Muscovy Ducks can be a valuable part of the homestead in terms of their light impact, heavy yields of meat, and natural proclivity to survive, thrive and naturally brood. One drawback is how difficult they can be to process. Having raised them for eight or so years now, I have some tricks to share.
I am writing this with the assumption that you have some familiarity with the process of butchering chickens humanely and cleanly. If you are new to home butchering poultry, get acquainted with how its done. There is enough information in the world that I do not need to add to it. I recommend Adam Danforth’s excellent book, I think it’s called Butchering, thought no book can replace hand on experience among others who know what they’re doing. Who knows, we may host some butchering workshops in the future, but I have no plans for that at the moment. This article is an attempt to shed light on some of the nuances in butchering big, fat feathery ducks. I will follow up with a post on how I further handle, process, and preserve duck meat later.
For years, I have not found a great way to induce insensibility in muscovy ducks that I’ve found suitable for my own ethics around humane slaughter. Merely cutting the carotid arteries often leaves the duck upside down in the cone, bloodless, staring back at me, blinking. This is unacceptable. Decapitating with a hatchet, while a seemingly sure bet at quickly making it so the duck cannot feel pain, only works if your swing is good, makes a nasty mess (ducks are real spurters), can be inelegant if not dangerous to the person holding the duck, and in my experience makes for a tougher and more difficult to pluck carcass. Unlike chickens, my attempts at pithing ducks through the mouth haven’t been consistently succesful enough to justify the pain that an unsuccesful pithing may cause. Stunning the duck with a club prior to bleeding is also hit or miss with too high a possibility of inflicting pain without insensibility for my taste.
Fear not, gentle reader, for I have finally found an awesome tool that works every time. Whenever possible, I try not to promote DIY folks to buy stuff, but if you intend on raising ducks for meat, get yourself one of these “Finisher” tools from Adrenal Line. I am not being paid to promote this; frankly I’m not being paid to do anything this time of year.
I simply hold my duck upside down until calm, put it in the kill cone, use the tool as directed, touch the eye to make sure the animal is insensitive (it should not blink) and exsanguinate as I would any bird. Your knife must be very sharp, as always, but particularly with densely feathered, thick skinned ducks. I hone the blade frequently. What follows are a few images for the curious:
A Note on Feathers
In my experience, ducks pluck the best and have a cleaner carcass when they’re at the stage of feather development where the flight feathers at the tip of the wing just begin to cross. This is when they have the fewest pin-feathers.
Plucking and Scalding
This is perhaps the most difficult thing about raising meat ducks. I know many folks who, frustrated with the plucking process, give up and skin their ducks. The method we’ve found works best is a hot, long scald combined with using a mechanical plucker. For those doing a dozen or so birds a year, I don’t think the investment in a plucker is worth it. We butcher between 50 and 75 a year, and this is our first year running a plucker.
We scald in a large brew kettle with a high power propane burner. This is one of two things we use propane for on the homestead, the other is scalding pigs. We get the scald water hot, quite hot… almost close to 160 fahrenheit, maybe a hair less for smaller ducks or those with less fat. Fat, being an excellent insulator, protects the meat from cooking at these temperatures, and the water does cool a bit when the duck hits it. Using a potato masher to grip the feet behind the ankle bones, the duck is vigorously plunged for almost a minute, and then we pull on the feathers in a few places to see how easily they can be plucked. When the skin on the feet easily peels, it’s ready for the plucker. It can be 90 seconds or more to get it right… just keep the duck moving and encourage the feathers to get saturated with hot water. Duck down is amazingly water repellent material… it should be wet all the way to the skin for the scald to take. Some folks use soap to penetrate the waterproof oils… we typically do not.
After scalding the duck, one person holds the hot steaming bird aloft while another pulls out the tail and wing feathers that seem to slow the the plucker down. Before this year, we hand plucked… after the machine plucking, there’s still a few minutes of detail cleanup work to do, particularly if you are interested in keeping the heads, and kneck skin. A good hot scald not only makes for a cleaner carcass, it makes for clean feet that can be used in stock.
One note for the machine plucker user: these ducks leave a lot of oil on the rubber fingers of the plucker. Regular cleaning of the fingers will help when you’re a few ducks into your butcher day.
Eviscerating a duck is quite similar to chickens and I won’t address it much here other than to point out a extra treats you might come across in the process, namely the tongue and some extra fat inside the cavity. The little fat knobs can add up on a big day… having a good supply of clean duck fat will be helpful down the line in some of the cured duck products I’ll be detailing next week.
In spite of all the tips, ducks are still far more difficult to process when compared with chickens. I hope you find this helpful, because the end product is amazing in spite of the extra work. My next piece on duck meat will be some of my process for curing duck for hams, rillette, and confit. Until then, I wish you happy plucking with good friends, ‘cuz you’ll need some.