Home processing of poultry - Poultry Producer (2022)

Home processing of poultry - Poultry Producer (1)

Quick facts

  • Always wash your hands, equipment and work space after coming in contact with raw poultry.
  • Top quality poultry carcasses come from healthy, well-finished and well-fleshed birds.
  • Don’t feed poultry 6 to 8 hours before slaughter.
  • At the time of slaughter you must kill, dress, chill and pack the birds.
  • You can split or cut up the carcasses based on your cooking intentions.

Food handling safety

Bacteria that cause foodborne illness reside on raw poultry carcasses. Always wash your hands, equipment and working surfaces after coming in contact with raw carcasses. This is especially important before handling or preparing other foods.

Meat and poultry product inspection

Federal and state laws regulate meat and poultry product inspections. Producers can process the following without inspection.

  • Birds for the producer’s own household consumption
  • Up to 1,000 chickens, turkeys or geese for sale to other consumers within the state

Uninspected poultry can’t be sold or exchanged across states. If you have any questions about the small sale exemption under the provisions of the Poultry Products Inspection Act, reach out to:

  • Your poultry extension specialist
  • State meat and poultry regulatory agency
  • Office of the Meat and Poultry Inspection Program, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Selecting birds for slaughter

High quality poultry carcasses come from live birds with the following traits at slaughter time.

  • Good health
  • Well-finished
  • Well-fleshed

Thus, good care during the growing phase is key to producing poultry meat. Different strains and breeds of poultry vary in growing time to reach the best size and health for slaughter.

You will normally process all the healthy birds from a flock. Don’t use birds that have any of the following when processed:

  • Lumps or spots of any size on the surface of the liver.
  • Any measurable amount of fluid in the body cavity.
  • Orange fat in a poorly fleshed birds rather than yellow or white fat.
  • Any single internal organ that’s two or more times the normal size (compare with similar sized bird). Ignore gallbladder size.
  • Breast meat the same color as the thigh and leg meat.
  • Meat with white streaks or an area that is larger compared to the same area on the other side of the bird.

Select your best birds for marketing. When showing, youth will want to pick healthy, well-fleshed, well-finished birds that are free from defects such as:

  • Breast blisters
  • Bruises
  • Skin tears
  • Other similar defects

You can process birds with defects by trimming damaged tissue and still have a good carcass for meat. Don’t attempt to dress pin-feathery birds. Wait a week or two until these feathers grow out and are easier to see and remove during processing.

Preparing for processing

Don’t feed poultry 6 to 8 hours before slaughter but allow access to water. Fasting reduces the feed content in the digestive tract. This helps prevent contamination during processing.

Have a wire-bottom holding cage or crate to help keep birds clean during fasting. Dirty birds contaminate the scald water, and thus contaminate poultry meat during processing.

Processing facilities and equipment

Processing poultry at home requires little or no special equipment. If you have a small flock you can easily work with the facilities you have. But if you have large flocks, you may need more adequate facilities or have the birds custom processed.

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Facilities

Make sure the processing area is clean, has a good water supply and is free of flies.

Set up your facility with the processing procedure in mind.

  1. Killing, scalding, picking, singeing
  2. Eviscerating (removal of internal organs) and washing
  3. Chilling and packaging

Finish the first step before the second step to reduce contamination risk. You could also carry out the first step in a separate room or outside. Keep the area supplied and arranged for ease and cleanliness of work.

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Knives

Always sharpen your knives before starting work.

  • Boning and cutting knives are good for dressing poultry at home.
  • Special knives with thin, sharp blades and points make some steps of eviscerating easier.
  • If needed, a pinning knife can help scrape off pin feathers after removing larger feathers.
  • You can use kitchen shears to harvest and clean giblets.

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Containers

Clean plastic or metal garbage type cans make good containers for scalding and chilling water. Like containers or boxes lined with plastic bags work well for holding feathers and offal.

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Thermometer

You can better adjust scald water temperature using a thermometer that works between 120 and 212 F.

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Work table

Make sure you have a sturdy table to work on. Most tables won’t have a clean working surface so you should use a disposable plastic cover.

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Pan

Giblets should be placed in a clean kitchen pan large enough to hold giblets from the number of birds you process.

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Packaging

Have a good supply of packaging so you can pack birds for handling and storage after processing and chilling.

