It’s fall in the South-Western Wisconsin, and you know what that means? It means that it’s time to kill things and put them in the freezer! In the spirit of packing the larder, I will show you today how to pluck and butcher a duck. The following points explain the primary reasons for and the particularities of raising ducks:
- Duck meat is remarkably dark, rich, and fatty. This is good – very, very good.
- Duck fat is the best fat known to man when it comes to roasting potatoes, capable of turning them creamy and dreamy and wonderful.
- Ducks don’t have much meat on their legs and almost none on the wings, but their breast is large and succulent and remains moist after roasting or smoking due to the thick layer of fat under the skin.
- Unlike geese, ducks don’t make a whole lot of noise and are not known to pursue children and guests.
- Ducks are easy to feed – they seem to need some grain but, from what I’ve observed, they subside mainly on grass, so you need to make it possible for them to graze – a lot. Once our birds are fully feathered-out and past the size when they are tempting to cats, we let them loose during the day to graze all over the yard and only lock them in the coup at nightfall to protect them from predators.
- The biggest issue with ducks is that, being water birds, they need to be offered a kitty-pool type vessel with water changed daily, or provided with the access to a pond. They need it to keep themselves clean and to be happy in general. This also means that they tend to make horrific mess with their water, splashing it around everywhere and turning everything into a mud puddle. This is the only downside of raising ducks that I am aware of.
I had to supplement the photos in this post with the photos from my chicken butchering tutorial, as I somehow forgot to photograph a number of not-so insignificant details. Fortunately, there is very little difference between the two when it comes to processing.
Around here, we use poultry killing cones and my second-rate chef’s knife for culling poultry (do not use your expensive knives, as there is a good chance of the blade chipping or becoming bent in the process). Killing cones are great because they allow you to suspend the bird upside down while holding it snugly so you can either slit the throat or cut the head off entirely. We prefer the latter method because, as my husband puts it, “that’s how you know they are really dead.” The benefit of the cone is in the fact that you don’t have to hold the bird down during the killing, and we also found that the birds are overall calmer in that position. Killing cones are also important because freshly-killed birds will thrash around violently for a few minutes after the kill, as their nerves remain alive briefly afterwards. The snug hold of the cones effectively prevents them from breaking their wings in the process.
Poultry cones are available commercially and are ordinarily made of galvanized steel, but my in-laws made theirs by rolling pieces of tough plastic into makeshift cones and securing them (now this is going to be really high-tech) with multiple rows of duct tape. They then nailed the cones onto a board to be hung from a wall of a shed or the like (killing cones must be hung securely upright in order to be used). I also found this wonderful set of pictures that shows how to make them out of recycled sheet metal.
Dunking in Hot Water to Loosen Feathers:
The next thing to do is to dunk your birds in 150-degree F water for a few minutes to loosen the feathers and facilitate plucking. If your water is hotter, the skin will tear during the plucking, while cooler water will not quite do the job. Both our free-range broilers (chickens) and our ducks tend to grow quite large, so the ideal vessel for this operation is a turkey fryer with a small gas tank underneath, which provides both the ample space and the possibility to keep the entire operation out of doors.
Because ducks are waterbirds, their skin is coated with oil to prevent water from getting down to their skin as they swim (hence the expression “like water off a duck’s back”). To cut through this oil, you need to add a generous, long squirt of dish-washing liquid to the dunking water (note the bubbles in the photo above). It works amazingly well.
It is not enough to simply dip your birds in hot water, however – you also need to agitate them (move them around little) to assure that the hot, soapy water penetrates all the way down to the skin.
After a couple of minutes, lift the bird out of the pot and try pulling on the feathers – are they coming out? If they are not coming out easily, dunk the bird again until they do.
Around here we use a motorized plucker. While not necessary, it makes the job go a lot faster, especially since we are often dealing with 50 chickens at a time and only have 3-4 people working. There are a couple of different models you can get, varying by price and functionality. This here is the so-called “drum” model. We borrowed it from our friends, but you can purchase one as well.
This model is used by holding the bird against the rapidly-rotating drum as its rubber fingers strip the feathers off.
See how much cleaner the bird is getting?
Alternatively, you can get a considerably more expensive spinning tub model above, which would allow you to process two or three birds at a time and eliminate the part where you have to hold them. The tub model works a little better and is gentler on the skin, but the drum model does a decent job too.
If, however, you only have a few birds to do, it makes more sense to pluck them by hand. To see how, follow my other tutorial here:
Once your plucker has removed most of the feathers, it’s time to move your bird over to the work table and get rid of what’s left by hand. In addition to primary feathers, you will also be removing the so-called “pin feathers” (sharp-looking things sticking out of the bird above on the right). Pin feathers are in fact new feathers that have began developing due to seasonal molting. A paring knife comes in especially handy for this operation, as Jacob demonstrates.
