How do you make the most out of your chicken flock? Matthew Wilkinson shares his thoughtful and practical perspective on the difficult task of processing your chickens.
Early Foraging Lessons
In middle school, I was obsessed with the book Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbins. I’d rush home from school, grab the book, and set forth into our local woods, looking for new food treasures within the forest. During that time of exploration and adventure, I was drawn to the simple dandelion. Gibbons loved the “weed” that everyone else seemed to hate. As I read about the common dandelion, I began to appreciate the diverse offerings the outcast plant supplied. Dandelions are givers! The plant supplies an array of culinary delights—you can harvest its bright yellow flowers and turn the pedals into a smooth wine; add the leaves to salads; and grind the roots into strong charred, bone-colored coffee. This simple plant instilled within me the understanding and practice of using the total food product, and not wasting any usable part of anything I grew, harvested, or raised.
I stored those lessons until I processed my very first chickens. Here was a new form of dandelion. I was faced with a challenge and I didn’t have a grandparent to show me how to use the entire bird, or even a book with clear instructions and pictures. I was on my own in the world of total chicken use.
Using All the Parts
Something very magical happens when you take the time to care for and nurture any living organism for food. The time, energy, and resources to take either a plant or animal from its conception to finished product is an intimate and personal experience. I’ve spent many hours in compromised positions weeding row after row of carrots, pulling apart each bundle of the tiny plants stems, and trying to separate the carrot from the weeds. During many of those weeding marathons, I only thought about how many more carrots I had to collect before the job would be complete. Yet, the effort of the task is what ultimately connected me to the value of the carrot. I no longer looked at the carrot as a simple food. My time and effort in the vegetable’s development had forged a much higher level of respect for the plant. When it came time to pull the carrot and make use of it, I was determined to use every part of it.
I feel the same toward each of my chickens. When first starting out, I was determined to learn to use as much as I could of each bird. I quickly learned that there’s a huge array of products each chicken could offer. As soon as you end the life of any living organism, a clock registering the product quality begins to tick down. It’s imperative to have a clear knowledge of what you want to make use of and how to set forth toward that goal. You only have so much time before the product begins to lose value in its level of quality.
Learning how to Process My Own Birds
Beginning with the Blood
When I set forth to process chickens, I place a five-gallon bucket under each killing cone. If you’re going to process your own flock, you’ll become intimately connected with chicken blood, whether you like it or not. We always inform and remind new chicken processors to never lick their lips or laugh at someone’s jokes while killing chickens. Doing so is a sure-fire way to get a good taste of chicken blood.
Chicken blood is useful for many different purposes. Those interested in culinary arts can use chicken blood as a thickening, rehydrating, or color- and flavor-enhancing agent. As soon as the blood leaves the chicken’s neck, mix it with a little vinegar. This’ll keep it from coagulating, and will preserve it as a prized food ingredient. Our family hasn’t dabbled in using chicken blood in our foods, but we’ve collected the blood and poured it around our fruit trees, taking advantage of its rich levels of proteins and minerals.
Feathers and Manure
The feathers of chickens are the main player in the exploration of animal by product use. Rich in keratin, chicken feathers are used in animal foods, cement, and plastic composition. It’s a hot commodity in the world of animal waste usage. Chicken manure isn’t as diverse in its total uses when compared to chicken feathers, but it’s arguably more potent in its level of heat. Always allow chicken manure to age in a compost pile, allowing its nitrogen levels to taper off while still supplying great soil amendments. Failure to provide your chicken manure a “time out” could cause a nasty burn or kill any plants that come in direct contact with the manure.
The Insides Out
As I process each bird, I take great care to carefully separate the entrails, further collecting the organ meat. Our family takes delight in turning the livers into a chicken liver pâté, while the other organ meat feeds our dog and pigs. Many people gobble up the heart and gizzard of their birds. All of the birds’ other internal products that aren’t edible are heaped onto the same compost pile with the feathers and manure.
Top and Bottom
Though I’ve never done much with it, we have friends who gush over the taste of fried cockscomb, the tiny, wobbly red appendage that sits atop a chicken’s head. There’s also a huge bone broth movement due to the health benefits of eating broth made from chicken feet. If you dare, venture into any authentic Asian restaurant and sink your teeth into a heaped-up plate of chicken feet—so crunchy and delicious!
Broth and Bones
Once the chicken’s main parts have been put into use— such as legs, breasts, and thighs—then the carcass is brought into action. We always add a couple of peeled carrots, onion, and celery in with the chicken carcass, and start simmering in a pot of water. The result is a fat-laden, dark-yellow liquid of chicken broth that’ll drive away any winter sickness. We then pick off any remaining meat on the carcass for potpies, chicken salads, and tacos. The cleaned bones are then added to the ever-growing compost pile. Before tossing the bones, extract the “wishbone” from the breast area of the chicken carcass. It’s fun for kids to pull the bone and see who gets to make a wish.
Deepening Your Connection with Your Birds
I doubt I’d have ever taken the time and invested the energy to use the total bird if I hadn’t cared for the flock through their development. You develop a connection to every animal you care for. Those hot, steamy summer days, lugging water to their pens. The sight of storm clouds racing toward your unprotected birds. All of these moments forge a bond between you and the animals that depend on you. That bond is what allows us to formulate a lasting respect for the total value of those living organisms. That respect is what drives us to utilize every part of each plant or animal. Such a level of connection brought me back to my days of forging for wild plants, and the enjoyment I gained from using each and every part of what I’d collected, found, or grown. The same will happen to you if you care for your own food animals.
Matthew Wilkinson is known for his humor, knowledge, and easy-to-understand explanations of homesteading techniques and systems. Wilkinson and his family own and operate Hard Cider Homestead in rural East Amwell, New Jersey.