How to Cut Up a Whole Chicken in 6 Easy Steps
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If you don't know how to cut a whole chicken, now is the perfect time to learn. You'll save a ton of money compared to buying pre-packaged chicken breasts, thighs, wings and drumsticks.
I almost never buy chicken in pieces. At the grocery store, I walk right past the trays containing chicken breasts and chicken thighs and look for the whole chickens. Sure, I love a good roasted or grilled whole chicken as much as anyone, but buying this way is also part of a larger strategy: I break the chickens down at home, trading a bit of my time for grocery budget savings.
When it comes to price, it’s a no-brainer to cut up a chicken myself. A Simple Truth organic whole chicken costs $2.99 per pound at my local store. If I buy the same brand as boneless skinless chicken breasts, I’ll shell out $6.99 per pound (or $5.99 for boneless thighs). So I buy three or four birds and make an afternoon of it, packaging several breasts, thighs, drumsticks and wings into individual bundles and freezing them for later.
As a bonus, saving the excess bones and wing tips allows me to make a “free” batch of chicken stock—and it always turns out more flavorful than the store-bought stuff.
How to Cut a Whole Chicken
I will admit that the process of cutting a whole chicken sounds intimidating. “You went to culinary school,” my friends say. “Of course you think it’s easy to break down chickens at home!” It’s true that I’ve processed hundreds of chickens in my career, but culinary school only gave me the confidence to get started. I promise that I was just as intimidated as anyone at the beginning!
The hardest part is getting comfortable with slicing around the bones. But any mistakes you make will barely be noticeable after the meat is cooked. Then, after practicing on a few chickens, you’ll find the entire process takes less than 5 minutes.
Tools You’ll Need
You have two options for cutting a whole chicken: You can use a knife or shears. Shears are a great option for beginners. They remove the risk of accidentally cutting your hands as you maneuver around the chicken. You can use a regular set of kitchen shears, although you may want to use poultry shears instead. They’re spring-loaded to make it easier to get through the tough breastbone. Once you have them around, they’re handy for spatchcocking chicken and turkey, too.
If you’re going with the knife option, you’ll want one with a long, thin blade. A chef’s knife works in a pinch, but it’s too wide and can get in the way of the delicate cuts around the joints. If you don’t plan to process many chickens, start with an inexpensive boning knife, like this Mercer Culinary 6-inch curved boning knife. If you enjoy the process, you can always upgrade to a more expensive knife later, like this Wusthof 6-inch boning knife.
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Step 1: Remove the wings and wing tips
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With the chicken breast-side down on the cutting board, pull the wing tip away from the wing flat. Use your fingers to locate the joint and slice through it to remove the tip. Turn the chicken and repeat the process on the other side.
Pull the wing towards you and make a semi-circle cut around the back of the drumette. When the bone is exposed, pull the wing away from the body and pop the joint out of its socket. Cut through the joint to remove the wing, repeating the process on the other side.
If desired, slice through the joint that connects the flat and the drumette to separate the two pieces.
Editor’s Tip: The wing tips don’t contain any meat, but don’t throw them away! They’re rich in collagen, the substance that gives body to stock and broth. Save them in the freezer (along with the rest of the chicken bones) until you have enough to make a batch of broth.
Step 2: Remove the legs
Turn the chicken over so it’s breast-side up on the cutting board. Slice the skin between the leg and breast, keeping the knife or shears as close to the leg as possible. Turn the chicken on its side and hold onto the leg with your free hand. Cut down towards the point where the leg meets the body, making a small semi-circle cut around the oyster until you reach the bone.
Put the knife down and grasp the chicken by its knee. Bend the knee and position the leg so it’s parallel to the spine. Then, pull it up and away from the body. You should hear a satisfying “crack” when the joint pops out of its socket. If you’re having trouble with this step, play around with the leg’s angle and try again.
Cut through the joint and give it a firm tug to pull the leg free from the body. You shouldn’t need to use your knife, but you can cut downwards along the backbone for assistance if you’re experiencing difficulties.
Repeat the process on the other side.
Step 3: Separate the thigh and drumstick
The thigh and drumstick can be roasted together as a quarter, or you can separate the two pieces. To remove the drumstick, turn the leg skin-side down to get a better view. Locate the joint that connects the thigh and the drumstick, using your fingers and wiggling the drumstick back and forth to find it. Slice through the meat towards that joint, separating the two pieces.
When I first learned how to cut up a whole chicken, this was the hardest part. There are some big bones here, and you can’t get a good view without slicing into the meat. It’s easy to miss the point where the two pieces connect. Don’t worry: You won’t be able to tell if you butchered it after the meat is cooked, so keep at it until you get it right.
Step 4: Remove the backbone
Turn the chicken upright, with the neck touching the cutting board. Holding the back, carefully cut down along the edge of the breastbone, cutting through the ribs. Depending on your skill level, you may find this part easier using shears. When you reach the neck area, repeat the process on the other side. Put the knife or shears down and pull the backbone away from the body to remove it. Save the bones for stock in the same bag that contains the wingtips.
Step 5: Remove the wishbone
I always take the time to do this step, but it’s optional. The chicken will cook just fine with the wishbone intact, but it’s easier to split the breasts or carve the cooked chicken if it’s removed. If you’re planning to take the breasts off the bone in the next step, you don’t need to remove the wishbone.
Position the chicken breast skin-side up with the neck facing towards you. Pull back the skin to expose the breast meat. Make a small slit into the meat as close to the neck as possible. You should be able to feel the wishbone with your knife. Follow along each side of the bone with your knife until you reach the point where it joins the shoulder. Cut around the bottom to release the bottom of the wishbone. Repeat the process on the other side.
Using your fingers, carefully pull the wishbone up to remove it from the neck. I often use a paper towel to get a better grip on the slippery bone. It’s a delicate bone, so it may snap in half as you remove it. Take care to remove any bone fragments if that happens.
Step 6: Split the breast or create boneless skinless chicken breasts
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A chicken breast tastes great when it’s roasted whole on the bone, but you may choose to separate the breast into two pieces to make portioning easier later. It’s also easy to take the breast off the bone if you prefer boneless skinless chicken breasts—perfect for these easy chicken breast recipes.
To split the breast, place the chicken skin-side down on the cutting board. Run a sharp knife along the center of the breast to weaken the cartilage. Then, flip the chicken over and position your palms on each side. Press down firmly until you hear the breastbone crack. Make a long, even slice through the center of the breast to cut the skin. Use a pair of poultry shears to cut through the bone. You can also use a wide sturdy knife like a chef’s knife or cleaver, pressing down firmly until you punch through the breastbone.
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To create boneless skinless chicken breasts, place each breast half skin-side down on the cutting board. Starting at the thickest end of the breast, run the tip of your knife under the breastbone to release it from the meat. Continue to follow the breastbone, pulling it back with your free hand. When you reach the rib cage, angle your knife slightly to get under the rib bones. To remove the skin, start at the skinny end of the chicken breast. Pull the skin towards the thick end, using your knife to loosen any clinging bits as you move along.
Use your newfound skills to make these unique chicken recipes.