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.