Monday, May 29, 2017

From Cage to Cooler to Canning Jar

We did it. We have processed our first, home-grown protein. In other words, our first litter of meat rabbits are now residing in our pantry.

Did it go as I expected? Pretty much, except for some huge bruises on my backside!

I will write an outline of how the day progressed. And I apologize in advance for any dark humor that works it way into my descriptions. We do respect our animals, take good care of them while raising them and dispatch them as humanely as possible. In fact our breeding pairs, Roger, Jessica, Honey and Charlie are a part of our family. But, we also realize that Alan and I also have a dark sense of humor that gets us through the more grizzly aspects of living self-reliantly.

Alan was in charge of photos, I haven't looked over them yet to see which ones can be included in the post. As this was our first experience, the educational photos may not be available until the next batch are processed -I don't remember Alan taking pictures during the skinning and butchering process. Those of you who are truly interested in the process can google for videos and and other sites with photos. This was something I did the night before to make sure I was familiar with what we needed to do, and not do.

Preparations started a couple days before as Alan started filtering a larger supply of potable water than we generally use. We had purchased a chest cooler large enough to hold the 'batch' and the plan was to have ice water in the chest to chill the carcasses. I also suggested we have a five gallon bucket with potable water for a pre-rinse before placing them in the cooler. We filter our potable water into 2 1/2 gallon bottles that we usually pour into our small holding tank for our kitchen system.  As he worked on a supply of water for this project, Alan set the bottles aside as they were filled.

The day before the event, we turned on our freezer to make ice and also cool down some of the water. Alan filled some 2-liter bottles with water (no need to be potable) to freeze. He placed these and one of the bottles of potable water in the freezer. When the potable water was chilled he moved it to the fridge, we just wanted it cooled so it would not immediately melt the ice in the bottles when we added it to the cooler. We also mounted the 'Hopper Popper' and the 'Rabbit Cincher' on our deck posts, more about these helpful tools later.

Oh, one final 'prep' was to not feed the rabbits for 24 hours beforehand. Our breeder rabbits are housed in the same area as those that were to be 'dispatched' so I had a dilemma - I did not want to feed the breeders in front of the others, but I also did not want the breeders to go hungry just because we were withholding food from the ones to be dispatched. My solutions was to feed everyone the morning before (the 24 hour cut off), I fed the meat rabbits a very little amount while giving the breeders more than usual as I did not want to give them their usual nightly feeding in front of the ones we had stopped feeding.

The next morning we had a friend arrive who had offered to help. She had processed some rabbits the summer before and thus had some experience. As rabbits tend to scratch I put on work gloves (I was to learn this was a mistake) while Alan went to get the first one from the cage. Alan actually asked me which one I wanted first! We had 'named' all the meat rabbits Stewie but we always blamed Stewie #4 for any trouble that was caused in the rabbitry. When I was sexing the rabbits a few weeks earlier and learned we only had one male out our of the six, we designated him as Stewie #4. He was also the only one with dark gray ears so he was easily identifiable, so I said 'Bring Stewie #4'.

In the foreground is the Rabbit Cincher hanging from a hook
on our deck. Directly below the cincher in the photo you can
see the 'V' of the Hopper Popper which is mounted to the left
of the Rabbit Cincher.
We had purchased the Hopper Popper because it is designed to be a humane way of dispatching the rabbits. Basically, you slide the rabbit's neck into the metal 'V', hold the hind legs and lean back using your weight to dislocate the vertebrate. I took Stewie #4 from Alan, placed him in the Popper, held him by his hind legs, leaned back... and promptly fell backwards onto our very rocky ground. Note to self- do not wear gloves when trying to keep a grip on the rabbit's legs. Thus, the massive bruises on my lower back and backside - the final revenge of Stewie #4.

