Saturday, 29 October 2016

Eating your chickens

One of our four too many
Of the many who keep hens for home egg production, it seems that relatively few are willing to consider the birds themselves as a food source. It's easy enough to understand the reasons behind this reluctance, but it is a sad waste of a useful resource.

The position becomes tenuous when you consider that not a few of those too squeamish to eat their own chickens will quite happily purchase a supermarket chicken or choose a chicken dish on a restaurant menu. Chances are, those birds will have had a far less pleasant existence than the ones you've reared and kept at home.

Examined honestly, it ends up looking less like a decision made in the interests of chicken-kind as a whole and more as a taking of the easy way out for oneself. The killing and butchering of an animal (particularly one that you may be fond of) is not a task relished by the sane. To my way of thinking though, it is a task that any eater of meat ought to be able to cope with on a conceptual level at least and on a practical level if you're in a position to do so.

Provided you can do the deed humanely and efficiently, eating your own chickens makes a lot of sense. This is particularly so if you hatch eggs to keep your flock going. There's always an excess of cockerels. Keeping more than one cock bird in a flock of less than around a dozen is no kindness to any of them. A cock of four or five month's age on the other hand makes delicious eating. Even a hen who has come to the end of her laying career will yield a succulent and nutritious batch of chicken soup.

The first time we hatched a batch of eggs, we hit it lucky. Out of eight eggs in the incubator, five hatched and only one was a boy. Second time around, the hatch rate was seven out of ten, but four of them were boys! Including their dad, therefore, we were ending up with at least four cockerels too many.

As the boys reached maturity, things in the flock started getting ugly and chicken was very much on the menu.

Our cone. Found on the beach and cut to size
The first point to deal with, and perhaps also the most daunting, is the dispatch. The three main methods all have their adherents. There's the 'off with his head', the pulling (or dislocation) of the neck and the 'go for the jugular'. All are pretty hands-on. Carried out correctly, all are humane. In any case, a cone is an accessory that lies somewhere between 'very useful' and 'essential'.

It's an inescapable fact that the killing of a chicken, by whichever humane method, is accompanied by quite a lot of tremendously powerful flapping. This is caused by muscle spasms that occur at the point of death and, though not indicative of suffering, can be distressing to witness as well as messy and bruising to the meat. Popping the bird into the cone, either immediately post- ('off with his head' or neck pull) or pre- ('go for the jugular') slaughter, eliminates this problem very effectively.

An old iron makes a good weight
Nearly ready for the pot
Next comes plucking. Plunge the carcass into a large bucket of very hot (too hot to touch, but not hot enough to start cooking the bird) water. A little washing up liquid added to the water will help it to penetrate the feathers. A weight of some sort is useful to keep everything under the water surface. This step loosens the feathers so you can pull them out more easily and without tearing the skin. Test for readiness by tugging on a few feathers. The large 'flight feathers' at the wing tips are the toughest, so if you can pull these out then the rest should be good to go. Five to ten minutes of soaking will suffice, if the water is hot enough. When the feathers are loose, pour away the hot water and replace with cold to cool the carcass and then go ahead and pluck. Keep a bucket handy for the feathers (there are loads of them). Feathers can go on the compost heap or be buried with the head and intestines. Either way, they'll contribute to your soil quality.

I don't propose to go into the nitty gritty of butchering here. I may do so in a later post, but for those needing the information, there are good YouTube videos out there and at least one really excellent book.

Now it's nearly time to transform all that high-grade, ethically produced protein into your favourite chicken dish. First, a few points to bear in mind. 1) This is going to have a lot more flavour than supermarket chicken. 2) If your hens are of a type bred purely for laying, they won't have a vast amount of meat on them. 'Dual-purpose' birds are meatier and 'broilers' are the meatiest of all (this is what you get in the supermarket). 3) The meat is tougher than what you'd get from a broiler (hence the focus on slow-cooked casseroles or soups). This can be mitigated by brining the meat before cooking: Soak in cold water with a bit of salt and vinegar (2 tbsp salt + 1 tbsp white wine vinegar per litre of water) for at least a couple of hours before cooking.
Southern fried chicken

If you're an omnivore, gird your loins and get on with it. It's not an easy thing to do, but it does get easier with practice. It completes the circle of chicken keeping and reminds us of what it means to be an animal, part of a food chain and the web of life on earth.


  1. Very cool Jim. are an excellent writer. .also Congrats to Sonja on her sailing cookbook! Simon super impressed!

    1. Very kind of you Heather, thank you. :-)


Comments and questions are welcome.
If you've tried something after reading about it here, or have suggestions, please tell us about it!