How To Butcher a Turkey

Big Turkey
A home raised Broad Breasted White turkey in my sink…almost ready to freeze.

Check out my article Broad Breasted vs Heritage: What’s the Best Turkey for Your Homestead

Why I Butcher My Own Poultry

I have never felt good about buying meat from the grocery store. It comes from animals raised in huge factory farms under inhumane conditions. They are sent off to large slaughterhouses where they are treated as inanimate objects that can’t feel pain. This goes against my belief that animals should be treated as humanely as possible and given quick, painless deaths in order to feed our families. So I do it all myself. It’s the only way that I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the animal does not suffer.

I raise and process all of the chicken, duck, and turkey that my family consumes. I feel much better about eating our own humanely raised meat.

The Process

I butchered 14 turkeys this year (originally posted in 2012) and found that it is a bit more difficult than processing chickens …mainly because of the weight of the bird. You may want to have 2 people working together for this job, especially if lifting 20 pounds by yourself is too hard on your back.

This is one of the last photos I took of the 5 remaining turkeys, just before I finished processing.

I killed the turkeys by chopping their heads off with an axe. It just seemed more humane to me than cutting through the arteries to bleed them to death. You may choose to bleed your bird out because, from what I understand, having the heart beating longer cleans more blood from the arteries and veins than chopping off the head. I didn’t notice that there was an appreciable amount of blood in any of the carcasses.

I put the bird in an old feed bag to confine its movement. The head is pulled out through a small hole in one corner.

Before I sever the spinal column with an axe, I pet the turkey to calm it down so it isn’t afraid.

The spinal column is severed quickly and death is instantaneous.

After severing the spine, I hold the turkey to prevent bruising as its reflexes cause it to flop and kick.

However, the reflexes will cause the bird to struggle for about a minute after death. The bag allows me to restrain the bird until the muscles relax and stop moving. Without the bag I would likely be cut up pretty bad by the talons.

You can kind of see that there are just a few pieces of skin holding the head on at this point.

When the struggling is over, I wash the carcass thoroughly with a hose. Sometimes the bird will defecate in its death throes.

After killing the bird, I wash it off to remove any dirt or feces from the carcass.
I also press on the abdomen to force out any stool still in the vent.
After a thorough washing, I remove the head by cutting any skin holding it on.

If the head wasn’t completely removed from the neck with my axe, I remove it now with a sharp knife.

Next, I  dunk the bird into a pot of scalding water to make plucking much easier. The water temperature should be between 145F and 150F. Carefully dunk the bird in the hot water for 45 seconds to 1 minute. Swishing it around a little helps get the hot water to the base of the feathers. You can tell when the scalding has loosed the feathers enough because they will come off easily if you run your hand over them.

The carcass goes into the scalding pot.
I hang the bird over a basket with a garbage bag to catch the feathers and entrails.

Carefully remove the bird from the scalding pot and let the hot water run off. Then hang where you can pluck the feathers. I use an old bushel basket lined with a garbage bag to collect all the stuff I can’t use.

I pluck the feathers and remove the oil gland on the top of the tail, shown in the circle.

I try to pluck the majority of the feathers at this point, and then pick the little feathers more thoroughly when I’m done dressing the bird. You will also want to remove the oil gland at the base of the tail. I’ve read that it causes a funky taste to the meat if you do not remove it. Carefully cut around and under the gland.

To begin disemboweling the bird, cut all the way around the vent. Be careful not to cut into the vent and intestines.

To remove the innards, start by cutting through just the skin on the abdomen, a couple inches below the vent. Slip the knife into this hole and cut all the way around the vent, being careful not to nick the intestines. There may be some feces in the digestive tract, and you don’t want to get it on the meat if you can help it. If some does leak out, wash the carcass immediately.

Slowly and gently pull the intestines out to prevent rupturing them.

