Home-Canned Chicken, Best Way to Process Old Birds

When hens reach 2 – 2 1/2 years old, it is time to decide what to do with them.  At that age, it is no longer economical to feed them for egg production because their production has rapidly decreased.  Some people with just a few chickens may look at them as pets and want to just enjoy them no matter how few eggs they lay.  I really like my chickens and strive to give them the best life possible, but their purpose for me is to give me eggs.  So when the egg numbers start to fall, I replace them with new pullets and when the pullets start to lay, I as humanely as possible turn my old layers into meat.  In the past I have butchered and froze them, using them as stewing chickens because an old hen is not the same meat as a young bird.  There is nothing wrong with the meat but you have to remember to cook them low and slow.

This year when it came time to dispatch our old hens I decided to try canning them.   I got my canning books out and started reading about canning chicken and I read – Canning is the best way to process older birds such as old hens and roosters.  Well, there you go!  Great minds think alike!

My canning helpers on this day was my daughter Kristi and our friend Jessica.  I share the bounty with them for their help.  They de-skinned and separated the drumsticks and thighs.  They also removed all the breast meat for me.

As they were doing that, I got the jars and canner ready and started packing the chicken into the jars.  You can use either a raw pack or hot pack.  With the hot pack you cook the chicken before packing it in jars.  We did the raw pack to eliminate that step.  Bones can be left in or removed, we decided to can the drumsticks and thighs bone-in.  It created much less work and much less waste than trying to cut the meat off the bones.  I was surprised to find a wide mouth quart jar will hold up to ten drumsticks easily!  I added one teaspoon of canning salt and filled the jar with hot water leaving an inch of headspace.  Using a table knife I pushed the drumsticks around to release any trapped air bubbles.  Before long we were listening to the jiggle of the canner weight as 14 quarts of drumsticks and thighs were on their way to fast, easy and delicious meal preparation.

Next morning, I packed the jars with the boneless chicken breasts the girls had prepared for me.   (My part is easy, they had done all the hard work for me getting the chicken ready for the jars.)  I put the breasts in wide mouth pint jars this time because a pint will  hold a lot of boneless chicken breasts and a quart would be too much.  A half teaspoon of canning salt and hot water with an inch of headspace, release the air and before I know it I am admiring 14 quarts of chicken drumsticks and thighs, 14 pints of boneless chicken breasts, and 8 quarts and 10 pints of chicken broth!

Canned Chicken:   MUST USE A PRESSURE CANNER! 

Separate drumstick and thigh from chicken.  Pack uncooked meat into hot jars, leaving 1-inch headspace.  Laddle hot water over meat, leaving 1-inch headspace.  Remove air bubbles.  Wipe jar rims with cloth dampened with vinegar in order to get any fat off rim, place two-piece caps (rims and rings) on jars and hand tighten.  Process bone-in meat: Pints 1 hour and 5 minutes, Quarts 1 hour and 15 minutes.  For de-boned meat process pints for 1 hour and 15 minutes and quarts for 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Follow the same directions for the de-boned breast but be sure and take note that de-boned meat is processed for a longer amount of time.  I don’t know why but these are the USDA directions.  I imagine it is because de-boned  meat packs in tighter in the jar then the bone-in pieces so it needs the extra time to make sure the inside pieces come to the temperature needed to safely preserve the meat.

This leaves you with a bunch of carcasses, the back, breast bone and wings.  Put as many as will fit into a large stock pot along with celery, carrots, onions, a few peppercorns, bay leaf or any combination thereof that you happen to have at the time, bring it to a boil and let it simmer all day.  You don’t have to add any vegetables, plain chicken broth is good also, but I like the richness, flavor and color that the vegetables add.  Remove chicken and vegetables, strain broth through several layers of cheesecloth and put it in the refrigerator for a couple days so that fat will become solid on top of the broth and can easily be removed.  Bring the broth to a boil, laddle broth into hot jars leaving 1 inch of headspace.  Wipe rims with cloth dampened with vinegar to remove any trace of fat, hand-tighten two piece lids.  Process in pressure canner – pints for 20 minutes and quarts for 25 minutes.

I take the leftover bones to a place where my dogs can’t get to but my barn kitty’s can eat any meat left on the bones.  It amazes me how meticulously they eat every single scrap off the bones and in just a day or two I can clean up the bones feeling very happy no meat was wasted!

So, the 25 older chickens, which would have taken up a huge amount of freezer space and would have still needed to be defrosted and cooked and the pans used cleaned up after, are occupying a small space on a shelf in my basement.  Already cooked, ready to just “pop-a-top” and be used to very quickly throw together chicken and noodles, chicken pot pie, chicken enchilada’s, any recipe that calls for already cooked chicken.  Time well-spent and will be very welcomed on those days when I just don’t have time to cook a meal from scratch!