Next year we expect to produce all of our own milk, cheese, and eggs here on the property, in addition to a much larger portion of our fruits and veggies.
It’s also likely that we’ll raise chickens or turkeys for eating, so a while back I volunteered to help with the chicken “processing” (killing and cleaning) at a friend’s ranch, as much to take measure of my own determination as to learn the skills involved. The skills have already come in handy!
The Saturday before Thanksgiving, I was perusing the local Craigslist, and found someone offering two free Bronze turkeys. They were aging (the larger domestic turkeys don’t age well), and she didn’t want to kill them herself.
The turkeys lived with chickens in a nice place just outside of Eugene. I liked the woman and felt that she cared about their welfare and was a fellow aficionado of “clean food”. These were turkeys I’d feel OK eating…well, one of them. The bigger one was a tom (male), and blind in one eye because chickens can be really mean. He was enormous and healthy, and ended up being our Thanksgiving bird. His name? Thanksgiving. That’s him at the top of the post.
The other bird…she’s a sad case. “Improved” (intensively selectively bred) turkeys become so heavy so fast that they are often crippled just by their own weight. “Gimpy” isn’t as big as Thanksgiving (who must’ve been 30 lbs), but she has a deformed right leg and can only get around with a lot of lurching and flapping. The chickens saw this weakness, and began to peck her to death. They removed maybe a quarter of her feathers and left her with a multitude of raw wounds by the time she came to live with us.
Our accidental pet turkey looks pretty unhappy in this picture taken the day she came home, but she’s perked up now.
Photo by Teri
“Gimpy” originally escaped the butcher block because she just didn’t look healthy enough to eat. But something happened; as our neighbor put it, she “seems to want to live now”, so she’s a resident here for as long as she is satisfied with her life, though determining a turkey’s quality of life is guesswork for us. Away from the hectoring hens, she’s become more bright-eyed and energetic, and every morning we transport her by wheelbarrow from the predator-proofed henhouse to a grassy pasture where she can lurch about, eating bugs and grass and frustrating the hell out of our dog by her inaccessibility.
The rest of the post will be about butchering the big male turkey, and you have to click “more” to see it. But here’s how it turned out – home-processed turkey, homemade cranberry sauce and squash from Teri, fresh baked bread, and (of course!) a pumpkin pie brought over by a dear neighbor who we shared the holiday with. Note the “store boughten” beer – something we’re working to phase out, but if you have to buy them, the Deschutes Brewery ones are all really good.
Photo by Peter
If you’re a vegetarian, you might find the rest upsetting. If you’re not…well, this is the reality of meat, and it’s far more humane and hygienic than what happened to that “free-range organic” supermarket bird you probably just ate.
How to slaughter a turkey at home
This is by no means an expert or definitive guide, and we didn’t expect to be doing this so soon so there’s a lot of improvising going on, but it might be helpful to others who are making the sort of changes we are.
Step 1: No mincing words; you’ve gotta kill the turkey
We hung a pulley about 10 feet up in a tree and strung a cord through it. Turkeys, strangely, go really calm when inverted, so we looped the cord around his feet and quickly pulled him up. In the moments before he was properly upside-down, there was some struggle, but as soon as he was hanging by his feet the bird went quiet.
Though we both favored the idea of a quick beheading, most experienced homesteaders instead slit the throat and let the heart pump out the blood – and that’s the way I was taught to do chickens. Is it painful for the bird? I don’t know, I hope not. He barely objected when I slit his neck, though there was some flapping about right at the end. The theory is that if you cut off the head, the heart stops pumping and they don’t bleed out as well.
It was difficult to slit the throat of this creature who made the charming sounds and so willingly waddled along when we led him to the slaughter, but ethically far, far cleaner and more honest than any other way. This bird had a good life, with maybe a minute or two of confusion and fear at the end. A few tears were shed, and it was good; among the millions of turkeys that suffered miserable lives and deaths to fill ovens this week, this one was appreciated and treated gently at the end of a proper turkey sort of life.
It was hard, but made easier by the fact that these animals have been over-bred to the point where a bird much over 6 months old becomes grotesque, immobilized and eventually crippled by its own weight. If we raise turkeys, you can bet they’ll be un-“improved” types.
Step 2: Feathers, followed by more feathers, with feathers to come after that
This is the most time-consuming part of the job if you do it by hand. First we immersed the bird in 140° water, using half of a food-grade 55-gallon drum on top of our trusty Coleman stove. This loosens the feathers and starts cleaning up the bird.
Photo by Teri
After half a minute or so of dipping, feathers are starting to come out smoothly. The biggest ones are the hardest, so we scald until they can be yanked out – but too much scalding will harm the skin so there’s a balance to find.
Testing whether the feathers are loosened:
Photo by Teri
We got the birds on Saturday and had to process them on Sunday (in between we had to finish the henhouse so they’d be safe overnight!), so not everything was ideal. The wheelbarrow actually worked fine as a place to do the plucking, but it’s not very photogenic:
Photo by Teri
We ended up with a big bucket of feathers:
Photo by Teri
3. Innards (might be the “gross” part, but it is kind of fascinating)
To begin, you make a slit across the soft area between the breastbone and the tail. This must be a very shallow incision, because you do NOT want to open any of the organs inside. Gently work it open with your hand, until you can reach inside and gently cup the entrails to pull them out.
