Sunday, November 23, 2008

Turkey processing class

This is my third year of raising heritage turkeys for the holidays, and each year about this time we select the birds that we're going to sell and process them, or sell them live.

Each year when I offer my birds I get questions from people who are curious about the process, and I invite them out to watch. First, if I'm doing something I don't want them to see, should I really be doing it? and second I honestly think that getting close to your food, and understanding where it comes from, makes it more precious. I do appreciate the sacrifice that the turkey makes for me, and it's always a little sad for me to kill an animal. At first I wrote "...a little sad to see an animal go" and then realized that I'm specifically saying the euphemisms and distance are what I hate about packaged meat. So "kill" it is.

I posted this ad on the local craigslist:


Date: 2008-11-20, 10:41PM PST
you can bring your own turkey, or we'll sell you one. you'll start with the live bird, and end up with an oven-ready turkey.

At every step there will be someone to explain the actions, and demonstrate them on another bird so you can get it perfect the first time.

If you provide the bird, the class is $30. If we sell you one, it's $55. Class is 2 hours long, at my farm in everett. All tools provided, bags and ice provided. Our turkeys are heritage breeds, never penned, and carefully hand raised on my farm.


I recieved a number of replies; a fellow who's part of a turkey coop that raised 7 turkeys in a backyard in Seattle and wanted a better idea of how to process their birds; a college professor who was really interested in getting closer to his food and wanted his daughter to know more about it; a park ranger who'd bought a half a pig from me last year and brought her nephew to watch the pig being slaughtered; an architect and brewer who's been involved in designing and working with farming regulations for a nearby demonstration farm.

So this morning was the morning of the class. I have to admit, I was pretty curious what the range of reactions would be.

This is the scene. At the base of the post you can see to center, you 'll see the gas stun barrel. We used carbon dioxide last year, but it appeared to be irritating to the turkeys, so switched to a carbon dioxide/argon mix. The purpose of a gas stun is to basically make the bird unconcious prior to killing it, or provide a level of anasthetic. 100% carbon dioxide is pretty quick and will put a turkey under in a minute or two; 75% argon/25% carbon dioxide takes a bit longer.

We use large road cones for killing cones. I pick them up when I see them laying on the side of the road, and over the years I've found 4. I cut off about 4"s off the tip. After the turkey is unconcious you put the turkey head-down in the cone. The cone both holds the bird inverted for good blood drain, and prevents the bird from bruising itself with any twitching that occurs. We put down two sawhorses about 6' apart, and put a pair of 2x4s on top of them. The cones rest nicely between them. To make sure there's no issues, i nail the 2x4s to the sawhorses and the cones to the 2x4s. It's simple, cheap and works well. After the bird stops twitching we pull the tail feathers and large wing feathers here. The plucker handles most of the other feathers.

This is pretty much the hardest part. After this step it's basically cooking.

Pulling tail and wing feathers

We scald the bird at 150 degrees. You need to watch the temperature closely -- +- 5 degrees is best. Too hot and you'll cook the skin and it'll tear in the plucker. Too cool and the feathers won't come out. We use a 35 gallon galvanized garbag can and a crab cooker with a thermometer, periodically checking temperature.

After scalding the turkeys go into a tub plucker, not pictured. It removes most of the feathers, in aboout 45 seconds, leaving the bird looking like this

We remove the last few feathers by hand; typically a couple under the wings and here and there on the carcass.
Starting to look like dinner

Everyone took home at least one bird, and some people took home 4! We processed another 40 turkeys to fill holiday orders, and will be processing another 50 or so birds in the next few days per customer requested pickup date.
Thanks to all who participated.


FishGirl said...

Hi Bruce,

I've been trying to find a direct email to contact you but no luck. Just heard you on NPR, interested in your turkey class for this next fall. Will you host it again?

We're raising laying hens in Seattle, large vegetable garden, and are interested long-term in growing/processing our own meat to some extent.


Bruce King said...

My direct email is

I'll be hosting another turkey class the second week of november. If you're interested, check the blog around November 1st for the scheduling and details.

I'm all for people raising their own food - the hard part about that is that if you don't come from a farm background or know someone who does, it's hard to get started. So I offer the classes to make that easier.

Even some folks from farms don't do their own processing.

Hillary said...

It's so great that you're doing this! I've been trying to find something similar in the Portland area to learn to butcher my own small flock of heritage turkeys, and what you're doing is exactly what I've been looking for. I may try to make the trip to Everett this fall to check out your class. Cool!

Anonymous said...

It's really cool that you did this, Bruce!