Yesterday’s post was all about the reasons to buy whole chickens. Today, we’ll pick back up with our knife skills and learn how to butcher a whole chicken. There are plenty of videos on YouTube that can help you out and because there are about a hundred ways to do it, the videos are all a little different. No method is wrong if the end result is the same so pick the method you find easiest.

I typed these instructions for a beginner who is not at all familiar with where joints are in chickens. Those of you with a little more chicken experience will be able to skip the steps where I outlined how to identify joints and slice right through them.

I photographed each step so you can see the details. If it’s hard to comprehend through photos, watch some videos for more information. If I can get a good quality video put together, I’ll add it to this post.

Setting Up

Before you get started, line a half sheet pan with parchment paper and set it next to your work station. You finished cuts will go on this pan. I also have a gallon-sized freezer bag ready so I can drop the bones inside when I’m finished. I scoot all the skin and cartilage I cut off the chicken into the top, right corner of my board so they’re out of my way. They’re garbage and will go into the trash when I’m done.

You’ll need your boning knife and a chef’s knife if you want bone-in breasts (I won’t demonstrate bone-in breasts in this post). If not, you’ll just need a boning knife. If you don’t have a boning knife, choose one that has a long, smooth blade. Also, use a plastic cutting board. If the bottom of your board doesn’t have grips on it, lay a wet wash cloth under it to keep it from sliding around.

Check the cavity of the chicken and pull out anything that’s inside. You can add the neck to your bones for stock. You can also use the liver and gizzards in stock but I save them for other uses (dirty rice, fried livers, etc.). Some people feed them to their cats or dogs but you can always throw them away if you don’t plan on using them.

If you’re cutting on the right side, the wing tips will be pointing up. If not, turn it over so that it looks like this photo. Cut off any skin that is hanging loosely from the bird. I recommend working on the white meat first and leaving the dark meat on because the dark meat helps keep the carcass stable so it’s not rolling around the board while you’re trying to take off the breasts.

That said, we need to get the legs out of the way. Make a thin slice through the skin between the leg and breast.

From inside the cavity, gently slice through the rest of the skin so that it’s completely severed. Gently. Don’t use a lot of force unless you want to end up slicing your nose off in the process.

Here’s how it should look now that the skin is split. Repeat on the other side.

Now, for optimal stability, you want the legs to lay flat on the board. To do this, grab the left leg and thigh with your left hand and grab the right leg and thigh with your right hand. Lift the bird slightly and bend the legs back quickly and firmly so that it breaks the joints.

Removing the Breast

Now take a look at the top of the chicken. You can rub your fingers over it and feel where the breast bone runs, right down the middle from the back to the front.

Make a shallow incision down the middle of the breast bone on the top of the bird. This is to expose the breast bone. Stick you finger in the incision to get a feel for where the bone is. Remove your finger and make another long incision just to the right of the bone, staying as close to the bone as possible.

Continue making long, smooth strokes with your knife, going farther into the flesh with each cut. Try to keep your knife as close to the breast bone as possible without cutting into it. You want to get as much meat off the bone as possible. It could help to run your finger along your cut after each slice. This will help you get a feel for how much you’re accomplishing.

A couple inches into your cutting, the breast bone will start to flare out. Continue to follow the curve until you find the end of the bone and the breast separates.

Run your thumb under the breast as far back as you can because you’re probably getting close to the joints. Joints are important because they’re held together with tendons, which you can cut through. Since you can’t cut through bones, you have to look for joints.

Pull the breast back and expose as much of that mess as possible. In the photo, you can see where the two separate bones are. Even if you can’t perfectly see the joint, you can feel where it is with your fingers so you know where to cut to separate the bones. The end of each bone has cartilage on it which is bright white, which will help you identify the the joint.

Cut through the tendons and here’s what you have. I identified the same bones as in the photo above to show you what they look like. Notice I left in the wishbone. Whoops! I usually take that out first but I was distracted. Run your knife around the bone to release it.