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Killing and dressing birds

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Killing

  1. Carefully remove birds from coops and crates to reduce bruising.
  2. Place a bird in a killing cone or hang it from a shackle.
    • If you don’t have one of these, you can suspend poultry from a clothesline or other support by the feet. Use a short piece of rope with a small square of plywood held fast to the end by a knot.
  3. Hold the head in one hand and pull down for slight tension to steady the bird.
  4. Use a sharp knife to cut the bird’s throat from the outside just behind the lower jaw.
    • Hold the front part of the head securely to avoid cutting your hand.
    • This should cut the large and cross vein and allow them to bleed freely.
    • To reduce carcass contamination, don’t cut the esophagus or windpipe.
  5. Hold the bird’s head for a while until the bleeding and flopping stops.
    • This prevents excess blood splatter.
  6. Catch the blood in a container.

Other farm slaughter methods include wringing the bird’s neck or chopping off the head with an axe. Not as much blood may be pumped out of the carcass by those methods as with a good throat cut.

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Removing feathers

Dry picking

Dry picking usually only occurs for some waterfowl processing. Pick these birds right after they have been bled.

Scalding

Time and temperatures

Keep boiling water nearby to keep the scald water hot enough during the entire processing period. Always monitor the water temperature with a thermometer.

  • Scald young birds at 125 to 130 F for 30 to 75 seconds. The time needed for good feather removal leaves the outer layer of skin intact.
  • Scald older birds near 140 F for 30 to 75 seconds for easier feather removal. The cuticle layer of the skin will normally come off at this temperature.
  • Scald duck and geese at 160 to 170 F for 1 to 2 minutes. Waterfowl are harder to remove feathers from.

Adding detergent to the scald water helps water go through the feathers, especially on waterfowl.

The time and temperature of the scalding method affects the appearance of the dressed carcass and how easy the feathers come out.

Lower temperatures require a longer scald time. Higher temperatures require a shorter scald time but increase the risk of over scalding. Higher temperatures also result in the loss of the yellow cuticle skin layer, which makes the skin easier to tear when removing feathers.

Scalding procedure
  1. Immerse the bird, head first in the scald water while holding the bird by the shanks.
  2. Move the bird up and down and side to side in the scalding container for more even and thorough scalding. When you achieve a proper scald, you can easily remove the tail and wing feathers.
  3. Re-dip the birds for a short time if there are hard to remove feathers.

Picking

  1. After scalding, hang the bird back on the rope or shackle.
  2. Using slight pressure, gently rub the carcass to quickly and easily remove the feathers.
    • Don’t delay picking after the scalding.
  3. Develop a picking procedure. Pull the large tail and wing feathers first and then set a routine for removing the rest of the body feathers.
  4. Rinse the bird with water after removing most of the feathers.
  5. Using slight pressure, rub the carcass to remove any remaining small feathers and pinfeathers.
    • A pinning knife or a dull knife helps remove the small pinfeathers.

Waxing waterfowl

Dipping waterfowl in paraffin wax removes small feathers and down after you’ve removed most feathers.

Follow the wax manufacturer’s directions. Usually, dipping a fairly dry carcass, at least twice in a 135 to 160 F wax bath and then in cold water will build up a wax coat to remove feathers. Some directions instruct a higher temperature for the wax dip, with a dip in water or short air cooling period between wax dips.

Remove the wax when it’s at the flexible stage and isn’t cold enough to be brittle. You can reuse the wax by heating it and straining out the feathers. Dirt, blood and water will separate from the melted wax.

Singeing

Singeing usually isn’t needed for young birds. More mature chickens and turkeys may have a few hairs remaining after you remove the feathers. Use a bottle gas torch or an open flame on a gas range to singe these hairs. Be careful you don’t burn yourself or the bird’s skin.

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Eviscerating

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Removing the head and neck

Cut off the head between the head and first neck vertebra. Use a twisting motion to cut through the joint. Don’t try to cut through the bone.

Birds for frying or barbecuing

Remove the neck and skin with a shears or knife if you plan to cut up or split the bird for frying or barbecuing. Make sure you cut close to the carcass.

Birds for roasting

  1. Split the neck skin, inserting the knife through the skin at the point of the shoulders. Cut forward, guiding the knife up the back of the neck.
  2. Pull the skin loose from the neck.
  3. Pull the crop, trachea (windpipe), gullet (esophagus) loose from the neck skin and cut off where they enter the body cavity.
  4. Cut off the neck. You may prefer to do this after chilling the carcass. Cut the neck muscle into the bone around the neck at the shoulder and then twist off.
  5. Wash the neck and then place it in the giblet chilling container.

