If you're an avid cook who eats meat and fish, you’ve probably heard more than a few people go on about the virtues of whole-animal butchery. “It’s a money-saver!” “You’ll become a more independent and resourceful cook.” “It gives you a deeper level of respect for the life that was taken to feed you.” “Everyone will think you are very cool.”
Some arguments are more compelling than others, but that’s not the point of this piece. I’ll leave it up to my colleague Sho to convince you to buy whole chickens instead of cryo-vac packs of boneless, skinless breasts, so that you, too, can render chicken fat in a microwave. Instead, this is a little primer on how to break down a whole rabbit into bone-in pieces for frying, braising, or roasting.
In terms of approachable butchery projects, rabbit is right up there with fin fish, chicken, duck, and quail. Have you always been interested in learning how to break down lamb, pigs, or venison, but don’t have the space for processing them or storing their meat? Break down a rabbit instead! The basic anatomical structure is the same. Rabbits happen to come in a home cook-friendly size, and they’re also delicious. Here’s what you need to know.
Shopping for Rabbit
Shopping for rabbit can requires some advanced planning. It isn't often that you'll find rabbits in refrigerated display cases in the United States, either at supermarket butcher counters or even specialty butcher shop. Despite efforts to increase rabbit consumption, people are still more willing to gobble them up in chocolate form. That means you'll likely have to make a special order.
If you have a good relationship with your butcher, you can ask if they’ll order one for you, but it’s worth looking into farms in your area, as rabbit farming is mostly done on a small-scale basis, to see if any offer local delivery. And you can always order online from specialty purveyors like D’Artagnan that ship nationwide, although shipping costs can be very high. On the subject of cost, it’s worth noting that rabbit is pretty expensive, with prices starting at around ten dollars per pound.
Other than the rabbit itself, you don’t need many tools to get the job done. A sharp knife is a must for all butchery projects, even if the goal is generally to use a knife as sparingly as possible. Precise cuts between joints and smooth knife strokes separating muscle groups are best accomplished with a sharp edge. A dull knife forces you to saw, puncture, and stab at things, which can lead to mangled meat and self-inflicted wounds.
A chef’s knife, Western-style boning knife, or Japanese-style honesuki poultry boning knife are all great options, but you should use the sharpest blade in your kitchen. You can get by with just a knife, but having a meat cleaver or a pair of sturdy kitchen shears on-hand makes cutting through bone and cartilage a breeze, and helps you maintain that sharp edge of your knife.
Sharp objects aside, it’s good practice to set up an orderly prep station when cutting up proteins. A well-stabilized cutting board and a rimmed baking sheet for holding the rabbit parts as you work so you can keep that cutting board free of clutter should do the trick.
How to Cut Up a Rabbit Into Six Serving Pieces
A six-piece breakdown is one of the simplest ways to process a whole rabbit for braising, frying, or roasting in parts. This method yields six bone-in pieces of rabbit—two front legs, two hind leg quarters, and two saddle portions—as well as two boneless strips of belly that can be cooked separately as a little kitchen snack but aren’t very substantial, and the ribcage and backbone for stock.
Start by checking the rabbit cavity for any hidden offal treasures. The kidneys, liver, and heart are sometimes included; just set those aside if that’s the case. You can skewer and grill them as a snack later. With the cavity cleaned out, give the rabbit a pat-down with some paper towels or a clean kitchen towel. You don’t want things slipping and sliding on a cutting board while butchering.
Step 1: Remove the Front Legs
Position the rabbit on its side, so that the front leg is closest to you. Lift the leg up and away from the body of the rabbit, so that you can see where the shoulder joint connects to the cage. Cut around the leg, keeping the knife edge against the cage. The leg will come off easily.
Flip the rabbit over onto its other side, and repeat the cutting process. Set the front legs aside on your baking sheet.
Step 2: Remove the Hind Legs
Removing the back legs of a rabbit is very similar to the process of removing the legs on a chicken. Hold the bottom of one leg with your off-hand, and pull the leg outward, away from the body, so that you can cut between the area where the leg meets the body.
Hold the body steady with one hand and with the other grab the top part of the leg and twist downward, away from the body, until the femur ball joint pops out of the socket. Now use your knife to remove the leg by cutting through the exposed joint and riding the blade down the spine to the tailbone. Repeat with the other leg. If you plan to braise the rabbit, you can separate the leg quarters into leg and thigh pieces, just as you would when separating the thigh from the drumstick on a chicken leg.
Step 3: Remove the Belly
With all four legs removed, you’re left with the rabbit’s midsection. You’ll notice two flappy bits of belly hanging off of the rabbit’s meaty “saddle.” Unlike pork or lamb belly, there isn’t much meat or fat to rabbit belly. However, it’s still pretty tough, when compared to the loin, and it's quite thin and hangs off the body, which means it won’t cook at the same rate as the loin. As a result, it’s best to remove the belly entirely. Hold the flap of meat up with your non-dominant hand and slice it off, making sure not to take any of the loin with it. As with the offal, you can cook the belly up as a snack.
Step 4: Remove the Rib Cage
If you’re bummed that rabbit bacon isn’t a possibility, I’m sad to say that barbecue rabbit ribs aren’t in the cards either. These animals are small and lean, and there’s just not much meat on their bones.
To remove the rib cage and upper spine, use your knife to cut through the membrane around the first ribs to expose the rib bones closest to the saddle. Stand the rabbit body up vertically, with the neck bone against your board. Holding the saddle in one hand, and the base of the rib cage in the other, pull downwards to crack the backbone.
Switch to a cleaver or kitchen shears if you’re not working with a honesuki (which has enough heft to cut through bone). Cut away the ribs and then cut through the spine to separate the rib cage from the saddle. Depending on where you cut through the spine, you may be left with a couple of vertebrae attached to very little meat at the top of the saddle. You can repeat the back-breaking process, and cut through to remove that portion of the spine, or leave it attached if you prefer to maximize the amount of meat in your braise.
Step 5: Portion the Saddle
You’ve now reached the final cut: the saddle. A saddle features both loins on either side of the spine. It can be left bone-in, or the spine can be cut out, and the boneless two-loin piece can be rolled for a roast (this is particularly popular with lamb saddle). If you want to impress a special someone with a rabbit loin roulade, have at it, but be warned that rabbit loins are so small and lean that it takes a lot of care to not overcook and dry them out when boned out. It’s fairly common in restaurant kitchens to roll them in caul fat in an effort to prevent this fate. Or you could just leave the bones alone for your saddle, which will work out best for braising, frying, and roasting.
All you need to do in that case is portion the saddle by cutting it into cross-section pieces. Use a cleaver, or a combination of a knife and kitchen shears, to cut the saddle in half through the spine. This will yield two large, chicken thigh-size pieces, which are perfect for frying. If you’re braising, then you can cut those pieces in half again for a more manageable, Dutch oven-friendly size.
That’s the breakdown of the six-piece rabbit breakdown. You’re now ready to get cooking, or to move on to bigger butchering projects. Break down a lamb. You do ewe.