I was 24, frying chicken for a dinner party, and totally unprepared. A mix up at the grocery store sent me home with six pounds of whole chicken instead of my usual boneless, skinless chunks. I had two choices: admit that I was a totally intimidated amateur in front of my foodie pals or nut up and get it done.
Initial squeamishness aside, it was actually pretty cool. Equal parts Betty Crocker and Jack the Ripper (without the horrible murdering). The chicken came apart in layers and I could see where the dark meat came from, how the tenders were attached to the breast. It felt like I was understanding the chicken in a new way. The end result didn't look great -- the breasts were gouged and half-skinless, and I left both thighs on the carcass by mistake -- but it felt great. And I've been butchering chickens at home ever since.
Despite what menus may have you believe, chickens do not come with nuggets. Instead, they have four pairs of meaty cuts, and a few odds and ends that are best served in the stock pot. Butchering your own chickens means you can make the most of your breasts, thighs, drumsticks, and wings, and save the back and neck from landing in an industrial waste scrap yard. It also means that you can save some cash.
Let’s do some quick math:
- Four pounds of boneless skinless chicken breast costs about $28.
- A whole chicken that yields four pounds of meat only costs $16.
- The average American eats 73 pounds of chicken per year.
Butchering chicken yourself saves $220 per person in your household each year.
While it’s not enough to buy a yacht, it is enough to cover a month’s cell phone bill or give you an excuse to buy some irresponsible, whimsical nonsense on Etsy.
To make sure you don’t find yourself frantically Googling in your bathroom, hiding from the six freeloaders drinking Two-Buck Chuck around your coffee table, I've broken down breaking down a chicken into manageable five steps.
Step One: Be Prepared
Once you touch raw chicken, you can’t touch your face, your hair, your phone, your cat, or your fridge. Nothing. Not until your hands are washed with hot, soapy water. Think of your hands hot lava but instead of being “out” if you eff up, your whole party dies of dysentery.
Start by reading these instructions all the way through once or twice so you know what you’re doing. Lay out your biggest cutting board on a sturdy table. I like to use a damp towel underneath the board. It grips the work surface so things don’t go slipping all over. Next to your board, set a bowl or tray that can hold the chicken pieces once they’re off the bird. Have a towel or two handy in case things get slimy, and make sure there’s soap waiting at the sink. While you’re at it, get your hair out of your face.
Next you’ll need to choose your knife. It doesn't have to be fancy, it just needs to be one you’re confident wielding. Being sharp helps, too. When your blade is sharp, you have to use less force to make a cut. Using less force makes it less likely for the knife to slip and cut something other than the chicken, like your hand. I like my 8” chef’s knife because it’s what I’m most comfortable holding, but you might like one that’s longer, thinner, and more flexible, like a boning knife. Do you to the fullest. You’ll also want a pair of kitchen shears or some sturdy, clean scissors. They aren't absolutely necessary, but they make quick, clean work of ribs and other fussy bits.
Step Two: The Wings
Lay the bird on one side and pull the top wing straight out. The chicken should still be resting on the table but the wing will be bearing a good deal of the weight. Through the skin, you should be able to see and feel where the wing and the breast meet. Start slicing through its tiny bird armpit beginning at the back and circling around to the breast-side. If you keep the wing extended, the weight of the chicken will make the joint pop open about halfway through your cut. Guide your knife through the center of the joint to remove the wing completely. Repeat on the other side.
Step Three: The Drumsticks And Thighs
Start by spreading the skin around the breast tightly, pressing it into the hip joints. This will help you get a better understanding of where you’re cutting -- and it helps make sure the breasts have a nice and tidy covering of skin. Glide your knife between the breast and the leg in one swoop. Or two swoops. Whatever it takes for you to cut down to the hip joint through the skin and meat. Repeat on the other side. Once both joints are exposed, flip the chicken breast-side down and pull the legs back until they pop out of their sockets. Flip the bird breast-side up and slice it through its now-open hip joints.
You can call it a day here with the legs in nice big pieces, or you can break them down further to separate the drumstick from the thigh. It’s the easiest part so far: just flip them skin side down, look for the line of yellowy fat, and slice through with firm pressure. You can cut through a joint pretty easily, but not bone. If you’re having a hard time, don’t force it, just wiggle the leg to find exactly where the joint hinges, and guide your knife through.
Step Four: Rip Out Its Spine With Your Bare Hands
With wings and legs removed, what’s left is more football than chicken. Place it on your cutting board so the pointy end is up in the air. Using your shears, cut completely down each side of the breast, through the ribs, to remove the back and neck. These don’t have enough meat to cook up on their own, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good eating. Use them to make the best stock or soup of your dang life.
Step Five: The Breasts
Flip what’s left of the bird skin-side down. Use your knife to score through the whiteish oval of cartilage in the center of the breasts. Set down your knife and firmly bend the breasts back, bringing the skin sides together, until you see a piece of bone that looks kind of like a shoe horn pop up. This is the keel bone and it’s a pain in the ass. Use your fingers to slide it loose, pull it up, and twist it away. This isn't always the easiest or most graceful step, but your persistence will pay off. Once removed, use your shears to slice up the middle of the breasts.
What do you think, xoJaners? Are you ready to tackle a chicken in your kitchen? Let me know in the comments.