Placing Stewie #4 in the Hopper Popper.
(Gloves should not have been worn.)
Once each rabbit has been dispatched. We placed their hind feet into the loops of the Rabbit Cincher we had purchased. We went with the cincher in place of the typical gambrel hook to hold the rabbit for skinning/gutting because we thought it would be easier to use. After using it, I feel we made the right decision. The cincher is a basically two slip-loops of braided wire separated by a short length of small diameter pvc pipe. The wire is actually in a triangle configuration with a loop above the pipe for hanging and a slip-loop at each end of the loop for holding the hind feet. Where the grambrel hooks need to pierce each leg above the foot, with the cincher, you simply slide the feet into position and tighten the loop. The hanging loop also provides a lot of mobility for twisting the body while skinning the animal. Note: Place a 5 gallon bucket on the ground under the the rabbit cincher for all unwanted parts to drop into. We placed a garbage bag in the bucket to make clean-up easier.

The first rabbit took me close to thirty minutes to 'muddle through' even though I had read directions and watched a video. The second one was down to about 20 minutes, the biggest learning curve was that I realized I needed to be more aggressive, not hesitant, which came with familiarity with the process and the anatomy. Then I watched our friend do a couple. This was also beneficial because we were able to see difference in techniques that we both used and recognize advantages of changing some of our methods. By the end I could go from 'cage to cooler' in just over 10 minutes while our friend holds the record at just under 8 minutes.

Upon googling how-to instructions prior to The Day, I discovered there was no one set of steps that everyone agreed upon. Based upon my experience last year, when I butchered chickens for the first time, I familiarized myself with the various ways people suggested and then planned to figure out what worked best for me. The further we get into this self-reliance experience the more comfortable I am with figuring out what works best for us rather than trying to replicate what others are doing. By researching several different approaches, I can usually ascertain the important points that need to be adhered to - in this case be sure not to puncture the bladder or intestines - and can then work through the rest in a manner that works for me.

This means the first couple of rabbits were guinea pigs to put into practice what I had been studying. Below is a basic description of the process from the point the freshly dispatched animal is hanging upside down from the rabbit cincher. WARNING: The following details may be considered a bit gruesome by some readers.

A rabbit in the cincher.
Starting the skinning process.
1. Remove the head. Psychologically, this was always the hardest step for me. It was also the most difficult physically on the first rabbit because I did not realize how aggressive I had to be. I probably spent well over 5 minutes trying to delicately cut into the neck. I have a great Morakniv knife that I use for butchering and I was beginning to think that it was badly in need of sharpening when I could not make a cut into the skin. I then decided to toughen up and apply some muscle. That did the trick and once I broke through the skin the knife sliced with the sharpness I was accustomed to and the head came off quite easily after that. Lesson learned - be aggressive.

2. Start skinning at the hind feet. The two techniques I came across that I wanted to try were (a) to cut around each leg near the foot and then cut down the inner leg and pull the skin down the leg and (b) cut the skin up the inner leg from the groin towards the foot then you can easily pull the skin away from the leg  and slide your knife under the skin up by the foot and cut it loose. I found (b) to be quicker and easier. With (a) it was difficult to cut through the skin near the foot because it was stretched so tight at that location. Starting at the groin you could pull the skin up and poke with the point of your knife to get it started.

3. Pull the skin the rest of the way off. With my first two rabbits I took extra time to cut around the tail and also used garden shears to cut off the front feet before pulling the skin all the way off as these were steps included in my reading. However, when it came time for my friend to skin her rabbits she did not do either of these. Once she had the skin loose from the hind legs she simply added a little more muscle and continued to pull and everything came off cleanly. Lesson learned - be aggressive.

4. Open the abdominal cavity. Do not be aggressive. This is where you want to take care not to nick the bladder or intestines with your knife. I am pleased to say we had no such accidents with any of the six rabbits. I was surprised that even though we withheld food and water for 24 hours their bladders and lower intestines were not empty. Back to the technique - carefully make a small horizontal cut in the meat between the hind legs, you can use the hand that not holding the knife to pull the meat towards you a bit and thus put some space between it and the innards. Now you can place your finger in the slit, pointing down, to open up the space between the meat and the innards. Carefully insert your knife next to your finger with the sharp edge towards the meat and carefully cut the meat open. You will be able to cut down for several inches until the start of the rib cage.When you pull your hands away some of the insides may start to fall out, but don't worry everything is fairly 'tough' and will not break open.

