.....or rather, how *I* process chickens.
Everyone has their own ways, tips, tricks and methods. In the end through, we all have the same purpose - to turn a living animal into dinner. I'll try to go though the steps here - and try to separate the must haves from my opinion, but I'm making no promises.
First off, if you didn't understand, this will be regarding killing an animal. If you are not comfortable with this, please, back out of this page, and check out the pages of some other great peeps here on BYC. This will most likely fall under *graphic*. Again, please back out if you aren't wishing to learn how to turn a chicken into dinner.
Ok then. First, to make chicken dinner, you have to have your chicken. Most folks raise Cornish X, but all chicken out there is chicken, and will still be tasty when cooked right. I personally pick up chickens from folks in the area - older hens, roosters, and various unwanted chickens. The owners know I will be processing them.
1. Your chicken MUST be healthy.
Do not make chicken dinner out of a chicken that isn't in good health. It's not worth the effort, and it might cost you a lot more than you'd save. Check the chicken for clear eyes and nose, easy breathing, normal poop, normal chicken actions. Be wary of a lethargic chicken that sits with it's eyes closed and doesn't act like a normal chicken. This rule can somewhat be bent for Cornish X on the verge of CHF, but I process mainly standard and bantam chickens that should be expected a lifetime of a few years or more. They must be healthy.
2. Restrain your chicken.
There is a LOT of ways to accomplish this. Cones are great, tieing the legs and hanging upside down is good, some folks use duct tape to keep flapping down, even letting it run around is OK if you're down with blood all over the place. The main thing is when you are going to do the deed, you have to keep the bird steady and quiet so you can make a clean, humane kill. My personal favorite way involves my gambrel system for hanging deer ($17 at Walmart), a rope, and a bucket with something heavy in the bottom, and lined with a heavy garbage bag. I take the gambrel hooks off my system, and tie the rope on to the pully. I make a loop at the end of the rope. When I get the chicken, I immediately put him upside down, so that he goes limp and quiet. Handle him gently so he doesn't spook. I slip the rope over both feet, and lower him until it's taut. The pulley system allows me to raise and lower him as needed. After I make my cut, I'll lower him into the bucket, which will keep the blood contained, will keep him quiet because it's dark, and keep his wings contained when he starts flapping.
3. Kill your chicken.
There are more ways to kill a chicken than to de-hair a feline. It's a matter of finding what you are comfortable with, that gives you the quickest, most humane kill. Some methods are cutting a vein in the neck, cutting both veins, cutting the head off, breaking the neck, on and on. Find out what YOU are most comforable with that gives the quickest kill. My personal method is cutting one vein. I use a scalpel, which run fairly cheap and can be purchased online (I buy from Havels). A box of blades will last a LONG time, and are useful for many things. I usually grasp the neck feathers of the chicken, like grasping the scruff of a dog or cat, and it will tighten the skin around the front of the throat. I prefer this way so I can get a good solid cut the first time. A note - feathers are hard to cut with a knife, and can make your cut incorrect. The front of the neck has a nice featherless area, and when you scruff, it shows up well. This is your cut area. I like to lay the blade of the scalpel on that spot, and hold gently until the bird is absolutely not moving, and I'm ready. When all is calm, I pull the neck of the chicken to me and into the blade, and the blade down and away from me. The cut is deep and fast, and usually spurts blood out. I then immediately put the bird down into the bucket to bleed out.
All critter will move at the brink of death if the nervous system from the brain to the body isn't interrupted. The chicken will most likely hang limp for a minute or so, and then the flapping and random moving will come. At this point, the chicken is well past the point of no return, and the movement is the random nerves firing off. He's not feeling a thing. This is the hard part for many people, and it is ok to take a few minute walk from the scene - chicken is not going anywhere, and there is nothing to do but wait. Within a few minutes, everything is done, and the chicken is very dead. I usually give a shake to the body to make sure there isn't any residual activity left - if it's still stiff, some death throes might come, if it's completely limp, all is done. Chicken is ready for dinner prep.