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Removing the shanks

With the bird breast-up on a table, hold the shanks with one hand. Apply upward pressure on the hock joint. With a sharp knife, cut through the hock joint starting on the inside of the joint. Pull the joint into the knife while slightly moving the bird’s feet to help you cut through the joint.

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Removing the oil gland

With the bird breast-down on the table, start the cut 1 inch forward from the oil gland nipple. Cut deep to the tail vertebra. Then follow the vertebra to the end of the tail in a scooping motion to remove the oil gland.

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Opening the abdomen

The “J” cut and the bar cut are two cuts for opening the body cavity. Producers often use the “J” cut for broilers and other small poultry not trussed when cooked. Producers desire trussing for roasting turkeys, capons or other large fowl. Thus they use the bar cut for these birds.

Making the “J” cut

  1. Pull the abdominal skin forward and up away from the tail of the bird.
  2. Cut through the skin and body wall. Start the knife point just to the right of the keel point and extend the cut to the tail next to the vent.
    • Make the cut slowly and don’t cut into the intestine.
    • Use a shallow cut with just the point of the knife penetrating the skin and body wall.
  3. Complete the cut around the vent, keeping the knife next to the back and tail far from the vent.
  4. Cut entirely around the vent and pull the vent and end of the large intestine out away from the opening of the body cavity.
    • This will prevent contaminating the inside of the carcass.

Making the bar cut

  1. Make a half-circle cut around the vent next to the tail.
  2. Use short, slow strokes and avoid cutting the intestine.
  3. Insert your index finger up over the intestine through the opening you cut.
  4. Use your finger as a guide and extend the cut with a knife or shears to complete the circle and free the vent.
  5. Pull the vent and short section of the intestine out to prevent contaminating the inside of the carcass.
  6. At 1.5 to 2 inches below the keel point, make a cut from side to side of the bird about 3 inches long.
    • This will leave a bar of skin about 1.5 to 2 inches wide between this cut and the opening where you cut the vent free.
  7. Thread the end of the intestine up over the skin bar and leave it extended from the body cavity.

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Removal of internal organs (viscera or entrails)

  1. Stretch the abdominal opening, and insert your hand as far forward as you can in the body cavity. Detach the organs from the wall as you go.
  2. Pick up the heart between your index and second finger.
  3. Cup your hand and gently pull out all the organs. Use a slight twisting motion as you bring the organs out of the body.

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Harvesting giblets

You should remove the gizzard, liver and heart from the other organs.

  1. Cut the gizzard from the stomach and intestine and peel excess fat from the outside.
  2. Remove the heart. Trim off the heart sac and the heavy vessels around the top part.
  3. Trim off the liver but be careful to not cut the gallbladder.
    • You can cut or pinch off the gallbladder from the liver.
  4. Split the gizzard and open it under a stream of water to remove its contents.
  5. Peel the lining from the gizzard by putting your thumbnail under the lining at the edge of the cut surface and pulling away from the muscle
    • The lining is easier to remove after the gizzard has cooled slightly.
    • You may want to split the gizzard lengthwise to its lining and try to remove the unbroken lining and its contents. This will avoid contaminating the muscle with the gizzard contents.
  6. Rinse the giblets well and place them in a pan of cool water.

Removing the lungs and gonads

  1. Put your hand in the body cavity to reach the lungs.
  2. Starting next to the ribs, roll your index finger towards the backbone on each side of the bird to pick out the lungs.
  3. Pull the gonads (ovaries or testes), if present, from the body cavity.
  4. Check the body cavity to be sure that you’ve removed all the desired parts. Thoroughly wash the inside of the carcass with a hose or under a faucet.
  5. Wash the outside of the bird and rub off all any dirt, pinfeathers, loose cuticle and blood.
  6. Place the carcass in the chill water container.

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Chilling and packing

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Chilling carcasses

You can pre-chill carcasses by placing them in a container of cold tap water continuously overflowing at a slow rate. This will cool the carcass to water temperature and further clean the carcass.

Chill poultry carcasses in ice and water to lower carcass temperature to 40 F before packing. You can chill smaller birds in a couple of hours. Turkeys and large capons or roasters will need to chill a few hours before reaching this temperature.

Remove the chilled carcasses from the ice water. Hang them by a wing and let them drain for about 10 minutes before placing them in bags for transport or storage. Make sure that you drain all the water from the bird before packing them.

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Packing carcasses

After chilling the giblets, wrap the heart, liver and gizzard in a small square of plastic food wrap or in a small plastic bag. Place the giblet pack and neck in the body cavity of the cooled carcass before packing.

