoying your hopped up commentary, darling.

  36. Congrats Congrats going onto challenge #4!!! Must be exciting for you! Good luck and all the best. Happy Thanksgiving to you! You’ll be getting the next vote from me :) Your awesome!

    Have a happy thanksgiving!
    jen @ http://www.passion4food.ca

    Linda Reply:

    @jen cheung, your site is very nice. & Happy Thanksgiving to you- enjoy, eat and experience.

  37. Awesome job with this post, Linda!

    Linda Reply:

    @Winnie, always means a lot from you, thanks.

  38. This is the second post I’ve seen on killing chicken…but I love that I get different angles on this. I’ve never before had such an insider view before, so I’m feeling just a tiny bit overwhelmed by all this in-your-face chicken slaughter! But it’s been so interesting! This is a great tutorial that goes far beyond just good food.

    Linda Reply:

    @Sophia Lee, great minds think alike, I guess? Diana’s post is stunning.

  39. What a fantastic blog post. I’ve always been an omnivore and grew up in the midwest. My grandfather was a farmer and it really is a great lesson to be part of bringing your food from the farm to the table. I hope your post inspires others to get closer to where their food comes from. Don’t stop at the farmer’s market or grocery. Say hello to a farmer ask to help.

    Linda Reply:

    @Dennis, I hope so too.

  40. I applaud your courage to post subject matter that some may view as offensive. You have taken a creative approach to this challenge, rising far above the requirements, all while sending an important message.
    Well done, Linda.

    Linda Reply:

    @Debi (Table Talk), thank you for your thoughtful read.

  41. This is a great topic to cover for this challenge! So few of us are familiar with the process, and even fewer have ever experienced this first hand. Bravo for enlightening us!

    Linda Reply:

    @Christine @ Fresh Local and Local, just doing my part:)

  42. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Linda M Nicholson and Lara Alexander, Linda M Nicholson. Linda M Nicholson said: How to humanely kill a chicken. Read it and eat: http://bit.ly/9guf1U #foodninja #pfb2010 [...]

  43. I learn so much from reading your posts. I’m so glad to have found your blog! Thank you!

    Linda Reply:

    @Amy K., mucho mucho gusto, senorita.

  44. Great post. I have to admit, I was afraid to read it because this is not an easy subject. I went ahead because, well, it’s better to know that not to know. You did it justice. It is important for people to know what goes on in practice to provide their chicken dinner.

    Linda Reply:

    @Renate Valencia, I totally agree, and glad you read it despite a touch of fear. thanks for your words.

  45. Rita Miller

    As a child, my parents raised chickens in the big city. I was so embarassed for my friends to know that we did this. It wasn’t a “big city” thing.

    Now I’m happy that the current generation is embracing this and it has come full circle.

    Excellent post!!!!

  46. By far your best post. To hell with the contest; this is just good reading. Honest, thoughtful, informative.

    Linda Reply:

    @Beau @ SomethingEdible.com, Wow- that is an amazing comment. I was nervous posting this, but it is something close to my heart, so I jumped out on a limb and did it- word count and subject matter be damned. I am happy it found its way to someone with whom it resonates. Humbled and appreciative.

  47. I have come to expect no less from you. I appreciate a better look into this side of the food industry as a comparison to what I’ve seen in all the usual documentaries. And you are a brave woman–I can understand and care about where my food comes from, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to kill anything more than a fish.

    Linda Reply:

    @Baking Barrister, I am so glad this passed your seal of approval- your twitter challenge had me pretty nervous. And if someone as snarky and out-there as you calls me brave, I’m taking it as a compliment:) can’t wait to see you next month at fbzfest.

  48. @Heather (Heather’s Dish)
    Thank you so much, Heather- it is super important that we know where it all comes from:) That class sounds amazing- wish I had that opportunity now, and I’m certainly past my university days.

  49. Above and beyond the call of duty, as usual, Linda. Whilst some might find this a little not their cup of tea, I think it’s admirable that you know where your food is coming from and how it is raised and killed. An excellent tutorial. Well done.

    Linda Reply:

    @Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite, Well, you know my misgivings, so I’m glad you give it the seal of approval. And now, we wait…

  50. i am so glad that you did something different than the other posts that i’ve seen for round 4. i remember in college i took a meat class and the lab required that we watch a hog be slaughtered and then how the entire carcass was made into various cuts, including sausage. it was one of the best classes i’ve ever had! you know you have my vote…if i can’t make it i want YOU to :)

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