How to Break Down a Chicken

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[Video: Serious Eats Team; Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

If there's one knife skill that can save you money and make you look cool, it's breaking down a chicken. For about the same price as a pack of two breasts, you can buy a whole chicken, which comes with those same breasts, two legs, and a back. And if you're really lucky, you'll get a free liver, heart, and gizzard thrown in to sweeten the deal! I know a girl (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 to show you how to butcher a chicken into four or eight pieces. Just follow the instructions, and you'll be breaking down birds like the pros.

Shopping for and Storing Chicken

Whole chicken on cutting board

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, which is what mass-market brands do. This means 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 it also creates 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 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 extra 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.

The Tools

Tools for breaking down chicken

To break down a chicken, you'll need a chicken, a sharp knife (a chef's knife, Western-style boning knife, or a Japanese-style honesuki poultry boning knife will all work) and either a set of poultry shears or a cleaver. Extra coolness points if you've got the cleaver.

How to Break Down a Chicken Into Four Pieces

Chicken broken down into four pieces with wing tips and back for stock.

Let's start with the basic four-piece breakdown. Other than spatchcocking (which isn't really a butchering project), this is the simplest way to process a bird. Using this method, you will end up with four pieces of chicken for eating as is—two bone-in breast quarters with wings attached and two bone-in leg quarters—and three pieces of chicken for making stock: two wing tips and the back. Here's how to do it.

Step 1: Trim Wing Tips and Remove the Wishbone

Removing wing tips and wishbone

Start by trimming the wing tips. Working with one wing at a time, cut the joint right at the wing tip; set aside the tips for making stock.

Next, remove the wishbone, which is located at the neck opening—this is the same for other birds, like turkey or quail. Using the tip of your knife, make a cut along each arm of the wishbone to detach it from the breast meat. Work your fingers behind the wishbone, separating it from any flesh that's still attached. Slide your fingers up toward the apex of the wishbone until you can hook your finger behind the part where the two arms join. Pull it out, and free the wishbone fully from the flesh; set it aside for stock.

Step 2: Remove the Legs

Process shots of separating legs from chicken.

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

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

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 it should be fought over at the table). Repeat this process with the second leg.

Step 3: Crack and Remove the Back

Removing backbone chicken

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.

If you are using a Western-style boning knife, switch over to a heavy chef's knife or cleaver—if you're using a honesuki, you don't need to switch because the knife has enough heft in its handle to cut through bone. Continue cutting through the ribs using short, firm strokes. Alternatively, use poultry shears to cut through the ribs on both sides.

Use your knife to cut through the shoulder bones on either side (or use poultry shears). The backbone should now be completely separated from the breast. Save it for stock.

Step 4: Split the Breast

Process shots of splitting chicken breast

To split the breast, place it skin side down on your board to create a flat surface for cutting. Cut through either side of the sternum, using your free hand to press down firmly on the blade until it cracks through the bone.

Chicken broken down into four pieces with wing tips and back for stock.

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

How to Break Down a Chicken Into Eight Pieces

Chicken broken down into 8 pieces.

With four more quick knife strokes, you can turn that quartered bird into the following eight pieces: two bone-in breasts, two wings, two bone-in thighs, and two drumsticks. Here's how to do it.

Step 5: Separate Drumsticks From the Thighs

Process shots of separating thigh from drumstick

Working with one leg quarter at a time, use your fingertip to locate the ball joint between the thigh and drumstick. If you place the legs skin side down on your board, you can also locate the joint by the line of white fat that runs along it. Cut through the joint, separating the thigh from the drumstick. Repeat with the other leg.

Step 6: Separate Wings From the Breast

Process shots of separating wing from breast

Place the breast skin side up on your cutting board. Working with one half-breast at a time, hold the wing with your nondominant hand and wiggle it to locate the shoulder joint. Cut through the joint, separating the wing from the breast. Repeat with the other half-breast. And that's it! You are well on your way to becoming a butchery wizard.