Keeping birds for meat

General principles

Any bird destined for the table should not be given a name - you do not eat your friends - unless they are called paxo, sage and onion or something equally as evocative.

These instructions are for you to produce food for your own family. There are meat hygiene regulations abounding if you try and sell a processed bird. These are certainly achievable, but get experience on a small scale first.

Before slaughter, birds of any species should be starved for 12 hours but still allowed access to water. This ensures that the gut is nearly empty and that therefore poultry feed cannot spoil in it. They need to be handled with great care as any bruising will be obvious after processing.

Processing birds for the table is quite hard physical work, so plan your time - it is easier if only a few are done at once, so just slaughter those you know you can pluck and clean in the appropriate time. If you have not done this before, do one bird at a time. It does get easier with practice.

Chickens

You have bred some chicks and there are inevitably spare cockerels. Separate these from the females and run them together in a fairly restricted area so they can fatten up a bit. If they bicker, add an older cock bird to keep the peace, or provide extra entertainment such as hung up nettles. Pure breeds can take 6-10 months to get to an edible size, so allow for this time by a suitable hanging period to tenderize the meat. If broiler chicks are available in your area these can be reared on grass and are edible from 8 weeks of age, needing very little hanging time. They can be slaughtered over a period of time as the males and females grow at different rates. Do not be tempted to keep some back to breed your own as these will just continue to grow and become unable to walk. These broilers are the end product, not the breeding lines.

 

 

Indian Game cross Dorking was featured on the TV programme, River Cottage, and although good tasting, takes about 10 months to get there. Any of your spare cockerels would be as good, due to the good life they have led.

 

 

 

 

Waterfowl

Spare drakes can be kept together in a fairly restricted area and fed on barley or wheat to fatten them a little. Edible from about 5 months old, particularly the heavier types but check that they are through a moult before killing as the pin feathers are a nightmare to remove. Shorter to no hanging period.

Geese are sometimes reared on grass and fattened on barley for Michaelmas, but Christmas is a good time as well. Hang for 5-7 days. The fat from a goose is spectacular for roasting potatoes in throughout the following year.

Turkeys

If young stags are to be kept together for meat production, it is sometimes useful to put an older stag in with them to keep the peace. Turkeys can be killed at any time from 22 weeks old for meat, as long as there is a bloom of fat under the skin and the feathers are through a moult. If doing for Christmas, plan carefully and hang for at least a week.

Slaughter

This needs to be done out of sight and sound of other poultry. On a small scale, the humane way to kill a chicken is by dislocating the neck. There are two sets of blood vessels in the neck and only by dislocating it can you disrupt blood and nerve supply to the brain immediately and therefore first render the bird unconscious and then shortly afterwards, dead. Neck dislocation should only be carried out if immediate unconsciousness is induced without causing pain or suffering. Small numbers of birds on home premises can be killed by neck dislocation without prior stunning which may take two people with a large goose or turkey. (Stunning is usually done in slaughterhouses with one electrode on the overhead line where the birds are hung and the other in a tank of water where the birds? heads are dunked, thereby rendering them unconscious before they are bled.)

There are killing cones commercially available which avoids bruising of the wings and carcase for turkeys ? the birds are placed into the cone head down. On large birds an airgun can be carefully used at close range, putting the barrel under the throat and pointing towards the back of its skull, then dislocate the neck to allow space for the blood to pool. Cutting the throat or removing the head is horribly messy.  It is the responsibility of the keeper to ensure that poultry are killed humanely.

Plucking and hanging

Current advice is to bleed the bird by hanging it by its legs and letting the blood pool in the neck cavity, created by the dislocation.

Once dead, pluck the body feathers all over and to half way up the neck of the bird while it is still warm. Take just two or three feathers at a time and pluck against the direction of growth. A warm carcase means that the feathers not only come out quite easily, the skin is stronger and tears less easily. Waterfowl have two layers of feathers with Muscovy ducks having three layers, so these can be dipped in scalding water for 60 seconds and then the feathers come out easily, but you will need quite a large receptacle to do this for geese. Or waterfowl can be ironed (with an old iron) over an old tea towel as the heat, in the same way as the scalding water, loosens the feathers.

Or you can dip the bird in hot paraffin wax (a certain amount of specialised equipment is needed here) which, when it cools, is peeled off and all the feathers come too. The wax is then re-melted , the feathers strained off and the wax ready to be used again. Plucking is a personal preference and will also depend on how much time you have ? a chicken would take about 15-20 minutes plucked by hand by an experienced person.