5. Disconnecting the innards. Again their are various techniques, my choice is to turn the carcass so the back is facing me and carefully cut the tail bone below the tail. I find kitchen shears or small pruning shears work well when needing to cut through any bones.  Then I turn the carcass back around and carefully cut down along each side of the spine from the tail bone, basically along side where the intestine leaves the body. I just looked at this area closely on the first rabbit and figured out where to cut so that I could keep the tail and anus connected to the intestine and remove it all innards. Once you disconnect the small section up by the tail, everything will easily slide out.

Rinsing the carcass before
placing it in the cooler.
6. Empty the body cavity. This is actually very easy, everything basically falls into the bucket under the rabbit. If you want you can save the heart and liver. We gave all of ours to our friend, you would have thought we were given her treasure! She says rabbit liver is amazing, maybe I will try it next time. Sometimes I had cut off the front feet before skinning, but if not, I cut them off now. I find it easiest to cut them off at a joint, I prefer the knee joint as there is no meat per se on the lower leg. We then rinse the rabbit in a bucket of water and placed them in a cooler of ice water.

Six rabbits, bagged for a 24 hour cool down in the fridge.
The average weight  of these six bags was 3 pound 9 ounces.
So, that was day #1. As with all fresh killed animals, you either want to eat it within the hour or you want to let it rest in the refrigerator for 24 hours before cooking or freezing it. If you cook or freeze the meat during that 24 hours you will just have tougher meat. Since we pressure can all of our meat for storage, I wanted to prepare these rabbits in the same manner as I do chickens and turkeys to see if we liked the results. I always make a big pot of bone broth and then de-bone the meat, can the meat in pint jars and the broth in quart jars.

The bone broth continues to simmer
after removing the meat from the bones.
After they had been in the fridge for 24 hours I halved the rabbits and started a large batch of bunny bone broth in my largest stock pot. I could only fit five of the six rabbits in the pot, but we had friends visiting that day so they were gifted with Stewie #6. I added the same ingredients to my bone broth as I always do for chicken and turkey bone broth: onion, carrots, celery, garlic, crystalized ginger, kosher salt and apple cider vinegar. I simmered the rabbit until it was cooked through, removed them from the broth, de-boned the meat and then added the bones back to the stock to simmer a couple more hours.

Removing the meat from the bones. The meat will be
canned in pint sized jars and used in soups, stews, etc.
As the bones were simmering I chopped the meat (and sampled quite a bit!) and got the batch of pint jars filled and in the pressure canner. Pints of meat take 75 minutes in the canner after they have come up to pressure and then there is a cool down period. After that, I had the quarts of bunny broth which take 90 minutes in the canner. My pressure canner holds 7 quart jars and I ended up with more broth than would fit in one batch so I put some in the fridge to can a partial batch the next day. It was bothering me that I was going to do a partial batch because I consider that a waste of propane. Since I have the burner on the stove turned on for close to two hours, I want to can as many jars as will fit in the canner.

A sample of our first batch of canned
rabbit meat and bunny bone broth.
Guess which one we will be eating first!
As I was taking the pints of meat out of the canner I was listening to the 'pings' as the lids sealed. They always seal within a half hour or so and I very rarely have one that does not seal. Later I went over to the counter to check all the lids and I was disappointed to discover that one jar had not sealed. Of course, since it so rarely happens, you know what I blamed it on. Or should I say, who I blamed it on - Stewie #4 was in that jar. But, I got the last revenge this time... remember my partial canner load the next day? There was one more jar of rabbit meat getting canned a second time.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Arlene, I wanted to return the blog visit and thank you for taking the time to comment on mine. It was my pleasure to review yours and Alan's book - it is absolutely the best book on solar electric that I have read! I am in the planning stages of trying some small solar projects thanks to you all. We will probably never get off grid, but we can definitely become less dependent on it.

    Congratulations on your first meat harvest! We don't keep rabbits but we do our own chickens, ducks, goats, and pigs (when we had them). It's never a favorite thing to do, but we love having our own home-raised meat (bone broth too!)