The Best Poultry Shears

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Each year during the holidays, we here at Serious Eats implore you to spatchcock your turkeys and other birds of feast. We argue that it's the best way to guarantee evenly cooked breast meat that isn't dried out, legs that are fully done, and skin that's crispy all over. We tell you to do the same for chickens the rest of the year. It's a great technique, and it works.

The problem is that we haven't been as helpful about telling you how to do it. Actually, that's not quite right. We tell you how: Cut out the backbone. But we haven't gone into much depth about which tool you can rely on to make that process easy. That's not a small problem, because as your bird (and its bones) gets bigger, spatchcocking becomes increasingly difficult to do.

I've successfully spatchcocked a chicken with a simple pair of kitchen shears, though it can be hard on larger hens. Move up to a turkey, and your run-of-the-mill kitchen shears are about as useful for spatchcocking as a toaster oven would be for roasting it. For this task, you need poultry shears—specialized clippers expressly designed to cut through bird bones. If you plan to do a lot of spatchcocking on any kind of bird, it's a really handy tool to have.

The dirty secret of poultry shears, though, is that most of them are as worthless as a pile of bones. More worthless, in fact, because with bones you can at least make some stock.

To find the best poultry shears, I tested the 12 most promising pairs, based on online reviews on sites like Amazon.com and messages posted on cooking forums. I even threw in some of the top-rated regular shears, just on the off chance that one of them was up to the task. While other review sites have looked at kitchen shears in general, none of the leading ones, like America's Test Kitchen or The Sweethome, have examined poultry shears in particular.

In the end, only one pair of poultry shears I tested truly excelled at the tasks most essential to this tool: the OXO Good Grips Spring-Loaded Poultry Shears.

Our Favorites, at a Glance

Our Favorite Take-Apart Poultry Shears: OXO Good Grips Spring-Loaded Poultry Shears

OXO's poultry shears offer several key features that set them apart from the pack, including a locking mechanism that's easy to engage and disengage (and doesn't get in the way), a looped handle that won't allow poultry-fat-slicked hands to slip and slide when squeezing hard, and a take-apart hinge that allows thorough cleaning in all the hard-to-reach spaces. But what really gives it top honors is the fact that it's the only pair of shears I tested that could complete the two tasks essential to any pair of poultry shears: snipping through squirmy skin and cleaving through bone. If your poultry shears can't do that, you might as well give up on them.

Our Favorite Adjustable Poultry Shears: J. A. Henckels International Poultry Shears

These shears from Henckels gave the OXOs a run for their money in bone-cutting power—in fact, they were ever so slightly more powerful than the OXO pair, though the difference was near negligible. As for skin-snipping, they started out strong, but after a while, they began to bungle the job. The good news: These shears have an adjustable hinge nut, so if you have a pair of pliers, you can quickly tighten them back up and return them to top skin-snipping form.

Our Favorite Bone-Cutter Extraordinaire: Weston Butcher Saw With 16-Inch Stainless Steel Blade

As good as our top poultry shears are, even they have limits. Sure, they were able to cleanly cut through the thick hip and thigh bones of a 12-pound turkey, but that required two hands and a considerable amount of forearm strength on my part. By the time you get up to a 14-, 18-, or 24-pound turkey, your chances of using shears to bust through the bone get pretty low. For that, you need to either recruit your butcher for help, grab a sharp cleaver (and try not to accidentally lop a part of your hand off), or use the same tool your butcher does: a hacksaw. If you really want something that can cut through any bone, no matter its size, this Weston Butcher Saw is it.

The Criteria: What We Look for in a Great Set of Poultry Shears

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A good pair of poultry shears should do two things well: It needs to cleanly snip through slippery skin, and it needs to force its way through bone. That sounds simple enough, but it's probably pretty hard to pack both capabilities into one set of shears, as bone-crushing power and skin-snipping finesse are very different things. The fact that so many manufacturers seem to have such a hard time ensuring that their shears can do both likely speaks to the overall technical challenge. And yet, that's what poultry shears need to do if they're going to be worth buying and using.

