Many people use the terms butchering and slaughtering interchangeably, but they really are two separate acts. Slaughtering is the term used to describe the act of killing an animal for meat. Butchering is when you cut that animal up into pieces. I want to talk about butchering.
Rabbit meat becomes tenderer if you let it rest for a few days after slaughtering, which if you’ve let your rabbits live longer than 14 weeks, becomes a really good idea as the muscle fibers have begun to lengthen which makes it tougher. However by not cutting it up right away, rigor mortis sets in and it turns stiff. So you have to let it rest long enough for the rigor mortis to go away or you will have a really tough time being able to find and move the joints when you’re ready to piece it out. But at the same time you have to keep it at a safe temperature while you do it or the meat will spoil and all that work of raising the animals in the first place goes to waste.
Now if you are like me, you don’t have a walk in fridge to hang meat in to age it. You don’t even have room in a spare fridge for a few rabbit carcasses. So what do you do? Well, we use a very large capacity cooler with ice water. The first day you have to add a lot of ice to the water as the body heat cools, but after that, maybe one bag of ice in the morning and one in the evening will do.
Rigor mortis will take anywhere from 48 to 72 hours to pass and then it will be nicely rested and ready to cut up. This batch took closer to 72 hours, but it was ready this evening, so I was able to easily get each one separated into eight pieces. It went a lot smoother than the first time I cut them up, not to mention a lot faster.
The first thing I did was to break the back at the base of the spine where the hindquarters meet it. You can do this by bending the legs towards where the head used to be until you hear a snap. Then you follow the lines of the hindquarters and cut between them and the low back (or saddle) to the spine. Now that you can see it, you’ll want to bend the legs the other direction to further break the spine. Then using a good knife, you should be able to separate the hindquarters from the back. You can further separate the thigh from the leg, but the same way you would a chicken, but I don’t bother. Each of my kids can eat one full hindquarter so there is no point in making smaller portions.
After that I removed the belly flaps. They run along the sides of the saddle and end at the ribcage. I just cut them away, following an easily visible line between the meat and the flaps. Belly flaps are very tough and chewy so normal cooking won’t do much to tenderize them, but they are perfect for making jerky or bacon. So all of the belly flaps went into a bag together until I have enough to do a batch of either jerky or bacon. That will be an adventure as I have never made it before, but I’ve read a couple different ways of doing it, so I now it is possible. It’ll be another First Times post when I do. And of course the livers all went into their own bag separate from the rest of the meat. I will attempt to do a pate with them at some point.
Once the belly flaps are gone, I can easily see where the saddle and the rib cage meat. I again break the back there by bending the saddle up towards the rib cage until is snaps. From the underside, I then cut along where the ribcage and saddle meat and then cut through the spine. I keep the saddle in one piece, but some people cut them into two.
Next I removed the forequarters by cutting through the small layer of fat that connects them to the ribcage. Once that is cut through you can see how the muscle separates from the ribcage and follow that muscle line to remove the forequarters. After that I cut the ribcage along one side of the backbone so that it is in two pieces. It is too difficult to cut it in half down the spine. That gives us eight pieces of meat and works out to 6 servings (since the two forequarters together are what a person would eat).
I didn’t think to take photos, but I hope my descriptions are helpful enough to help anyone trying this for the first time.
This time I froze the meat, but when I pressure can it, the resting process will not be necessary, because the pressure cooking process will tenderize the meat just fine. But the thing about resting the meat is that you no longer know which rabbit is which. Having a few days between slaughtering and butchering makes me forget who was who. So maybe I’ll rest it anyway, even when I can it. Just for that small psychological buffer that this tender-hearted homesteader still needs.