On carcasses with a bar cut, cut the tail from the top of the bird down through the vertebrae. Don’t to cut the tail all the way off. Turn the tail down and tuck it under the bar strap. Flex the legs tightly against the carcass and work the legs under the skin bar to truss the bird.

Bagging carcasses

  1. Place the carcasses on a table.
  2. Smooth the neck skin down over the back of the bird
  3. Put the bird, head first, into a plastic bag of proper size.
  4. For a better package, put the end of a flexible plastic or rubber hose in the bag. Keep the bag snug around the hose and suck air from the bag. Remove the hose, twist the bag several times and secure it with a wire tie.

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Keeping the carcasses cold

Birds can also be frozen in locker wrap paper or aluminum foil. Refrigerate birds or freeze promptly after packaging them.

Don’t freeze birds until you have chilled them to 40 F or below. Only place a small number of unfrozen birds in home-type freezers at any one time. Placing a large number of unfrozen food in the freezer puts too much load on it and causes slow freezing of the unfrozen birds and partial thawing of already frozen products.

Chill birds thoroughly or freeze them before transporting them. Make sure you wrap packaged birds in several layers of newspaper or other insulating material. This will keep them cold during transport until they can be refrigerated or frozen again.

Splitting broilers or fryers

If you are cutting or halving birds, you can eviscerate them more simply. The fastest way to do this is the back splitting method. You can follow the same killing and feather removing procedures. Then remove the head, shanks, and the oil gland. You can split the birds in a few different ways. Try this method and determine which is the best cut to satisfy your processing needs.

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Splitting birds at the backbone

Use a short-bladed knife such as a linoleum knife or shears to cut through the bird’s back. Avoid cutting into the intestines or the crop.

Young birds

In young birds with easier to cut backbones, you may want to leave part of the backbone with each half of the bird. You can do this by cutting one side of the tailhead and cutting down the back from tail to neck. Cross through the backbone at the midpoint and end at the neck on the other side of the bird.

Spread the carcass open and make a cut around the vent to free the intestines. Pull the windpipe, crop and esophagus free from the neck skin (if you haven’t removed the neck already) and then remove the internal organs.

Older birds

Older birds have bones that are harder to cut. With old birds, you may want to make a single cut along one side of the backbone, starting either at the side of the neck or tailhead. Cut down both sides of the backbone if you plan to discard the backbone and neck completely. You can remove the backbone strip with the neck by extending the cuts through the skin and tissue below the neck and around the vent. You can then remove the entire backbone with internal organs.

You can process the giblets as described earlier. If you don’t throw away the neck, you can cut it from the backbone strip or remove it either before or after cutting along the backbone. Remove the lungs and any remaining bits and pieces of organs and rinse the carcass thoroughly.

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Splitting birds at the breast

Cut through the cartilage at the “V” of the wishbone and slit the neck skin. Pull apart the two halves from front to back. You can then pull the breastbone away from the half that remains attached. You may prefer to pop the keel bone loose by firmly holding the lower end of the keel in one hand and bending the shoulder bones downward with the other hand. Pull the keel bone out with the strip of cartilage attached to the lower end of the keel bone. You can then cut the bird in half where you removed the keel.

Cut the halves as you please for cooking.

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Cutting up whole carcasses

  1. Lay the carcass on its back on a cutting board.
  2. Cut the skin between the thighs and body of the bird with a sharp knife.
  3. Holding a leg in each hand, lift the carcass from the board.
  4. Bend the legs back until the hip joints snap free.
  5. Cut each leg from the body.
    • Cut from the back to the front close to the backbone.
    • Cut through the knee joint to separate the thigh from the drumstick.
    • Squeeze the thigh and drumstick together to help find the knee joint.
  6. Remove the wings.
    • Cut the inside of the wing just over the joint.
    • Cut down and around the joint to completely remove each wing.
    • You can cut off the wing tip or fold it back under the wing.
  7. Separate the breast from the back.
    • Place the carcass on the neck end.
    • Cut from the tail along each side of the backbone through the rib joints to the neck.
    • Cut the back in two pieces by bending it to find the joint, and then cutting through the meat and skin.
  8. Split the breast lengthwise.
    • Place it skin side down on the cutting board.
    • Cut through the white cartilage at the “V” of the neck.
    • Holding the breast firmly in both hands, bend each side back and push up on the breast from the underside to snap the breastbone free.
    • Remove the breastbone and cut the breast in half lengthwise.

Melvin Hamre, former Extension animal scientist

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