Pull the intestines out slowly to prevent breaking them. Next you will stick your hand down into the body cavity and pull out the gizzard and liver. Remove the small green bile sack attached to the liver…do this carefully to avoid getting the bile on the liver (wash thoroughly if it does. Cut the gizzard open to peel away the yellow lining…rinse thoroughly to get all the grit off. Rinse the organs thoroughly and set aside. The heart will come out next and then the lungs. The lungs are a little hard to locate the first time you do this. They are sort of tucked into the rib cage and you will need to use your fingers to gently pry the lungs out of the ribs. I cook these up for the dog.

After the intestines you will find the gizzard and liver will usually pull out together.
When you cut the gizzard open, it will be filled with stones and possibly food.
You need to peel away the tough, yellow lining of the gizzard.
Here is the gizzard with the lining removed.
The heart is deep inside the body cavity.
You will also need to remove the lungs. They are tucked up into the rib cage and may come out in pieces until you have more practice. You can see the indentations where the ribs were.

Once the organs are removed from the body cavity, you will need to remove the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus (throat) from the neck. I cut a slit up the skin of the neck and then remove part of this skin, the windpipe and esophagus. Next, remove the crop from the chest area by working your fingers between the crop and the skin. If you did not remove food from the turkey pen, this will likely be full of food.

The trachea and esophagus are easily removed when you cut the skin on the neck off.
Remove the crop by working your fingers between the skin on the chest and the crop.
Wash all the bits and pieces.

At this point I take the bird down and rinse the whole carcass thoroughly, as well as the bits and pieces. Run cold water over the bird and into the body cavity to help cool it down. The remaining body heat can cause bacteria to multiply if you don’t cool it down quickly.

Thoroughly wash the carcass with cold water to chill the meat.

Remove the feet by cutting through the skin and ligaments at the joint where the drumstick and scaley part of the leg meet. You don’t want to cut through bone, just through the tissue that holds the joint together.

Now I spend a few minutes picking the remaining feathers off the carcass and cleaning the body cavity again with cold water.

When I take the dressed turkey in the house, I weigh it, tuck the gizzard and other organs into the body, and put the bird into a bag to freeze (the turkey roasting bags work pretty well, but if you can find a shrink wrap or vacuum sealer bag large enough, that is best) or into brine to soak for 24 to 48 hours before roasting. It is important to let the meat rest in the refrigerator overnight before cooking, or it will be tough.

To make a brine solution, use 1 cup of sea salt to 2 gallons water. Add honey, maple syrup, or sugar and poultry seasoning such as sage, thyme, and rosemary for flavor. Soaking your bird in a brine solution overnight will produce a juicier bird.

This turkey had quite a bit of fat around the breast, which should make for a delicious Thanksgiving feast.
This is a Black Slate heritage turkey. This tom kept attacking me so…well, I don’t put up with that kind of treatment from a turkey, as you can see.

I like roasting my turkeys in a large electric roaster. I think it makes for a more tender, juicier bird. However, it doesn’t brown the skin like roasting in the oven. A few pats of butter tucked under the skin will make your turkey nice and juicy too. Roast at 325F for 3 to 3.5 hours for a 6 to 8 pound bird, 3 to 4 hours for 8 to 12 pounds, 4 to 5 hours for 12 to 16 pounds, 4.5 to 5 hours for 16 to 20 pounds and 5 to 6 hours for 20 to 24 pounds. they used to say that if the bird is stuffed, increase roasting time by 30 to 45 minutes…but now food safety experts say that you should not stuff your poultry, but rather cook the stuffing on the side. A meat thermometer should register at 180F when the bird is done, and the drumsticks should move easily in their sockets. The thickest part of the drumstick should feel very soft when pressed. Allow the turkey to stand for 15 to 20 minutes, covered with foil, before carving.

Special Thanks to Melissa and Tom for photographing this process for me! I know it isn’t easy to watch this for the first time 🙂
* I originally posted this article on my old blog, Little Homestead on the Hill. Hence the credit on the photos.

Update: This year (2015) I raised 10 Broad Breasted White turkeys and 4 heritage breed turkeys. The heritage turkeys don’t get as big as fast as the broad breasted breeds, but they taste better (in my opinion). I updated this post to include the latest food safely information about cooking stuffing separately from the bird.


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