<Warning, a bit graphic>
If you have chickens for eggs, sooner or later you’ll need to deal with the fact that your chickens are aging and are no longer producing eggs. Ideally you’ve thought this question through ahead of time and are prepared to make some decisions. Many people who view their chickens as pets simply let the girls age gracefully; their backyard becomes a chicken retirement home and they return to buying eggs at the store. Other chicken owners, neither interested in geriatric hens, nor killing something they’ve lived with, will find a local farmer who will process the chickens for them, perhaps to be returned to eat, or maybe the previous owner has decided to just pretend their bird will have a happy retirement on the farm. I opted to accept the fact that things die in order for me to eat, and I process my chickens for food.
It’s not an easy step to take as those of us in Western countries are so comfortable with buying our meat wrapped in plastic that we tend to overlook the fact that what is in our pot was once a living being. Honestly, it’s even harder when you knew the being. Since I’m not going to stop eating meat, I knew I had to face up to the real facts of life, and be part of the death process for what ends up on my table. If you decide to go the same road, you’ll have to find the philosophy that works for you, in my case I’m trying to make it all part of the life cycle. My chickens have a good living, they give me eggs and entertainment, and their lives have meaning. Instead of just letting that life fade away with time, I’ve decided that their deaths should have meaning too. I work very hard at making sure the end is quick, that there’s a minimum of fear and hopefully no pain. I personally can’t make the motion that ends their life, but my partner can. Here’s the process we do.
Processsing a chicken for food
It just works better if their crops are empty, so do this in the morning before they’ve been fed.
Start a large pot of water boiling. Outside is best if you can do it.
End her life quickly and painlessly
Catch your chicken and hold her upside down. Birds have very small brains, and all the blood rushing to their heads calms them down, and I think makes them kind of senseless. While I’m holding the bird upside down, my partner puts one hand on her shoulder, the other around her neck near her head and does a very fast pull and twist. The quick twisting motion dislocates her spine and severs the spinal cord immediately. Even if she’s still twitching, she is dead.
Next you need to remove the head and allow the blood to escape. You can use whatever method you want since the bird is feeling nothing at this point. A sharp knife set underneath the feathers works, a sharp ax and a quick blow, or a good pair of garden lopper. Whatever you choose, let the bird bleed out for a while after the head has been removed.
Pluck the feathers
Now you need to remove the feathers. To get them loose, dip the bird into the pot of boiling water and hold her in there for about two minutes. Pull on a feather to see how loose they are and dip longer if necessary. My pot is small so I have to dip first by the feet, and then hold the neck and dip again. Yuck, but I haven’t figured out a better way.
Pull the feathers off. This is a mess no matter what. If you have access to a defeathering machine, go for it, otherwise you have to hold up a bird and pull off handfuls of wet feathers that stick everywhere. Most come off easily, others you’ll have to pull off one at a time. The wings are the worst, I think.
Remove the organs
Now you’ll need to remove the guts. We go inside to the sink to do this. Slice around the anus being careful not to nick the intestine. Open the area where the spine attaches to the body at the chest. If you’ve opened everything correctly you should be able to reach in, grab a handful of chicken insides and pull everything out at once. My partner pulls from the butt end to avoid spilling anything that might leak from the intestine into the cavity if the chicken. You’ll see all the expected bits; liver, heart, intestine, but you’ll also find dozens of eggs in decreasing sizes (if you are processing a hen). This is normal, and you can eat those egg yolk if you want to. I don’t, although I don’t have good reason. I’m just not there yet. If you like chicken insides, these are perfectly fine to cook and eat, just like any bird you’d get from the store.
Rinse and rest the bird
After you’ve removed everything, rinse the bird well, inside and out. You’ll notice that she’s gotten very stiff. This is normal. What you’ll want to do is let the bird rest in the refrigerator for three days before you freeze or cook her. Alternatively you can freeze immediately, but let your chicken rest for three days in the refrigerator after you thaw. Skipping this step will give you a tough meals since you didn’t allow the muscle fibers to relax before cooking.
If this is a spent layer, a couple years old, your only good option for cooking is soup. She will be tough, but very full of flavor. Put the bird in your crock pot, or on the stove on low heat and simmer all day/overnight. This long slow cooking will remove most of the flavor from the meat so I usually just cut up the carcass and put the meat back into the soup. You could try making chicken salad or some other meal that mixes the meat into something with flavor. The soup will remind you of Grandma’s chicken soup from way back when. Wow. Flavor.
If you’ve processed a pullet, a bird under a year old, go ahead and roast her, or cook up your chicken any way you’d cook a bird from the grocery store. You’ll suddenly discover what chicken was meant to taste like.
If you’ve managed to put off doing in a bird until she is four or five, there isn’t much you can do with her. Go ahead and do the broth thing, but she’ll be extremely tough and you’ll end up giving the meat to the dog, or back to the other chickens.
Really, the hardest part is the decision to do this, but it was important enough to me to try.