Chicken was a staple in our house when I was growing up, however, the only time I ever saw an entire fowl was the Thanksgiving turkey. Other than that, the chicken was already cut up into its white and dark meat counterparts. Once on my own, I did begin to roast whole chickens thanks to the Food Network and how easy they made it seem to do. But it wasn’t until culinary school that I truly began to value the versatility of buying my chickens whole and butchering them myself no matter what the preparation.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely still buy boneless-skinless chicken breasts. They are a great convenience when cooking for a crowd and only need breast meat, but when I have a little extra time, I much prefer to buy a whole chicken and butcher it.
I know you’re probably thinking, “That’s easy for you to say. You know how to do it since you’re a chef! Why would I need to do that when I can get one at the store ready to go?” I completely understand. It can seem daunting to try to cut up an entire chicken, but I have a compelling reason for you – the back!
When you buy a cut up chicken at the store, it comes with all the pieces except for the back, and while most people don’t ever eat the back – it is an essential ingredient in chicken stock. And even if you don’t ever want to make homemade chicken stock, when you add a piece of the back to your boxed stock, it can fool anyone into believing you slaved over a hot stove for hours. It adds real chicken flavor, and even more importantly, viscosity, giving your soup or sauce a luxurious mouth feel.
Here is a breakdown of the steps to butchering a chicken in 12 steps.
- A VERY sharp 10” chef’s knife
- Kitchen shears (or poultry shears, if you have them)
- Large cutting board
- Sheet tray or bowl for the cut pieces
- Paper towels
- Recommended: A VERY sharp boning knife or even a 4” pairing knife if you have one
1. Rinse chicken inside and out, and pat dry with paper towels.
To remove thigh and leg:
2. Place chicken breast side up on cutting board with legs closest to you.
3. Gently pull leg away from breast area and slice along the line that runs along the breast exposing the flesh.
4. Set down your knife and grab the entire thigh/leg in your hand, twist your hand in the direction away from the breast (like you are opening a doorknob), popping the thigh-bone out of the socket.
5. Then use your knife to slice through the opening, and follow the flesh along the bottom of the chicken until it is removed from the body.
6. Repeat with the other side.
7. Take 2 fingers and run them along the top of the leg where it meets the thigh. You will feel 2 knuckles.
Cut in between those two knuckles to separate the thigh and leg. Repeat.
Set cut pieces aside.
To remove wings:
8. Set chicken breast side up onto cutting board again.
9. Gently pull wing away from drumette.
10. Cut along the seam to expose the joint. Use the same method hand twist method as you did with the thigh and leg to pop the joint. Cut along joint. Repeat with other side. Set pieces aside.
To remove back:
11. Using shears, cut flesh connecting the breast with the back.
Then flip over and cut up through the neck.
Use shears to cut back into smaller pieces. Label and date a freezer-safe Ziploc bag, and place pieces of back inside. Store in freezer for up to 3 months.
To cut breast:
12. Flip chicken onto its breast exposing the inside. Take your knife and score along the breastbone from top to bottom.
Then place your hands on either side of the bone and push down to crack the bone.
Then using your knife, with your other hand to steady the blade, firmly press onto the knife until you cut through the breastbone and flesh.
To remove drumette:
13. Place breasts bone side down. Gently pull drumette away from breast.
Slice through the skin around the joint to expose it.
Use the same hand twist motion to pop up the bone and then cut the through the joint.
The hardest part about this process is learning to feel where the joints are. Take your time, feel around the bird until you know its every nook and cranny. If you notice in the directions, the steps repeat themselves whether removing the thighs, wings, drumettes, or legs. The method is the same. Gently pull appendage from body, slice thru skin, pop joint and then slice through it. Once you master that, (and I promise, you will with practice) it will become quick and easy.
Learning to work with and break down whole fowl and larger cuts of meat with not only save you money, but it will vastly improve your cooking skills and confidence. Of course, it will take practice and that’s where The Chopping Block can help. We offer various meat, chicken and seafood 101 classes where you spend the entire class learning multiple cooking methods and techniques for a particular protein. Or, if you really want to take your cooking skills to the next level, we offer Culinary Boot Camp in which you will have hands-on experience with butchering whole tenderloin, fowl, fish and more.
If you'd like to watch the process in a video, our Owner/Chef Shelley Young demonstrates cutting up a chicken here:
For more tutorials on how to break down larger cuts of meat, poultry and fish, download A Home Cook's Guide to Butchery. It's full of videos and images to help you through the process and delicious recipes to use up those newly butchered parts.