Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Chicken Break-Down

Knowing how to break down a chicken is a very useful culinary skill. It's helpful for all kinds of recipes, and it will also save you money. How? Well, pull out your weekly circular for your local grocery store. Got it? Find the price for chicken breasts, thighs, wings and drumsticks. Now, find the price for whole chickens. Which one is the cheapest? The whole chicken, right? By buying whole chickens and cutting them into parts yourself, you will save yourself major bucks compared to buying the parts separately. Also, and I think that this is the best reason for always buying whole birds, is that you’re left with a chicken carcass, which you can use to make chicken stock that will be a hundred times more flavorful than anything you can buy in the store. I’ll be posting about that soon, so stay tuned.

There are downsides to this. Of course, every chicken only has two breasts, two legs, and two wings, so what are you supposed to do when you need more than that? It doesn’t seem very economical to be buying three chickens just to get six chicken breasts, does it? Well, yes and no. What I do is I try to buy a chicken whenever they go on sale. I take it home and cut it into parts and freeze all the parts separately. Eventually, I have a collection of parts ready when I need them.*

Are you convinced? Hopefully so, because I’m going to launch into the how-to of this anyways. First, you’ll want to get yourself a boning knife. It looks like this:
Other knives of about the same size will probably be OK, but the boning knife is shaped in such a way to make the job easiest for you, so it’s ideal. It’s also known as a boner. Don’t laugh, I’m serious.

Next, you will need a chicken. This whole procedure is pretty pointless if you don’t have a chicken. Say hello to Miss Chicken:
Now, you’re ready to make your first cut. The cuts you’re going to be making will mostly be on joints. It is essential that you cut at the correct spot. Otherwise, you’ll be trying to cut through bone and not only will this be very difficult, it will also kill the edge on your knife. So what is that correct spot, you ask? Well, take our first cut, for example: the wings. You will be cutting on the second joint in from the tip of the wing. Take that joint between your fingers and give it a feel. You should be able to feel a distinct spot where the joint actually is (where the two bones connect). You want to cut right on that spot, right between the bones. Right about here:

If it seems like you’re sawing through bone, it’s because you are, so try again. You should only have to cut through the tendons and ligaments holding the joint together. You should end up with one of these:
Now, you’re going to separate the breast from the carcass. Find the chicken’s sternum. It’s the bone that goes down the front of the bird and separates the two breasts. Place your knife on one side of the sternum, as close to the bone as possible, just below the neck. Now, cut into the flesh, keeping as close as possible to the sternum and going as deep as you can.
To completely remove the breast, continue to cut along the carcass of the chicken, right until just above the leg. The breast should just be attached to the rest of the chicken by the skin, so simply cut through that to cut the breast completely away. You can leave the breast as is, or you can also remove the tender from it. The tender is the thin piece of flesh on the underside of the breast. You can remove it simply by peeling it away with your hand, no knife required.
Next, you’re going to separate the leg and thigh from the bird. This picture shows the general area you’re going to be cutting:
You’re going to be cutting at a joint again, so find the joint where the thigh attaches to the body of the bird. It’s pretty deep in there, but it’s there, I promise. Hopefully, this will help (sorry, this picture is a little gross):
Just like with the wing, you want to cut through the joint, not the bone. It should give easily. Once you’ve cut through the joint, you can simply slice the thigh the rest of the way off. Then, you’ve got yourself a chicken leg:
The next step is to separate the thigh from the drumstick. Actually, this part is optional, depending on how you intend to use the legs. Sometimes you want the thigh and drumstick attached. If not, here’s what you do: turn the leg skin side down. Find the joint that attaches the thigh to the drumstick, and cut through that.
You should be getting pretty good at this cutting through joints thing now. Once you’re through the joint, you should have something like this:
Now, just cut through the remaining flesh and skin to separate the thigh and drumstick completely.

Finally, repeat all of the above steps on the other side of the chicken, and ta-da!
You have successfully broken your chicken down into parts. Congratulations. Now, use those parts however you’d like, but DO NOT throw away that carcass! Next, I’m going to show you how to make fabulous chicken stock. Trust me, you’re going to want to get in on that. Really, trust me.

*Just a quick note to say that freezing and thawing fresh meat is not ideal. It is always better to buy meat fresh and cook it as soon as you can. However, this will cost you more and it isn’t always economical time-wise either. Thawing frozen meat for everyday use is fine, just don’t let that meat hang around in your freezer for too long. For special occasions, be sure you get your meat fresh.


  1. Thanks for the guide!

    Just a quick question though: would I be able to make stock out of an already-roasted chicken carcass? I just roasted a chicken and don't want to throw the carcass out. Will it negatively impact the taste of the stock?

    Thanks again!

  2. Hi Harley!

    Yes, you can definitely use the bones from an already roasted chicken to make stock. Just follow the same steps as in the post above, only your bones will need less roasting time since they're already part-way there--just a little extra to get some caramelization on them.

    Good luck!