All the poultry shears I tested have a spring mechanism, which helps them pop back open after each squeeze. They have a lot in common with garden shears in this regard, which also have to cut through tough material, then pop right back open for the next snip. A good spring provides just enough resistance to press the shears back open, and it must be attached in such a way that it's unlikely to fall off the shears.

That spring, though, means that all the shears need a locking mechanism, lest they remain permanently agape. The lock should be easy to engage and disengage, and it shouldn't get in the way of basic function.

Beyond that, quality shears should be sturdy, with nonslip handles that are comfortable enough to not cause excessive pain when you're bearing down on them.

Finally, good shears should have one of the following two options (I have yet to find a pair that has both in one build): They should offer either a take-apart hinge that allows thorough cleaning of all poultry-slicked surfaces, or a hinge nut that allows you to adjust the tightness, especially since loosening is a likely problem given the forces that poultry shears endure over time. Which of those features is more important to you will help determine which pair to get.

The Testing

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Testing these shears was as simple as trying to cut through some poultry with them. I skipped the chickens, since even some basic kitchen shears can do that, and went straight to the big bird most of us wrestle with at least once a year—turkey. It's safe to assume that if a pair of shears can handle a turkey, it can also handle anything smaller, like a goose, duck, or chicken. I used 12-pound birds, which are on the small side for turkeys. But with anything bigger than that, you'd be lucky to find a pair of shears (or a person with enough strength) to successfully do it.

Just for fun, I added some top-rated basic kitchen shears to the group, in case it turned out one of them could stand up to the turkey test. I'll spare you the suspense: They can't. None of them. Not a one. Save your kitchen shears for cutting parchment, opening packages, and snipping herbs—they really aren't designed to take apart larger birds.

Snipping Through Skin

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A good pair of poultry shears should cut cleanly and easily through slippery skin.

The biggest challenge poultry shears face, in theory, is cutting through bone. But they have to slice through skin to get there. Far too many manufacturers overlook this basic fact, and the number of pairs I tested that failed to do this proves it. I rejected almost the entire group—eight pairs!—during this test because they were unable to snip through skin, even when the shears were brand-new, straight out of their packaging. In most cases, this was because the hinge was too loose, which allowed the skin to slip between the blades instead of getting cut by them.

I should note that I'm a lefty, which often causes scissors and shears to backfire. To factor that in, I attempted to snip the skin with both my right and my left hand using each pair of shears. I never found a difference; the poultry shears that could do it worked in both of my hands, and the ones that couldn't failed regardless of which hand I was using.

It's an understandable failure given the focus on bone-cutting ability, but still an inexcusable one. There's nothing more frustrating than attempting to cut apart a bird only to end up with the skin in mangled shreds. It frankly astounds me that so many cutlery and kitchenware companies can go through the process of designing, manufacturing, and selling a product with such a basic and easily testable purpose, and not deliver on that.

Crunching Through Bone

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A larger bird, like this turkey, is the ultimate test for poultry shears.

Speaking of astounding failures, even more shocking than a pair of poultry shears that can't cut through poultry skin is one that's unable to cut through the bone. I disqualified two pairs because they couldn't do what every other pair in the group could: their most essential job.

The test was simple: cut out the backbone of a 12-pound turkey. Any pair that can't do this obviously isn't offering much in the poultry-dismembering department. But this test did more than highlight outright failures—it also revealed which shears had uncomfortable grips that painfully pressed into my hand when I squeezed hard; which were unstable or slippery, causing the handles to slide out of my greasy hands as I squeezed; and which had locks that got in the way during cutting.