4. Get those feathers off!
There aren't any recipies for feathers that I know, and they are something that's gotta go if it's dinner time. You can skin or pluck, your choice. I prefer to skin bantams, and pluck large fowl, because I like roast chicken skin, and well, I'm not going to roast a bunch of bantams (they make great stock though). I take an additional step of washing off the excess blood and dirt from the chicken, I find it keeps my kitchen cleaner and my scald water last longer (and not stink!). I merely rinse well with a garden hose.
Skinning is fairly easy and I prefer to cut the legs off the chicken from the joint down. I also cut the wings off. When those cuts are made, I cut the breast skin, and then just peel the skin richt off. I usually make a cut to remove the tail, and then skin up the neck so I can remove the crop and the neck. Cut off the neck with the feathers and skin on the head, and you're all skinned.
Scalding and plucking takes more time, but if you like roast chicken with skin, it's the only way to keep a good skin. I have a large pot which I fill about 5" from the top with water and a good squirt of dish soap. Note - add the dishsoap AFTER the water - you're not looking for a heap of suds! Bring the water to about 150 - not boiling. I like it where I can put my finger in for a moment and NOT get burned. Too hot, and you will burn yourself. Too cold, and the plucking will not go well. Once the water is to temp, put the bird in. I use a pair of tongs to dip and swish around. After a few seconds, find a long wing feather and give it a tug. If it comes out, take the bird out. If it doesn't, keep on swishing. It should take 10 to 30 seconds to get a good scald where the wing feather slips out with a tug. Take the bird and put it in a sink or bucket to drain off.
If you didn't have burning scald water, you can start plucking right away. The feathers should almost rub right off, and just go hogwild and grab handfuls off. At this point, don't go for a perfect pluck, just get as much off as you can.
Once the bird is plucked out mostly, you may have some "pin feathers", which are just immature feathers that are in the skin. They are little bits, look kinda like someone stuck a pencil lead in there. That's normal. If you're processing an older bird, you may have a lot of "hairs". This is also normal. You can pull them out or singe them off, or even leave them. They don't hurt anyone. At this point, I also cut off the neck and the legs at the joint. I also open the neck up and remove the crop. This usually is stuck to the front of the breast. If you give some feed before slaughtering, it will make the crop easier to locate. Just gently peel it off, and then cut the tube as close to the breast as you can. You can also cut the neck off at the breast. I find it easiest to give a hearty whack with a butcher knife. There isn't too much to it.
5. Get out the guts.
Guts need to go. You can cut off the main meat from the bird (breast, legs and wings) and leave the guts in the carcass and chuck it, or you can gut the bird for a traditional whole bird. There are tasty bits in there as well, which go a long way to help make a good stock or even treat The best is to watch a video of the process, it's hard to explain. I like to make a cut on the sides of the vent, where there are "bones" of the pelvis to guide. If it's an older chicken, you might have a LOT of deep yellow fat in there- like a fist sized mass of fat. It's good to render down for cooking. Once I make my first cut, I cut around the vent, and then open the bird up. Reach on in, and just use your hands to loosen everything from the walls. There is a big hard mass in there that makes a great handle - this is the gizzard. If you loosen things up, you can grab this and pull, and most everything will come out. If you choose, you can save the gizzard and the liver. Watch out on the liver - there is a dark green part that must be removed carefully - this is the gallbladder and big time yuck. You'll have to reach in again for the second round - the heart and the lungs. The lungs are not like mammal lungs, they are actually squished right up in the ribs and STUCK in there. I use a finger to loosen to get under it, and peel it out. The heart should come out with a pull as well. Once everything comes out, you should have a hole out the front, here you can check for bits of windpiper or esophagus, and remove them. Clean up what you want to keep, and dispose of the rest.
6. Clean up
I give the carcass a thorough washing up and then do the final go over for feathers. Rinse the insides out well, and let it drain for a few.
7. Pack and rest
You can put the final bird in a ziplock bag, a vacuum sealed bag, lots of plastic wrap and freezer paper, many ways. Air tight is the key. Also, older birds really need a good rest to get the rigor out and give a chance for nature to let the meat tenderize a bit. This is pretty easy - just pack up and put in a fridge for a few days. I usually go 3-4. After that, they can go in the freezer. Alternatively, you can freezer and rest after thawing, but I personally prefer to do all the resting in the beginning. I think the results freeze better and cook up better.