The idea of breaking down a whole chicken is intimidating. Seeing speed and skill challenges on Top Chef and shows like it where contestants have to break down 50 chickens (okay, maybe not, but it seems like it!) makes it seem impossibly difficult, and even more so if you don’t have the proper tools for butchery. If we’re being honest, although they’ve served me extremely well, I’m about ready to graduate from the well used set of knives I have to something a little more expert. I certainly don’t have a knife cut out for chopping through bone. So in interest of saving my fingers, my alternative is to go a little more precision rather than brute force: kitchen shears.
When I first gave this a go I had horrifying (hysterical?) flashbacks to my high school anatomy & physiology course. I can still hear the sound of bone shears cutting through jaw…
Still with me? Okay then. You can do this. The good thing is that for the most part the point of using the shears is to cut around the bone instead of through it! Moving on.
Clean the Chicken
Don’t worry, I don’t mean all that stuff with the feathers. I get my chicken from the supermarket like everyone else!
- Remove the chicken from the packaging.
- Pull the innards out of the cavity and either put them aside or dispose of them as you prefer. This is honestly the grossest part in my opinion!
- Rinse and dry.
Butchering the Chicken
Prepping Your Space
Before you get started, make sure you lay out all of the containers and space you’re going to need for the cut pieces of chicken. You’re going to have your hands on the chicken for quite a while and you don’t want to cross-contaminate because you’ve forgotten something. Usually I lay out:
- A baking sheet with a towel under it so it doesn’t slide around
- A large Pyrex (mine’s 11×19) container with paper towels laid in the bottom and more paper towels torn and ready to pat the chicken dry. If you aren’t using the chicken right away, this might not be as important, but I find it helps.
Also make sure you have your sleeves rolled up and well secured and your hair’s up out of the way. The last thing you want is anything touching the chicken while you’re trying to work.
Cutting the Wings
- Place the chicken with the legs and wings facing downward on the baking sheet.
- Grab the first wing with one hand and pull it up toward you and away from the body.
- Feel with your hands to get familiar with where the joint is. It’s probably further into the body than you think.
- Pick up the shears and make the first cut fairly close to the body in the “armpit” area furthest from the neck.
- Cut away the wing, feeling for that joint. If you’ve got the right angle/depth, the wing should come away from the body easily if you’ve got the depth right. Note that this really shouldn’t come out ragged. You want big strong cuts with your shears.
- Once you’ve separated the first wing, do the same on the other side. I find the second wing – or at least the wing on the left (I’m right handed) – to be a little more difficult to get cleanly. You may similarly find that one side is easier than the other. Learn from that!
Cutting the Legs
- Keeping the chicken butt facing you, move onto the legs.
- Grab a leg, and dislocate it. (I’m serious!) Take the leg and pull it out and up away from the body until you feel it separate. This will make it much easier for the shears to cut the leg away and for you to find the joint.
- Cut from the front to the back, staying close to the body like you did with the wing. You want to make sure you’re not just getting the drumstick, but the thigh too. The joint should be exposed pretty quickly, but if you don’t see it, adjust the angle that you’re holding the leg at while you cut. If you’ve got it right, it should cut away almost at once.
- Finish by cutting away the second leg. Like the wings, you may find that there’s a side that’s easier for you.
Cutting away the Backs
- To cut the breast, you must first cut away the back.
- Flip the chicken on it’s side and you’ll see that now that you’ve cut away the wings and legs, that there’s a pretty clear gap between the back and the breast. (The picture here is really not great, I’m sorry! Trying to keep chicken guts off your phone, hold a chicken, and take a picture is hard!)
- Cut with the shears down this gap close to the back, but avoiding the ribs for as long as you can.
- Near the very end near the neck, maybe the last inch or so, you’ll need to cut through brittle bone to fully separate the back from the breast. Do it quick. This is the worst part. It’ll give, I promise. As you can see below, this should open the chicken up cleanly.
- Now that that’s over, do the other side! Just flip the chicken over and repeat.
And there we are. You can keep or discard the backs as you like. I usually keep them to make stock. If I’m not using them right away, I will freeze them in a ziplock bag for later.
Cutting the Breast
- Start breast side up.
- Make a shallow cut in the middle near the surface at the tail end.
- Continue the shallow cut all the way up.
- Starting at the tail end again, take a second pass, this time cutting all the way through. You may feel some resistance right near the top, but it should cut through pretty easily. You can take a third pass if you didn’t quite cut deep enough the first time.
Look! Nice beautiful breasts!
There, I said it. 😛
That’s all there is to it really. Now that I know how to do this, it takes me about 5 minutes per chicken. Not top Chef speed certainly, but good enough for my own kitchen so that I don’t really have to think about this being a lot of extra work. It’s so worth it. I get a ton of chicken out of a very small price tag, plus some good bones to start stock/bone broth with.
Hopefully this makes the process a lot less intimidating for you! Let me know in the comments! Also I’m thinking about creating some quick gifs/videos of this. If that’s helpful, let me know that too!