Processing Turkeys

Erin Phelan

Erin Phelan › Erin Phelan and her husband Grady are sub-contractors for Joel Salatin's Polyface Farms at Briarmoor, one ...


Just around the corner many of us will have turkey a few meals in a row. About one-sixth of all turkeys bought in the U.S. are for Thanksgiving dinner. I wonder, though, how many of us will buy fresh, local, grass-fed turkey for the holiday table?

I suggest finding one for Thanksgiving this year. Turkeys raised in confinement housing are packed in tight. They rarely, if ever, see daylight and are feed only grain which is most likely full of GMO’s.  The opposite is true for most turkeys raised by the small farmer. On his or her farm you will find the turkeys outside most of their life. They may be given grain, but it can be GMO-free (you can always ask the farmer, an added bonus of shopping from a smaller operation), and they get to eat bugs and plants, which they love! Check out to find local farms selling pastured turkeys.

This year we raised about 500 turkeys. Here is how we processed them:

1:  Kill the Turkey.

Turkeys can get quite large and killing them can be laborious. The use of killing cones is vitally important to ensure the turkey doesn’t break a wing during its death throes. Once you put the turkey upside-down into the killing cone, simply cut on both sides of the neck to sever both carotid arteries and both jugular veins. Try not to cut the wind-pipe or the spinal cord. The turkey should bleed to death, insuring a carcass void of the majority of its blood. It only takes a matter of seconds before the turkey passed out, dies, and begins its death throes.

2:  Scald and Pluck the Turkey.

The best way to clean the turkey of all its feathers is to scald and pluck it. Scald water works really well at 145°. Dunk the turkey completely in and out of the water repeatedly for about 60 seconds, or until the skin on its feet peels off easily. We use a mechanical, tub-style plucker. Most tub pluckers that are tested for turkeys can handle two or three turkeys at once and get the job done in 30-45 seconds.

3:  Eviscerate the Turkey.

Lucky for pasture poultry people, eviscerating a turkey can be done exactly like a chicken. They have all the same parts in all the same places, so if you can do a chicken, you can do a turkey. There is one big difference… SIZE. Eviscerating a turkey is also a bit tougher than a little ole’ tender broiler. Start by cutting off the oil gland located on top of the tail. Then move to the neck, cut a slit and loosen (or remove) the crop, windpipe, and esophagus. Spin that big turkey around and remove its guts. Cut a horizontal slit between the vent and the keel bone (close to the vent). Reach in, grab a handful of entrails, and pull them out. Cut out the vent and separate the guts. The heart, liver and gizzard can be saved and the rest can be composted. Reach back in and get the lungs. They are tucked in nicely next to the rib cage.

4:  QC the Turkey.

QC stands for “Quality Control” and if the chef can be on hand to do this step, everyone is much happier at the dinner table. Look over the turkey and remove any remaining feathers. Peek inside the carcass and make sure all the entrails are out. Cut a slit in the skin flap that hangs over the hole where you removed the entrails and tuck in the feet.

5:  Chill the Turkey.

Rapid cooling is a must for this giant perishable food. We use ice cold water. The birds need to be cooled to 40 – 45° before storage. The best place to measure the temperature is in the breast meat with a meat thermometer.

6:  Pack and Store the Turkey.

Reach into that cold water and pull out your chilled turkey. Dump the water out of the various cavities and hold the turkey up by the neck to drain. Cut off the neck at the base with a cleaver. Stuff the neck, heart, liver and cleaned gizzard inside the turkey and place the turkey in a food grade poly bag. Squeeze out the excess air and use a twisty tie or zip tie to close the top of the bag.

Would you ever kill and process your own turkey for Thanksgiving?

Photo Credit: Erin Phelan