Hand Plucking Poultry
by Ken Gies of Fort Plain, NY
One of the great things about farming is growing your own chickens. I have always enjoyed looking after a range pen of thriving broiler chicks in the dew-drenched dawn. I don’t mind the cost of feed; the thing that gets me is the cost of processing. If you buy a decent tub style plucker and scalder or build them, for that matter, you are out hundreds of dollars for limited use equipment. Renting involves the time to pick up and return the items plus the rental cost and fuel. If you are soft-hearted and can’t bear to traitorously slaughter those beloved birds yourself, the costs include processing and travel expenses to and from the processor.
I confess that I am cold-hearted and cheap. Though I love raising poultry, I hate spending time and money anywhere but on my little farm. So I process at home. If you are only raising a few birds for yourself, say 25 or 30 at a time, I recommend having a party and doing it all by hand. Eviscerating was well described in SFJ last year, but no brave soul has ventured into the ancient art of hand plucking poultry. My journey backward from machines to hands started with a chance encounter with a Kenyan chicken grower visiting the United States. He finishes 15,000 broilers each year.
According to the Kenyan chicken grower, groups of people (chicken processors) move from farm to farm. Chickens are plucked and cleaned entirely by hand. He claimed it didn’t take long to pluck the birds. Intrigued, I began to research this whole subject. I had plucked a few by hand and it hadn’t gone too well. Then my son, while on the worthy pursuit of knowledge, found an important factoid in the 10th Edition of The Guinness Book of World Records from 1971 on page 232. The fastest hand pluckers averaged just 2 minutes and 10.4 seconds! Further research found that one Ernest Hausen of Wisconsin hand plucked a chicken in 4.4 seconds! Well, I may never hit that mark, but two minutes eventually proved possible.
The secret is in the scald. I scald at about 145 degrees F for around 30 seconds. This is a little imprecise on purpose. Older birds generally need a bit longer than plump, 8 week old CXR (Cornish Rock Cross) broilers. Using hard-to-regulate heat sources such as fire, propane torches or burners, and electric bucket heaters makes the scald temperature a bit difficult to control. This can cause the scald time to vary. I use a dial faced cooking thermometer to monitor the water temperature. As I agitate the bled-out bird, I rub the side of one leg every few dunks until the feathers rub off with moderate thumb pressure. Then I hang it so I can use both hands to pluck. If the bird is scalded too long, the skin cooks and gets a white, almost frosty tinge. It rips very easily and makes plucking almost impossible. The pinfeathers are difficult to clean off if the scald is too short.
A perfect scald will loosen all the feathers and even the pin feathers will rub off with a handful of the larger feathers used as a scrubber. I don’t use brute strength. The scald should be enough so that the feathers slip out like slicking water off a table top. My technique is sort of like stripping a cow’s udder. I stroke down the hanging bird’s legs against the lay of the feathers. I grab the tail feathers and twist them out. Then I stroke downward along the back, breast and sides saving one of the last handfuls to rub the fine pinfeathers off. I pull the wing feathers off against the grain too. I finish with stroking the neck clean.
To hang birds I use toggles or shackles. I made my own shackle out of 3/8 inch cold rolled steel rod. True Value sells 6 foot pieces that will do just fine. I bent it into shape in a vise and hammered the slots down to a 1/4 inch wide near the bottom of each “V”. It is 6 inches wide and 12 inches tall. Toggles are made of twine and two short wooden blocks. To use toggles wrap the twine around the leg and tuck the block between the leg and the twine.
When ready to eviscerate the bird, I loosen the crop inside the neck skin, cut the oil glands off the tail, then tuck its head in between one of the toggle strings and its own leg or use the center notch on the shackle. I cut around the vent and up to the keelbone. Then I gently pull the gizzard and crop out from the inside in one piece. The rest follows easily. I have one more recommendation — use a short 3 or 4 inch knife. A skinning or paring knife is ideal. Short bladed knives stress the hands and wrists less. Long knives are best for cleaving stacks of NAIS documents. My first eviscerating was done on a table, so cleaning suspended birds took getting used to. However, I think that gutting a hanging chicken is more sanitary than gutting one on a table.
It is late January right now. Two weeks ago, someone gave me a few unfriendly roosters. I boiled a canning pot full of water, dumped it into a plastic five gallon bucket, and trotted out to the barn where I scalded, plucked, and eviscerated four birds in half an hour with the outdoor temperature a balmy 10 degrees F. My equipment included the plastic pail of hot water (no heat added) a knife, a bowl for the dressed birds, toggles (where is that shackle?) and a knife. I hung a rooster in the toggles, bled it out while holding its neck straight (no cones either) scalded it, plucked it, dressed it, and threw it into the bowl. I rolled the guts and feathers up in a wad of loose hay and added it to the field compost. After a thorough washing in the kitchen sink and eight hours in the crock-pot, the roosters were mighty tasty.