Most people recommend plucking the whole wings, but there is not much meat on them and it takes a while ? personal preference, again.

If you wish to hang birds, do so after they have been plucked but not gutted. The timing is, again, personal preference, but in summer hang a young chicken in a cool flyproof place for 2 days;  in winter, a week. This helps to break down the muscle fibres and tenderise the meat. Older birds may need longer. Supermarket broiler chickens are not hung at all, but as they are only 39 days old this does not matter. On a small scale, birds are likely to be very much older than this, therefore hanging can be useful.

To make a simple flyproof larder: take a melamine bookcase, about 60 x 60 x 20cm deep (24?x 24?x 8? deep), the middle shelf removed and a broom handle cut to fit and fixed near the top, make short wire s-shaped hooks to hang over this and then you can hang your poultry with string from these hooks. For the open front of the bookshelves, get a fly screen window kit which is fixed with stuck velcro so that when in place, there are strips of velcro holding the mesh to the melamine edges and no flies can get in. Put in a cool place.

How much meat can you expect to get? The general rule is that an oven-ready bird weighs 70-75% of its liveweight, but of course the bones are part of this.

If you wish to consume any older birds which would really only be suitable for casseroles, skin them instead of plucking, so sort out the hanging time, then make a shallow cut over the breast and peel back the skin up to the neck and down to the hocks. With a sharp knife, take off the breast meat by cutting along the breastbone then in a slight arc, down towards the wing and along the wishbone. If you can be bothered to remove the tendons from the legs, this will make more tender meat, but if not, cut the leg off at the joint. Then press the leg away from the body until you can see the hip joint, then cut the leg meat where it joins the body. This is a speedy method and can be used on any of the poultry species, but the cooking should involve some liquid as otherwise the meat will dry out.

Processing or cleaning

Equipment: rubber gloves, disposable cloth, sharp knife, kitchen scissors, blowtorch or methylated spirits, string (not plastic) for trussing.

When the required hanging time has elapsed, prepare to gut the bird in your chosen, clean, processing area. Stainless steel is a good surface on which to do this as it can be cleaned with bleach both before and after the processing. Melamine is second best, plastic surfaces can score from the knife and hold bacteria and ordinary wood is uncleanable (a butcher?s block being made from very dense and therefore cleanable wood).

The remaining feather stubs or fine hairs need to be removed, either with a blowtorch or with lit methylated spirits in a small metal container. Either way, this singeing will smell strongly.

Then cut off the part of the wing still having feathers by slicing down through the flap of skin to the elbow joint with the knife and then bend the joint open and cut or snip away.
The legs are next. Break the centre of the shank on a sharp edge (such as a table). Twist the shank and pull at an angle so that the bone sticks out making a T shape with the rest of the leg. Pull this so that the tendons come out from the thigh area. Good for your pectoral muscles! For large birds, there is commercial gadget called a Sinupul (Bingham Appliances) which with neat leverage removes the tendons from the largest turkey or goose.

Cut off the head and upper neck with the scissors and turn the bird onto its breast. Slice through the skin to between the shoulders with the knife, exposing the neck giblet. Work this free of the underlying crop and cut off at the shoulders, keep for gravy. Work around the trachea and oesophagus with your fingers, then cut these close to the shoulders. Pull the crop and any other tissue away from the breast skin and discard. The bird can be stuffed in this cavity later if wanted.

With the sharp knife, cut around the vent in a teardrop shape. Work your fingers into the body cavity and pull out all the intestines including the heart. Cut through the muscle of the gizzard and peel off the inner lining, keeping the purple muscular part for gravy. Keep the heart and liver as offal but make sure that the gall bladder is carefully removed intact so that it does not taint the liver. Discard the intestines. If necessary, wipe the cavity with clean kitchen paper before stuffing.

 

Trussing

With a yard length of string, tie a single overhand around the parson's nose at the centre point of the string. Take each long end over the hock joint and back towards the parson?s nose, pull tight, then take the string up and over between the leg and the body, flip the body over and tie at the back, trapping the folded over breast skin. Then take the string to the front and tie on top of the breast.

            

 

 

Bag, label, tie and freeze (should still be good after a year in a domestic freezer). Thaw slowly (overnight in the fridge) before thoroughly cooking, or eat freshly roasted.