Removing the Wing

Now take off the wing. Pull the wing up and make a shallow incision where the wing meets the breast.

Turn the breast around and bend the wing down to expose the joint. Use the tip of your knife to cut around the right of the joint until the wing separates from the breast.

Here’s your wing and your breast, separated.

Finishing the White Meat

Flip the breast over and that long, slender piece that’s barely hanging on… that’s the tender. Just pull it off, no knife required.

Flip the breast back over and you can see some extra skin hanging off. Make one long, quick slice to separate that extra skin. Don’t saw… just one long, quick slice right where the arrows cut.

Much better. These pieces (breast, tender, and wing) are done. Move them over to your sheet pan and go through the exact same process on the other side of the bird. I changed up my process a little because I wanted an airline chicken breast but they’re not very in demand with home cooks so I’ll give you that process another time.

Take Off the Breast Bone

Here’s what you should have left.

Take the breast bone in your left hand, grab the dark meat with your right hand, and break the backbone in half. Doing this creates a break in the spine so you have a place to cut with your knife. Lay it on the board again and slice through the break you just created to separate the breast bone.

Here’s what it looks like now. The breast bone can go into your reserved freezer bag.

Remove the Legs & Thighs

Flip your dark meat over so it looks like this.

Make an incision down the middle of the bone.

Run your thumb into that slit and keep your thumb running along the bone, with your fingernail directly under the meat. Look at the next photo… see that little scoop-looking bone? The most tender chicken meat on the whole bird sits in that bone and it’s called the “oyster”. It’s tender enough that you can easily separate it from the bone with just your finger.

Now that the oyster is removed, you can keep running your finger along the bone to separate the rest of the meat.

Using your knife will get it off faster but I suggest you do it with your thumb the first few times. That will help you find the joint so you know where to cut to separate the thigh from the pelvis.

When you cut through the joint, here’s what you get.

Separate the Legs & Thighs

Flip over the meat you just cut off and this is what you see. Notice how the leg looks a little pinker than the thigh? That’s because there’s way more fat under the skin of the thigh. The nice thing about it is that it gives you a clear path on where to cut. You want to make your next slice right along that line where the pinkish leg meets the yellowish thigh.

Here’s the slice I made. Run your finger into that slice so you can identify where the joint is.
Once you’ve found the joint, slice through it with your knife. Now you have a separate leg and thigh.

Finish the Dark Meat

There was a little loose cartilage hanging off from the joint I just cut through. Feel around and cut it off. Nobody wants to bite down on that stuff.

Flip the thigh over. Cut off any more loose cartilage.

It’s a little hard to see in this photo but in person, you’ll see a lot of extra fat and skin on thighs. Pink is meat and yellow is fat and skin. Cut off any yellow you see creeping out from the pink.

There’s a little meat on that fat and skin but not enough to justify leaving all that on the thigh.

Cut off any other loose, dangly yellow pieces.

Here’s what’s left of your thigh. Lovely.

(Except that extra goop on my board. Totally should’ve wiped that off so you wouldn’t have to look at it. Sorry!)

Now clean up your drumstick… if there’s anything dangling off that joint you just cut, trim it off and you’re done. Whew!

Clean Up the Mess

Here are all the bones, perfect for stock. If you’re not making stock right away, freeze the bones.

And here are all the cuts I got from one chicken. I apparently didn’t photograph how I separate the wing segments in this shoot (I shot it several months ago). I’ll take photos during my next chicken extravaganza. Until then, you can do it the same way you separate the leg and thigh… find the joint and cut through. Same with the wing tips, and you can toss those in with your bones for stock.

I cover this pan with plastic and stick it in the freezer just to freeze up the outside before I bag them by part (as I talked about in yesterday’s post).

Once again, check out some videos on YouTube if you need more visuals. I’ll work on a video and post it sometime in the near future.

I hope you’re encouraged to buy whole chickens. I was glad I had all those chicken wings in my freezer last weekend when my friends were driving to every grocery store in town looking for some for the Super Bowl. You never can tell how much thinking ahead helps you out until days like that!