How To Butcher a Turkey

Homestead Harvest
Broadbreasted turkey raised and butchered at home.

How to Butcher a Turkey at Home

Knowing how to butcher a turkey (or any other poultry) can save you a lot of money. You’ll also know that your birds were treated as humanely as possible. Sending them off to a processing plant is necessary for most states if you wish to sell the meat. However, if you are raising turkeys to provide food for your own family, you can do this job at home.

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

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A small flock of Broad Breasted White turkeys
Broad Breasted White turkeys.

Why I Raise and Butcher My Own Turkey for Thanksgiving

I am not a fan of the industrial meat system. In order to provide humanely raised meat for my family, I raise and process my own poultry. It is the only way that I know how those birds were raised and how they died.

We have been raising our own turkeys for Thanksgiving (and other meals) since we moved to our 1-acre homestead. I feel much better about eating our own humanely raised meat.

setting up to butcher chickens
Setting up to butcher…I use an old countertop on sawhorses for my workstation.

How to Butcher a Turkey – Getting Started

Be aware that butchering a turkey is a bit more difficult than processing chickens …mainly because of the weight of the bird. Have someone help you if lifting 20+ pounds is too hard on your back. I do this job by myself, so if you don’t have help it is possible to do it alone.

The day before processing, remove all food from the turkey pen. Make sure they have clean water. If their food is not removed, it will be more difficult to remove the innards without getting feces on the meat.

Killing Your Turkey

I kill my 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 so the heart will continue beating, removing more blood from the carcass. I didn’t notice that there was an appreciable amount of blood in any of the carcasses after decapitation. However, this is your choice.

If you choose to bleed out your birds, be sure that your knife is extremely sharp to reduce the pain for your bird.

I put my 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.
Used with permission.

* I originally posted this article on my old blog, Little Homestead on the Hill. Hence the credit on the photos.

The spinal column is severed quickly and death is instantaneous.

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 badly by the talons.

If you are bleeding the bird out, you may wish to purchase or construct a killing cone to hold them immobile.

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

Cleaning the Carcass

When the struggle 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.
Used with permission.
I also press on the abdomen to force out any stool still in the vent.
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After thorough washing, I remove the head by cutting any skin holding it on.
Used with permission.

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

Scalding and Plucking the Turkey Feathers

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.

I use a candy thermometer to get the temperature correct. (#ad)

Swishing the turkey around a little helps get the hot water to the base of the feathers. You can tell when the scalding has loosened the feathers enough because they will come off easily if you run your hand over them.

Scald the feet too if you wish to save them for making stock.

You may add a drop or two of dish soap to the scalding water to help the water penetrate into the feathers. (#ad)

The carcass goes into the scalding pot.
Used with permission.

Carefully remove the bird from the scalding pot (#ad) and let the hot water drip off. Then hang or place on a flat surface 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.
Used with permission.

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.

Removing the Oil Gland

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.
Used with permission.

Disemboweling Your Turkey

To remove the innards, start by cutting through just the skin on the abdomen, a couple of 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.
Used with permission.

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.

After the intestines, you will find the gizzard and the liver will usually pull out together.
Used with permission.

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.

When you cut the gizzard open, it will be filled with stones and possibly food.
Used with permission.
You need to peel away the tough, yellow lining of the gizzard.
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Here is the gizzard with the lining removed.
Used with permission.

The heart will come out next and then the lungs.

The heart is deep inside the body cavity.
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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.

Rinse the organs thoroughly and set them aside.

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.
Used with permission.

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 the 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.
Used with permission.
Remove the crop by working your fingers between the skin on the chest and the crop.
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Wash all the bits and pieces.
Used with permission.

At this point, I 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.
Used with permission.

Removing the Feet

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.

The feet may be used for making a thick stock. After scalding, the scales and toenails should slip off easily. Rinse and save the feet for later.

How to Butcher a Turkey – Finishing Up

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 poultry shrink wrap bag or vacuum sealer bag (#ads) 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 at least overnight before cooking, or it will be tough. If possible, butcher 2 days in advance.

Roasting turkey

Brining Your Turkey

To make a brine solution, use 1 cup of non-iodized salt to 1-gallon water. Add honey, maple syrup, or sugar and poultry seasonings such as sage, thyme, and rosemary for flavor. Soaking your bird in a brine solution overnight will produce a juicier bird. (#ads)

Check out my post How to Brine and Roast a Turkey with a Recipe for Savory Maple Brined Turkey.

I like roasting my turkeys in a large electric roaster. (#ad) I think it makes for a more tender, juicy 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 the roasting time by 30 to 45 minutes…but now food safety experts agree that you should not stuff your poultry, but rather cook the stuffing on the side.

A meat thermometer (#ad) should register at 160F when the bird is done, and the drumsticks should move easily in their sockets. The thickest part of the drumstick should feel soft when pressed. Allow the turkey to stand for 15 to 20 minutes, covered with foil, before carving.

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