Knowing how to pick, clean, and break down a whole chicken is a skill that might sound like a throwback to Little House on the Prairie. Not only is it a handy skill to have, it’s much easier to master than most people think! When you watch an experienced chef like Gordon Ramsey break down a chicken, you might be amazed at how easy and quick he makes it appear. It might look intimidating, but don’t worry; with a little bit of practice and the right tools, you’ll break down a whole chicken just like those world-class chefs. And if it doesn’t look pretty after your first time, no biggie: It all gets cooked and eaten anyway.
There are three reasons why you should learn to break down a whole chicken.
1. Saving money.
Have you ever noticed that getting specific cuts of chicken is much more expensive by weight compared to buying a whole chicken? That’s because you’re paying for the butcher’s time and effort. In order to save money, buy a whole chicken and do the butchering yourself.
For around the same price of a couple of pre-cut boneless breasts, you’ll be able to buy a whole chicken. Not only are you paying a cheaper price overall for the chicken, you also have both dark and white meat.
2. Get the cuts as precise as you want them.
Different recipes will call for different cuts of chicken. One recipe might call for drumsticks, another might need thighs, and a third might need the breasts. Why not buy a couple of whole birds and get the different cuts you need? You just need to freeze the different cuts properly and you’ll be able to make a wide variety of different chicken recipes to serve your family!
3. Avoid food waste AND make the best stock ever.
One of the best things about breaking down a whole chicken is being able to avoid food waste. After breaking down the chicken and getting the cuts you need, you’ll probably have leftovers especially if you need fillets.
You can use the leftover bones and carcass to make a delicious and flavorful chicken stock! Homemade chicken stock has a lot of flavor.
In a large pot, place the carcass and cover with cold water. Add aromatic vegetables such as carrots, onions, garlic, and celery. You can also add some herbs such as thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, removing the scum that collects on top. Once it reaches a boil, reduce to a simmer and leave for an hour. Strain out all the bones and vegetables and use stock as needed in your recipes. Stored in airtight containers, homemade chicken stock will (last)[ ] 3-4 days in the fridge and 4-6 months in the freezer.
4. BONUS SILLY TIP
You get to walk around saying things like “I spatchcocked my fat bird last night and everyone loved it.” Enjoy the weird looks and then explain that you just split the bird and laid it flat for more even cooking and in less time. To “butterfly” means basically the same thing, but it’s not as fun to say.
Picking Your Raw Chicken
When picking your raw chicken, look for chicken that is fresh and plump. Look at the color, feel the texture, and smell the chicken.
The flesh must be pink and the skin pinkish-white. Avoid chicken that is grey. The flesh should be springy and firm; avoid flesh that is too stiff or soft. Fresh chicken should not have any odor. Any stale, sour, or unpleasant odor is a sign that the chicken has been sitting out for a while, or has been frozen, thawed, and refrozen repeatedly.
Look for chicken that has been air-chilled instead of dunked into an ice bath. Air-chilled chickens give you better value because you won’t be paying for water weight.
Cleaning your Raw Chicken
Before using your chicken, you should prep it. Never wash raw chicken because it can spread bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Cooking the chicken to 165F at the thickest part kills dangerous bacteria.
What Tools Do I Need?
To break down a whole chicken, you will need three things:
- A sturdy cutting board with a moat – these are the channels on the sides of the board to help catch liquid.
- A sharp chef’s knife (This is a two-knife set, but we can’t get enough of Wusthof knives)
- Poultry shears
- Clean kitchen towel (for repeatedly drying your hands as you handle utensils and the bird)
Breaking Down Your Chicken by Parts
In general, there are four parts that you can get from a whole chicken: wings, breasts, legs, and thighs. Your chicken may be tied. Be sure to cut through any twine and discard before starting to cut the bird. Here are some basic tips for separating each part of the chicken:
Place chicken breast-side up. Locate the joint between the wing and the breast. Slice through the skin and meat and cut cleanly through the joint.
Tug the leg outward and make a shallow cut through the skin between the leg and body. Bend the leg outward, exposing the thigh joint. Cut through the joint to separate thigh and drumstick from the body.
Note: if you don’t want to separate the leg and thigh, the resulting cut of chicken is called a leg quarter.
To separate the leg from the thigh, locate the “V” where the thigh and leg meet. Flip the chicken skin-side down and look for a strip of white fat running along the joint. Cut through the joint cleanly.
To separate the breasts from the backbone, stand the body of the chicken up on your cutting board. Cut along the sides of the backbone, separating the breast from the back. To cut the breast, place it skin-side down and cut down the middle. Use the breastbone as your guide. You can cut the breasts into smaller pieces by cutting through each breast in half crosswise.
Now you know how to break down a whole chicken like a pro!