While I’ve been around home-grown meats pretty much all my life the closest I’ve personally come to butchering has been gutting fish. While this is great experience for a kid it didn’t prepare me much for culling my first chicken from our flock of free-range egg-layers! I had been very interested, especially since the onset of the “pandemic,” in butchering a chicken (or a few) just so I could gain the experience. I think for someone who lives the lifestyle that I do – country living, far away from town, fostering our food independence – it’s an important skill to practice even if you’re not trying to pack a freezer full of a year’s worth of poultry.
I finally got the courage to cull my first hen after we adopted a few rescue chickens from a backyard chicken owner. They had been kept indoors pretty much all their lives and came to us with a number of problems, one of which being the dreaded egg-eating. This counterproductive problem got worse and worse until the straw that finally broke the camel’s back: I came into the coop to gather eggs one day and was literally fighting off hens hand-and-claw for the few precious eggs we were getting in the dead of winter. The one in particular that I could clearly identify was a hefty white hen, which I confirmed based on the egg yolk clearly covering her face and comb.
Needless to say my rage overcame my trepidation and I planned to make chicken stock that very night. When I actually hiked down to the chicken pen and swiped her out of the coop that evening, however, I was overcome with a sort of sadness that often accompanies taking a life for food consumption. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have these feelings of remorse when butchering; in fact I think it’s healthy to have a real connection with the animals you raise for your family’s sustenance. I wasn’t dissuaded by these emotions however especially considering these troubling hens are defeating the purpose of keeping them in the first place, which is egg production.
I take great solace in knowing that the animal products I buy or harvest are from creatures who lived a good life and were lovingly cared for. To foster a connection to your food is to understand the modern economy of food production and why it’s important to be personally involved in your own food chain, as our ancestors have been until very recently in human history.
Ultimately I chose to dislocate the neck of this particular hen mostly because of her ample size. I knew after extending her neck with my dominant hand, holding her body with my left hand, that I may not be able to do the job properly if I attempted to do so manually. Given that this was after dark and I was holding her close to my body she was very calm, and so I implemented a technique I had seen a very thoughtful and considerate person carry out in a YouTube video I watched prior to the undertaking: I tilted her forward, slipped her head under a fallen branch, anchored the wood with my foot and pulled on her feet until the head was dislocated from the neck. This may seem like a gruesome description but it was very gentle and minimally invasive; far superior to bleeding out a chicken by the neck, in my opinion. I might feel differently if I had a whole flock to dispatch but this was an isolated case and I also wasn’t interested in making a bloody mess during the winter, a season of peak predator activity in our area.
There was a tremendous amount of flapping (an unconscious, postmortem result of the nervous system discharging any residual energy) and then it was over: I had my first ever farm-fresh product to stuff in the stew pot. This was the easiest part of the job, believe it or not. Dressing a whole chicken by hand is a much bigger undertaking that you’d think!
I have to say that the plucking was probably the worst part of the whole ordeal. It was very tedious to do by hand and even if we did have a chicken plucker I probably wouldn’t have set it up just for one bird. Before I went out to cull the hen I had gotten my canning pot up to 150° on the stove, ready for scalding, which I did immediately upon reentering the house. It took two or three dunks to loosen the flight feathers so I could proceed with the tedious job of disrobing the bird. I found that keeping one side of the sink plugged with a trickle of cold water running worked best for rinsing the feathers from my dominant hand. When I was finished I just scooped them out into the compost.
My #1 tip for first-time hen butchering is YouTube. I watched countless videos detailing the entire act in gory detail, an unpleasant but necessary preparation for the task at hand. There are so many little things to pay attention to from start to finish that it can be quite daunting when you actually have the bird in hand. I periodically referred to a particular video during the process because I wanted to do the best job possible of removing the entrails and avoid contaminating the meat. Overall it went very well and I was quickly chopping vegetables to nest into my Instant Pot along with the chicken.
I’m not sure if this is typical of an older laying hen but I noticed both when I was dressing the carcass and after cooking it down that it was excessively fatty. There was a copious amount of fat underneath the skin as well as surrounding the organs, and this was all floating in a half-inch thick layer after the stock was done. I scooped most of it out to keep for the dogs along with the skin and some of the less desirable pieces of meat. After stripping and shredding all the good meat from the bones I strained the stock, squeezed the remaining juices from the vegetables using cheesecloth, and put everything in the fridge to wait for dinner the next night. To see what I included in the soup base see my recipe Whole Chicken Stock.
Using my Rotisserie Chicken Noodle recipe I prepped the stew just like any other. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the final product especially considering how old and fatty the chicken ended up being. While the meat wasn’t the most tender it had good flavor and thanks to the Instant Pot, it was absolutely as delicious as it was possibly going to get. Overall I’m very happy with the result and the experience I gained in the process.
One thing I found very surprising was how quickly the soup spoiled, but this was to be expected given that the only preservative of any kind was a few teaspoons of salt which was mostly for flavor. After dinner I had immediately packed a thermos of soup and placed it in the fridge for my husband to take to work the next day. He happened to take a working lunch that day and wasn’t able to reheat and enjoy the soup, so nearly 16 hours after he had first removed the thermos from the fridge and tossed it in his lunchbox he opened it back up to finish it for dinner. Unfortunately for him it had literally begun to sour and had a terribly unpleasant odor and taste. Now if this had been a can of Campbell’s Chunky it probably would have been fine, and I wouldn’t have given a second thought to reheating that type of product at the end of the day. This was a valuable demonstration of the perish-ability of whole foods and the quality of the standard American’s diet nowadays.
Unfortunately, as I found out the next day, I was correct in assuming she was not the only hen who was predating our egg supply. We still have at least one hen who is eating eggs that I will need to butcher very soon. Because I was very focused on the task at hand I wasn’t able to get any pictures or video this time but I definitely will be sure to update this post when I find out who the remaining culprits are.
Is there something you’ve wanted to try on the homestead but have been dragging your feet about? I’d love to know what skills you want to practice. Leave me a comment below!
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