Photo by Teri
Before pulling out the intestines, you reach in with a finger and hold them aside while cutting around the vent (a bird’s all-purpose rear orifice). This way you can pull it in, then out through the first hole, ideally without spilling any of the contents.
Photo by Teri
Our dog LOVED the feet as snacks later:
Photo by Teri
Once you have most of the “guts” out, you go to the other end, chop off the head, and get to work on the neck. Experienced people use a butcher knife, but a hacksaw works quite well. The neck, like much else, will go into the soup pot later:
Photo by Teri
The toughest part of the innards is the lungs; they’re spongy, soft, and well anchored to the inside of the cavity. You can get a tool called a “lung scraper”, but we didn’t have time, so it was slow work by hand.
Photo by Teri
If you’re careful, you can get most of the innards out intact and attached to each other:
Photo by Teri
Here’s the gizzard, where swallowed stones help to grind up grass and other food:
Photo by Teri
There’s a lot of rinsing throughout the process, inside and out:
Photo by Teri
Finally, the cleaned bird goes into an icewater bath to cool, before being wrapped and put into our big chest freezer:
Photo by Teri
21 thoughts on “Thanksgiving”
Wow that is some post. Of course the turkey had a better end then the one on our table but my coop board has a whole section on not slaughtering turkeys so we had to comply. Good for you maybe not so good for the turkey but its Thanksgiving and thats how it goes
Geez, what kind of a building doesn’t let you slaughter poultry in the vestibule? I suppose they don’t let you have bonfires or ride dirtbikes around the yard, either?
Wow, my neighbors and I have been talking about how we are going to deal with our chickens when they stop laying. I’ve always been interested in butchering my own meat but the only part of the butchering process I’ve seen is when my old friends neighbor beheaded a chicken by swinging it around like a lasso. We’ve still got a couple of years, by then you two should be pro’s! I’ll have to come to you for some pointers. I think we’d have to do it inside because our yard isn’t fenced and I don’t think the neighbors would appreciate chicken butchering for all the kids to see.
I don’t know that I’d want to do this indoors…a certain amount of mess is involved at the killing/bleeding step and the scalding step, and being out in cold weather definitely makes the whole process safer as far as risk of spoilage. Maybe you could get some kind of big tent so the neighbors won’t have to see any reality?
So how did the turkey taste? We raised and butchered ‘free range’ chickens many years ago when we lived on a 10 acre nursery near Gresham. They were the best tasting chickens we’ve ever had! Same process, but I ended up skinning some of them so I didn’t have to pluck!
The turkey and new kitten photos and stories are great, and the turkey prep was not as gory as the movie we watched several nights ago. Your Thanksgiving feast picutre would rival those seen in the glossies. I keep telling you guys to write a book or books, eg, Odyssy to Oregon followed by Adventures in the Oregon Frontier.
Love you, Mom
Mary Jo: Of course we can hardly be objective, but Teri and I thought it was the tastiest turkey ever!
Lynn: Why are you watching movies about turkey slaughtering? =p
Hello Pete and Teri,
Your post regarding Thanksgiving last year is making me laugh hysterically. Let me introduce myself and my husband “Peter and Terri Ann”. We have a Chicken Palace in Woodinville, WA and two Turkeys. They were called Fred and Susan, now they are known as Fred and Steve (yes, two Toms). I call them dinner (thanksgiving). We are concerned our turkeys will not make it to Thanksgiving, for yesterday one of them already weighted in at 37 pounds. Do you know how much weight we can expect to come off the turkey once we butcher it? I just started to research today how to butcher such large bird. We have done several chickens but not sure how to get this large bird into a pot of water for plucking.
Also, how did you cook the bird. I’ve cook a two of our chickens and they are so tough. Any ideas on how long to cook the bird for? Your’s looks absolutely beautiful.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Regards, Terri Ann
Hi Peter and Terri Ann
Thanks for commenting! We have learned (and still learn) a lot from homesteaders’ blogs, and hope that ours will be similarly helpful to others.
I’m afraid I don’t know how big those turkeys should get, but I’d guess that ours dressed out to about 2/3 of live weight. I think he was in the mid-30s at slaughter time, but we didn’t have a scale big enough to weigh him.
As far as the logistics of the slaughter – wow, very different from the small chickens I learned on! We had a pulley tied to an apple tree branch with an old bicycle tube, to prevent damage to the tree. We put the loop around the turkey’s legs and hauled him up…but the inner tube just kept stretching, which was no fun for the bird, who bounced a few times before we got him up there. We’d do it a little differently if we had another that large, but we aren’t likely to – we would prefer birds that can forage, reproduce, etc. normally, even if it means we have to process twice as many of them.
For the scalding and cooling tanks, we cut a 55-gallon drum in half. One half we filled with hot water and put on top of a propane camp stove, and the other was filled with cool water. Lifting the bird in and out wasn’t easy!