How We Chose Our Winner(s)

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The best shears had to be able to cut through both fatty skin and the hip and rib bones of a 12-pound turkey, while also being as comfortable as possible and well built. It's worth noting that even with our winning shears, successfully cutting through the thickest turkey bones required significant grip strength on my part, including, at times, the combined strength of both my hands squeezing at once. (And I have above-average grip strength for an adult male—somewhere around 120 pounds per square inch in my dominant hand, based on tests from within the past year.) After about 10 minutes of testing, there were moments when I was squeezing so hard that I felt pain radiating up my wrists and forearms, and an uncomfortable level of pressure in my palms from even the most comfortable handles.

What this means is that if your grip strength is on the lower side, if you plan to cut through more than one or two large birds at a time, or if you want to cut up turkeys that are bigger than 12 pounds, you should seriously consider upgrading to a butcher's hacksaw. (You could, I suppose, use a cleaver, but the risk of the bird sliding around as you hack at it seems a little too great to me.)

Our Favorite Take-Apart Poultry Shears: OXO Good Grips Spring-Loaded Poultry Shears

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OXO's poultry shears came out on top in our tests. They were the best at snipping through skin and just about dead even with the Henckels shears for cutting through bone. They feature a comfortable rubberized handle with a loop on one side, which helps keep a greasy hand from slipping when you're exerting lots of pressure.

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The OXO locking mechanism does not bump into the hands during use.

The bright red locking mechanism is easy to engage and disengage and keeps the shears shut tight when in storage. Its location, at the end of the handles, keeps it completely out of the way during use. The spring, meanwhile, is a solid, flat spring set between the handles and securely attached to the upper handle at one end.

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The OXO's take-apart hinge allows thorough cleaning of all surfaces.

And, as a bonus, the shears have a take-apart hinge, which means you can wash and dry every last bit of them—a nice detail when you're dealing with raw poultry juices.

Our Favorite Adjustable Poultry Shears: J. A. Henckels International Poultry Shears

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It's hard to say for sure, because its bone-cutting performance was so similar to the OXO's, but if I had to point to the single best pair of shears for getting through skeletal material, it'd be these shears from Henckels. They felt ever so marginally more adept at making those difficult cuts.

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An adjustable hinge nut means the shears can be retightened if they loosen up too much.

What they possibly gained in bone-cutting ability, though, they lost when it came to getting through skin. Out of the box, the Henckels shears did fine work with the skin, but after several minutes of using them to cut through increasingly difficult pieces of bone, they started to lose their edge (excuse the pun) in the skin-snipping game. On the other hand, these shears have an adjustable hinge nut, which means you can tighten them back up with some needle-nose pliers to restore their skin-cutting abilities.

One other interesting detail about the hinge is that the spring is nowhere to be seen, meaning it's likely built right into the hinge itself. If nothing else, this makes for a nicely streamlined form.

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The Henckels lock bumped into my thumb—not ideal.

I found the handles and grips on these shears to be just as comfortable as those on the OXO pair, though the lock was awkwardly placed right where my thumb sat, which meant the two occasionally bumped together.

Another noteworthy observation: One or two reviews on Amazon complain of the Henckels shears snapping during use, a serious problem if it happens. I put them through a good deal of stress and nothing of the sort occurred, but these reviews may speak to their long-term durability.

Our Favorite Bone-Cutter Extraordinaire: Weston Butcher Saw With 16-Inch Stainless Steel Blade

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Last but not least, this butcher's hacksaw is your best option if you want nothing to stand between you and the bones you want to cut—not a large turkey, not weaker grip strength, not even 50 turkeys to feed a hungry army on Thanksgiving. No matter what bone-cutting task lies ahead, this hacksaw will get you through it. Yeah, literally.

The downsides? First, it's big. The blade alone is more than a foot long, which means it isn't a tool you can fit into a drawer. If you don't have a large space in which to store it, like a garage, you probably don't want to have to deal with finding a home for it. And second, it's a hacksaw, which means you have to be extra careful when using it because, yes, you could saw through your own fingers. I think it's safer and easier to manage than a cleaver for tasks like spatchcocking a bird, but that doesn't make it risk-free. Use it with caution.