Note also that, unlike chickens, waterfowl are also covered in down for extra insulation, and this down does not come out easily. While we try to pull off as much of it as we can, I don’t make a big fuss about it, especially if the bird’s plumage is white. I found that any remaining down singes off perfectly well in a hot oven, especially since I start out all of my birds at 500 degrees. In general, I don’t have very high standards when it comes to butchering-time feather removal, preferring to leave more on and get done faster and then pluck anything unwanted immediately prior to cooking.
Removing the Feet:
We generally start our cleaning by removing and discarding the feet (I don’t put them into soup or otherwise use them, especially given the number of birds we raise). If you wanted to, you could peel off the yellow skin that covers the feet and throw them in your stockpot.
To cut off the feet, locate the joint connecting the foot to the drumstick and cut right through the cartilage. Do not attempt to cut through any bones – if your knife is hitting a bone, change your angle. It will be easier to locate the joint if you wiggle the foot a little and see where the leg bends.
This skill is also useful when you need to break down a whole chicken.
Removing the Oil Gland:
Next, you’ll need to remove the preening oil gland located at the top of the tail, as it can impart a strong, unpleasant flavor to your meat.
The oiler, or “Pope’s nose,” as it is apparently also known, will look like a fatty bump on top of the tailbone. The bird above is a chicken, but ducks have one just like it, only bigger. Remove it by holding the knife parallel to the bone. Sometimes the whole thing doesn’t come out in one go, but that’s OK – just keep at it until it’s all gone.
With ducks and their big oilers, you will find yourself cutting deep down against the bone. Here’s what one looks like once the oiler has been removed – you can see the bone showing.
Removing the Crop:
The next step is to locate, loosen and cut off the bird’s crop – the grain sack where food was stored to be gradually transferred into the stomach in small portions.
To do so, make an incision in the skin just below the neck (above).
Once you do, use your fingers to feel around the membranes under the skin until you find what feels like a slippery sack. If you fed your birds the morning of the slaughter, the crop might still be filled with grain, making it really easy to find. If not, you might need a bit of patience, but don’t worry – keep looking and you’ll feel it. Once you find the crop, just sever the pipe that connects the crop to the stomach and throw the crop away. You will later be able to remove the remainder of the pipe from the inside.
Removing the Digestive Tract:
We will now need to access the cavity from the bottom in order to remove the innards. We start by laying our bird on the work surface with the breast facing up.
Begin by making a two-inch-long slit, starting a little above the cloaca you see in the photo and stopping before you reach the bottom of the breast bone. The goal here is to cut an opening large enough for your hand to fit in.
To access the cavity, you will need to cut through the skin and the fat below, but do it carefully to avoid piercing the intestines underneath. Cause you know what happens if you do? Poop comes out. And it smells just like you would expect it to.
Here Jacob is showing you how.
Our next move is to pull out the intestines and to cut around the cloaca to which the intestines naturally connect, thus removing the gastrointestinal tract entirely. You can either cut around the cloaca before you pull the intestines out or after.
Personally, I like to pull the innards out first and cut around the cloaca later, since, once all the intestines are on the table, it is much easier to see where you’re cutting and to avoid the sorry scenario referenced above.
Jacob, however, prefers to do it the other way (above), which can also be accomplished accident-free but requires more precision on your part. If you are just learning how to butcher poultry, I recommend that you go with the approach # 1.
Here is a glimpse of what’s inside.
To extract the intestines, push your hand into the cavity and grab a hold of the gizzard (stomach), which will feel like a large, rounded rock. Now use it as an anchor to pull out everything that wants to come out with it.
The gizzard would be the red, white, and blue rounded thingy on the left. It can be cleaned and used for stock, although I generally discard mine. Here’s what to do if you wish to save it:
Cut the gizzard open halfway and unfold it as you would a book. Discard the half-digested food and peel off the thick, white inside lining (above). Discard the lining, rinse the gizzard out, and place it a pot of cold water to keep it cool until you are done butchering. Freeze your gizzards together in a bag (or several, depending on the number).
One of the things that will emerge along with that whole unit is liver:
It often comes out in two pieces. We always save at least some of the livers to make liver pâté later.
Here Jacob is removing the first half.
The second half will emerge with the gull bladder still attached. Gull bladder is full of bile, which is incredibly bitter, so be very careful to cut around it without piercing it in any way (you’ll be cutting into the liver itself). If you see the dark-green liquid escape, discard the liver immediately – don’t attempt to rinse it out. Even after rinsing, a single liver that came in contact with the bile will turn your entire bag of livers bitter, rendering it unusable.
Once the liver has been safely separated from the gull bladder, we put it in a bowl of cold water (like gizzard) until we are done with the rest of the work. As soon as we are finished, we freeze them all together in a Ziploc bag (or two or three if we have a lot). The role of the cold water is to both keep them cold and to make them inaccessible to flies. This is also true for the innards – if you drop them into a bucket filled with water as you butcher, you will minimize fly and wasp contingent around the work area.
