Chicken is so versatile that almost every part is useful, as our recipes will deliciously demonstrate. Packaged, ready-to-cook chicken pieces are widely available and a great convenience, but cutting up a whole chicken yourself is not the daunting or time-consuming task some view it to be. In fact, it is easily learned, quickly accomplished, and is such a basic technique for working with poultry that it should be part of every cook’s repertoire, even if used only occasionally. It provides a foundation for the entire book because once you are comfortable with handling a whole chicken, you are better able to put the parts to good use.
A further bonus: When you are the butcher you not only produce portions that are custom-trimmed to suit your needs, you also save money. A whole chicken is usually far less expensive per pound than an equivalent weight of poultry pieces because there are no labor costs built into the price.
This section will take you step by step through cutting up a whole bird. Another name for this technique is disjointing, because you cut through the elastic tendons and cartilage that surround the joint rather than through solid bone. With practice, you will be able to locate this soft tissue by touch, and the process will go that much faster.
Very little specialized equipment is required to cut up a chicken other than a sharp, good-quality boning knife, poultry shears or kitchen scissors, and a dishwasher-safe acrylic cutting board or wooden board. Avoid boards that are made of hard plastic; they will damage and dull your knives. Always wash your hands, your tools, and the cutting surface with hot soapy water after working with raw poultry to keep them free of bacteria.
Boning knives are typically 10 inches long, with thin, tapered, flexible blades that let you maneuver around the curves and indentations of meat and bone. Keep your boning knife (or any knife) properly honed so it will slice cleanly without slipping. The safest knife is a sharp knife. Poultry shears use a spring-lever action for more cutting power, although a pair of sturdy kitchen scissors will work almost as well in most cases.
Don’t put your tools away after the bird is disjointed. In the following steps, you will also learn how to quickly and deftly bone breasts and legs, and how to remove the skin.
Cutting Off Legs
Pull the leg away from the body and slit the skin between the thigh and body. Bend back the leg until the thigh bone pops out of the hip joint. With the tip of the knife, cut through the broken joint, meat, and skin to sever the leg (hold the knife against the backbone as you cut). Repeat with the other leg.
Place the leg skin side up on the cutting board. To find the joint, squeeze together the drumstick and thigh; the flat, light-colored area at the top is the joint. Cut through the joint to separate the drumstick and thigh into two pieces. Repeat with the other leg.
Pull the wing away from the body and slit the skin between the wing and body. Bend back the wing until the joint pops out. Cut through the broken joint, meat, and skin to sever the wing. Repeat with the other wing.
Separating Breast from Body
With poultry shears, kitchen scissors, or a sharp boning knife, sever the ribs between the breast and back. Cut from the cavity end toward the neck end on both sides. Bend the breast and back halves apart, exposing the joints at the neck that connect the two halves. Cut through the joints.