As with anything else in farming, there are many different ways to slaughter and dress a rabbit.
Grading Your Meat
Grading meat in the United States predominantly exists for beef, pork, and poultry sold by distributors and not so much for small, direct-to-consumer farms. USDA grading guidelines for rabbit do exist, however, and even though it’s very unlikely it will ever make sense for you to have your meat graded, knowing the standards is useful. Otherwise, how will you know how your rabbits measure up?
Graded rabbit carcasses are given either an A, B, or C designation. Just as with beef, pork, and chicken, an A indicates the highest quality. In order to get stamped with one, a rabbit has to be very clean with no signs of blood clotting caused by incomplete draining. Soaking the carcasses in salt water during cool-down helps achieve this. It should also be blemish- and bruise-free. Since dead and drained rabbits can’t bruise (because there’s no blood), in order to prevent bruising, it’s imperative you treat your live rabbits gently and carefully before slaughter. Grade A rabbits shouldn’t have any broken bones, with the exception of where the legs were clipped to remove the feet, and should be clean of any fur, bone shards, and dirt.
When grading your rabbits, look for a moderate amount of fat around the kidneys as well as around the crotch and inner walls of the body cavity. You want your rabbits to have a broad back, wide hips, and deep-fleshed shoulders. Rabbits that are thin, lean, rangy, bloody, bruised, or bony fall into B or C, depending on the degree.
If you have a vacuum sealer, you can use that to package whole rabbits or parts. If you don’t, I recommend using poultry shrink bags, which expel all the air in the bag and shrink to the meat inside when they are dipped in hot water. Poultry shrink bags are very easy to use and are available from several sources online.
While there are no crystal-clear regulations about how long you can keep rabbit fresh after slaughtering, my slaughterhouse recommends a maximum of 10 days before cooking or 7 days before freezing. In order to keep fresh, they need to be properly packaged and consistently kept at 40°F (4°C) or below. Rabbits can be held in a crystallized state in temperatures between 25 and 30°F (–4 and –1°C) for even longer without ever actually freezing. Properly packed frozen rabbit can keep indefinitely, though quality may begin to degrade after a year.
Compared with the more common livestock like cattle, pigs, and sheep (whose domestic roots are so ancient, they go back to cavemen days), the history of the domestic rabbit is fairly brief. It was only as recent as the Middle Ages that Europeans began to trade the first domesticated rabbits. It was also during this time that this then-novel protein found its place on the French, Spanish, and Italian dinner table. To date, populations in these countries still consume more rabbit meat per capita than most other places in the word.
America’s culinary relationship with rabbit, on the other hand, has not been so steady. Around the turn of the 20th century, rabbit was pretty widely consumed in the United States. During this period rabbit had a reputation for being a sort of lowly protein, most commonly used among disenfranchised populations, such as recent immigrants and the rural poor. There was a widespread uptick in rabbit consumption during World War II, when the majority of our beef was being shipped overseas to feed the troops. Thanks to some powerful encouragement from the USDA, thousands of backyard rabbitries were established to fill the new dietary void, and Americans from all walks of life were eating the new white meat. Recipes for rabbit were published in popular magazines for the very first time. War-era copywriters at Gourmet even crafted a rhyme to guide readers through the culinary transition: “Although it isn’t our usual habit / This year we’re eating the Easter Rabbit.”
After the war ended, beef was once again readily available and rabbit lost its place on the American dinner table, falling back into obscurity—only to return roughly once a decade. In the 1960s Julia Child brought rabbit back into fashion, undoubtedly thanks to her time spent in French kitchens. Then in 1985 the Los Angeles Times predicted a resurgence with the headline “Rabbit Renaissance.” Newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times have published articles about the rising popularity in rabbit meat every few years since. And yet today rabbit is still pretty hard to find. Perhaps the problem is that there aren’t enough producers to meet demand during these surges in popularity.
1. With the rabbit on the ground, gently place a thin sturdy bar, like a broomstick (or in our case, a slightly bowed piece of rebar) just behind the skull.
2. Lightly stand on your bar and ready the rabbit by grabbing hold of the hind legs. In one swift movement step down on the bar and firmly pull the legs straight up in order to separate the vertebrae in the neck, instantly dispatching the animal. Be aware the neurons are still firing, so even though the rabbit is dead, it will continue to move for a few seconds.
3. String the rabbit up, securing it by its feet.
4. Using a sharp knife, slit the throat and let the blood drain. It’s easiest to tilt the head backward and pull the skin taut to do so. Getting to this step quickly will prevent the blood from coagulating.
5. Using a very sharp, small knife—like a paring knife—score the skin around the hind leg joint. Gently free the hide from the muscle. Be careful at this stage, because pulling too vigorously can tear the meat from the bone.
6. Working your way to the vent region, separate the skin from the meat using your fingers. Using your knife, cut the hide to form a tube. Be sure to cut around the anus, leaving the skin and fur there for now.
7. Now you can easily pull the hide off the rabbit in one piece. Just gently tug downward. Once you get to the head, you will notice the front legs poke out. Free the forelegs from the hide, stopping at the foot. Use a pair of snips to cut the bone at the foot joint. Cut off the head to release it and the hide from the carcass.
8. Taking care not to slice into the organ connected to the anus, sever the bone between the hind legs, shown here at the knife tip. Twist the organ and anus, and move them out of the way.
9. Cut into the belly just below the genitals, and slice downward past the ribs.
10. Gently pull out the innards.
11. Take care not to rupture the bladder (seen full in this photo) or the bile sac, which is the green tube attached to the liver.
12. Snip off the hind feet.
13. Now that the rabbit is slaughtered and clean, let it cool down in a tub of ice water. Adding a generous amount of salt to the water, while not necessary, will help to draw out any blood that remains.
Nichki Carangelo is a third-generation Italian American, second-generation small business owner, and first-generation farmer from Waterbury, Connecticut. She began her agricultural career one year after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, and three years later, she became a founding member of Letterbox Farm Collective, a cooperatively owned, diversified farm in Hudson, New York. Today she manages livestock and direct markets for the farm, while squeezing in research and organizing work on the side where she can. She is the author of Raising Pastured Rabbits for Meat (Chelsea Green Publishing, December 2019).
This excerpt is from Nichki Carangelo’s new book Raising Pastured Rabbits for Meat (Chelsea Green Publishing, December 2019) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.