Removing the digestive tract doesn’t mean you are done, however. Other delights await inside. Here is what you should expect to find:
To locate the lungs, slide your hand inside the bird’s cavity, with the back of your hand up against the back of the bird, and feel around the ribs with your index finger. You will feel two fleshy, soft, almost jello-like organs. Slide your index finger underneath each one in such a way that the back of the finger is against the back of the bird, loosen the lung all the way around, and yank it out (or pull it out gently – whatever works). If you are lucky, upon emerging from the cavity, the lung will look like this:
If you are a beginner poultry butcher, you are likely to crush the lungs at first, which will fill the cavity with (even more) blood. At that point, the thing to do is to rinse the pieces of the crushed lung out with water while scraping out the rest.
I discard mine, but you can save yours if you want to.
You will also find a small, round organ the color of the heart above. This I believe is pancreas. It may be still attached to something when you pull it out, or it might be in there loose. Discard that as well.
If you’ve got a male, you’ll find small, round, beige-colored testes inside. Here’s what they look like in cross-section, in case you were wondering.
Whether or not to remove the kidneys at the time of butchering is the matter of some debate. The answer will depend on your preferred preparation method – if you are going to cut your bird up (and, especially, if you plan to discard the back), you need not bother. If, however, you like to roast your birds whole, as I often do with ducks, kidneys will contribute to the accumulation of bloody juices in the cavity, making it best to remove them. I prefer to leave the kidneys be and later scrape them out of the individual birds I plan to roast whole.
If you do wish to remove them, here is what to do:
You can’t always see them very well, as they are embedded in the lower back on the inside of the cavity and are often obscured by fat and membranes. Use your index finger to scrape them out. Don’t expect to remove them all in one piece.
Once your kidneys have been removed, you will see two hollow indentations in the back where the kidneys have been (filled here with the water I used for rinsing).
The Voice Box:
The horny, hard, slippery voice box will be located very high in the cavity, just under the throat. It is easy to find and remove because the ball-like part of it so large and hard. Just reach up in there with your fingers and pull it out. It is not likely to be attached to anything at this point.
Before you finish, always reach up inside and pull out the large piece of the windpipe from the throat area (you can also pull it out from the outside).
You are now officially done. A clean cavity will look something like this. The bloody water that was still inside when I snapped this photo makes it look not-so-clean, but you can tell that it’s been emptied out. This is what you want.
Rinsing and Resting Overnight:
The next step is to wash your birds out. We give them their first rinse in a bucket of water in order to get rid of the blood, loose feathers, and other unwanted matter. We then rinse them out more carefully in a large tank filled with cold water, which is also where we leave them overnight to rest. This 12 to 24-hour resting period before wrapping and freezing is necessary to allow for the rigor mortis to pass and for the muscles to relax, or your meat will end up being tough (this is why it is not recommended to cook your bird the same day you cull it). To assure that the water remains cold, we run a hose into the tank half-way through so the warm water can flow over the edge and be replaced by the cold. Keep in mind that nights in Wisconsin are generally cool even in August, so we don’t worry about it getting too warm. Be sure to cover your tank with a board or something similar.
Some people will continue picking out the pin feathers and down after they transfer their birds into the second tank, as my mother-in-law is doing above. I almost never do, choosing instead to pick anything I don’t like out of individual birds immediately prior to cooking. This is the choice you have to make for yourself.
Packaging and Freezing:
Next step is to package them for storage in the freezer, where, if wrapped well, they will keep for a couple of years without freezer burn. There are two ways we do it in our family – my mother-in-law owns a vacuum sealer, while Jacob and I use a more primitive method of placing them in 2.5-gallon ziplock bags (we prefer the Hefty brand), and then wrapping them in freezer paper which we secure with masking tape.
What Jacob and I do is better accomplished with two people, so one person can keep their hands wet for taking the birds out of the water and placing them into bags, while the other can keep their hands clean and dry for wrapping and labeling.
I like to expel as much air as possible from the bags before sealing them, which I do by submerging partially-zipped bags, the bird and all, in a big pot of water (above), while leaving a tiny unzipped corner exposed to the air (so the bag does not fill up with water, which we don’t want). Once everything but a tiny unzipped corner is submerged, the water will push most of the air out of the bag, leaving your bird practically vacuum-sealed. We learned this trick from Jacob’s cousin Mike – I call it “poor man’s vacuum sealer.”
Here is what it will look like.
Lastly, you’ll need to label the packages with the year in which the birds have been butchered, as they may still be there three years later. If you have more than one kind of poultry in your freezer, be sure to write down which one this is.
We clean up the work surfaces by washing them with dish soap and rinsing them off with water. If you like, you can also use a little bleach.
Bacteria and Safety:
Raw poultry can naturally carry harmful bacteria, and this is especially true at butchering time. Please do not place your fingers in your mouth as you work, and, most importantly, don’t let your kids do it should they want to help. Keep an eye on all the kids involved, and explain the danger to them. It is best to keep very small children out of the scene entirely, or to have them playing safely in a playpen or something along those lines.