Trussed up, the bird hung over the sides of the largest roasting pan we were able to find, and had to go into our oven at an angle. Don’t remember the exact numbers, but I rubbed him with olive oil/salt/pepper and cooked him on relatively low heat for something like 6 hours with water in the pan. We STILL have some meat left (canned), and I just used the last jar of stock yesterday to make some soup. The meat was delicious and very tender, with a nice crispy skin. Some people like to remove the skin for various reasons, but even if I didn’t want to eat it I’d leave it on during cooking to help hold in moisture.
This bird got a lot of cheese and other rich foods, and was very fatty, so I don’t know if I can take any credit for how tender he turned out.
If there’s anything else I might be able to tell you, please ask, but we’re fairly new at all of this.
– Peter Bergin
PS – because some people might not want to see all the slaughter pictures, you have to go to the individual post page to see everything – http://www.dingoroo.com/2008/12/how-to-butcher-a-turkey-at-home
hey did you do anything to the feet for your dogs?
Hi Richard – nope, we didn’t cook them or anything, just threw them to the dog and he gobbled ’em up happily
I was just wondering if it is worth hanging the turkey to hel develop flavour? If so would you do this before or after gutting and for how long?
I really don’t know – that was our first turkey. Once it was cleaned, we kept it in ice water for a while then froze it. We defrosted it for a couple of days (BIG turkey) before Thanksgiving, and cooked it right up.
One big surprise – we pressure-canned some of the meat (with a bit of fat in it), and that was the most flavorful, rich meat of all.
We killed our first turkey hen this morning due to her uncontrollable behavior, she was getting out of the pen (flying over the fence) several times a day and once went into a subdivision and my husband had to run her back home, to say the least, he was not a happy person and I told him that if he killed it I would do the rest.
I would llike to thank you for your article and it helped me with the process alot. The photos really helped me alot.
I went ahead and baked her and we had a great feast even if its May. I found the instructions were very helpful and simple to follow.
We have been processing our own chickens for a couple of years now but this will be our first year for turkeys. We also ended up with a “Gimpy” but he seems content to stumble around with his buddy and eat bugs from the garden. I’d like to address the issue of tough chickens. Here is how it was explained to me. When a creature dies the muscles tense up (rigor mortise). So when we slaughter a chicken we let the finished carcass rest in the refrigerator for two or three days before cooking. This allows the muscles to relax. Thanks for your great post. I’m sure our turkey processing will go much smoother with this good information.
Great and informative article. Will be butchering my first Tom soon, and he is going to be quite large also, so your tips were VERY helpful!! I can alot also, and was wondering how you can your meat? Would you be willing to share your info & expertise in that area? Much appreciated.
Hi Karen. I don’t remember the exact timing and pressure, but we pressure-canned a lot of the turkey meat and were still eating from that two years later(!) I thought it might lose texture in the process, but it was just fine. I’m pretty sure we got the timing/pressure settings from the Ball Blue Book.
hi Teri! I want to thank you for this website – it’s so helpful. We processed 3 of our chickens and made southern fried chicken that very night and the meat was tough! but tasty.
I was afraid to cook the next one that way so I cut up the meat and made a soup which was wonderful – the other chicken is in the freezer.
I am bringing 2 turkeys up to my son’s house for Thanksgiving and was very concerned about toughness – I see that I should let it rest in the refrigerator for 2-3 days ? would it be any longer since turkeys are so much larger?? ? Also we have bronze turkeys which are getting huge and also some mixed that are much thinner ? I was told they are wild??? Would the process be the same no matter what type of turkey you have?
Lots of questions ? sorry ? I just have to be comfortable taking turkey ? I would be soooo embarrass if they were tough!!!
Susie aka cooknwoman
This Saturday we’re butchering our 4 turkeys for T’giving on Thurs. The first – and last – Great Bar X Turkey Endeavor! Your information is invaluable. If we slaughter on Sat. and not roast until Wed. or Thurs. is there something I need to do in the interim? Will refrigeration suffice – or should I freeze them for a couple of days? I’m feeding 40+ people and I sure don’t want anyone getting sick. Someone suggested I might need to dunk them in a 10% solution of Clorox & water???? Yuk.
I’m no expert, but I imagine it would be fine in a properly cold frig for 5 days. We let birds rest in the fridge for 3 days before freezing or preparing. This tenderizes the meat.
If it’s thoroughly cooked, anything icky that might have been there will be killed anyway.
A 10% solution of chlorine bleach…that’s not a sanitizing solution, that’s melt-your-flesh-off solution!
All it takes to sterilize things is a few drops per gallon of water…but I think even that would ruin any sort of food item. I sure don’t miss the flavor of chlorinated city water!
u asked if the turkey felt anything when u slit it’s throat. When u sever the artery the blood flow to the brain stops and the turkey passes out from what is called anoxia.( no oxygen to the brain) this also causes anoxic anesthesia which simply means they are pain free because they passed out. we know people are pain free because people who pass out and are hurt from a fall for example, do not remember the incident and say they felt no pain from their injury til they came to.
Comments are closed.