Knife Skills: How to Break Down a Chicken

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Eight pieces of chicken, ready for stewing, braising, frying, or handing out as Halloween treats. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If there's one knife skill that can save you money and make you look cool at the same time, it's breaking down a chicken. Consider that boneless breasts often cost around three times more than whole chicken does.

For the same price as a two-pack of breasts, you can buy a whole chicken, which comes with those same breasts, plus two legs, and a back. And wait for it—if you're really lucky, you'll get a free liver, heart, and gizzard thrown in to sweeten the deal! I know girls (named Chichi) who'd get the whole chicken just to get her hands on some of those delicious gizzards!

Of course, if you don't know how to break the chicken down, all this is not too useful. That's where this guide comes in. Just follow the instructions, and you'll be breaking down chickens like the pros..

Shopping and Storage

Just two quick tips here:

  • Buy air-chilled chickens. Air-chilled chickens like those from Bell and Evans and several other "premium" brands are chilled with cold air after slaughter rather than being dumped into an ice bath like the mass-market brands. This means that they come to the market with less retained water. Not only does this give you a better value (since you're not paying for water weight), but more importantly, you get more concentrated flavor.
  • Avoid kosher birds. Kosher birds have been heavily salted before packaging in order to remove excess liquid. While in some cases, this is desirable—such as when you are roasting it—in other cases, the excess salt can ruin a recipe. A braised chicken recipe where the braising liquid is subsequently reduced can get far too salty from the excess salt within the chicken. It also limits your stock-making ability, since a salty stock cannot be reduced. You're better off buying a regular bird and salting or brining it yourself if the recipe calls for it.

As for all your other options, I personally prefer to pay the extra money for premium brands of free range or specialty heirloom breeds because of the improved flavor they offer. There's not much worse than bad chicken. Maybe bad margaritas, but that's about it.

Step 1: The Tools

To break down a chicken, you'll need a chicken, a sharp chef's knife, and either a set of poultry shears or a cleaver. Extra coolness points if you've got the cleaver.

Step 2: Spread'em

Grab the chicken by the drumstick and pull the leg outwards from the body until the skin is stretched taught.

Step 3: The First Incision

Start the operation by cutting through the skin between the leg and the body. Don't cut too deep—just through the skin. No matter what Cat Stevens says, the first cut should be the shallowest.

Step 4: Pop the Joint

Grab the leg in one hand and twist it downwards away from the body until the ball joint pops out of the socket. This shouldn't require much force.

Step 5: Remove Thigh

Use your chef's knife to completely remove the leg by cutting through the joint you just exposed, making sure to get the little nugget of meat that sits closest to the chicken's spine (this is called the oyster, and should be fought over at the table).

Step 6: The Other Foot

Repeat steps 2 through 5 on the second leg.

Step 7: Crack the Back

Hold the chicken by the backbone and position it vertically on your cutting board with the butt end pointing up. Use your chef's knife to cut through the skin and cartilage between the breast and the back. Cut until you get through the first or second ribs.

Step 8: Break Out the Cleaver

Switch over to your cleaver, and continue cutting through the ribs using short, firm strokes. Alternatively, use poultry shears to cut the through the ribs on both sides.

Step 9: Cut Through Shoulders

Use the tip of the cleaver to cut through the shoulder bones on either side (or use poultry shears).

Step 10: Half Way Done!

The backbone should now be completely separated from the breast. Save it for stock.

Step 11: Split the Breast

To split the breast, cut through either side of the breast bone until you hit the sternum. Using your free hand, press down firmly on the blade until it cracks through the bone.

Step 12: 4-Piece Chicken

If you are only looking for 4 pieces of chicken, you're all done! To continue breaking it down into 8 pieces, read on...

Step 13: Find the Ball

Use your fingertip to locate the ball joint between the thigh and drumstick.

Step 14: Cut at Joint

Cut through the joint with your chef's knife, separating the thigh from the drumstick.

Step 15: Divide the Breasts

Cut each breast in half crosswise by pressing down on your knife blade with your free hand until you crack through the breastbone.

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