Here is a simple, step-by-step guide to breaking down whole chickens.
Over the years I have seen many different ways of butchering a chicken. When I was a child, I watched my grandmother in Ireland cut chickens up into what we know today as the basic 8 cut. 2 breast, 2 thighs, 2 legs and 2 wings. Since then I have seen lots of different chefs, cooks, and butchers cut chickens up in various ways. This is my preferred method. It’s fast, easy, and is the way my grandmother taught me.
A sharp knife is all you need. I like to use a knife with a stiff blade such as this Sabatier boning knife. Victorinox also make great boning knives, and are pretty cheap. Their semi-flexible boning knife is $20 and is a great value. I personally think a stiff or semi-flexible blade works better for chickens.
The Classic 8 Cut Method For Breaking Down A Chicken
Step 1: Stretch It Out
Lay the chicken on a flat work surface with the wings facing you and the legs further away from you. Pull on the chicken legs to loosen the bird up.
Step 2: First Cut To Remove Thighs & Legs
Hold the chicken by the leg and pull it away from the bird gently, you will see the skin stretch between the leg and the breast. With a sharp knife, cut through where the stretched skin is connected to the breast – there is a natural seam. Repeat on the other side.
Step 3: Dislocate The Thighs
Turn the bird over, and feel for where the shoulder joint connects to the thigh (it’s right next to the oyster muscle which I’m pressing in the picture below with my fingers). Press down on the oyster muscle and pull upwards on the thigh to disconnect it, the bone will pop out of the socket. Repeat on the other side.
Step 4: Removing The Thighs
Turn the bird over. Insert the tip of the knife into the oyster muscle and scoop the muscle out. It should come cleanly away from the bone.
Step 5: Separating The Thighs
Hold your knife against the chicken’s carcass and pull the leg away. Cut cleanly through the exposed tendon and cartilage. Repeat on the other side. Set thighs aside.
Step 6: Removing The Breast
Feel for the breast bone with your fingers and cut along it. Keep the pressure of the knife against the breast bone, and gently pull away the breast meat as you cut. Cut straight through the wishbone, which is located at the thicker end of the breast (chicken butt!). You can remove the wishbone first if you really need to make a wish!
Step 7: Separating The Breast From The Carcass
To remove the breast from the carcass, simply cut the breast in front of the wing joint. Once the breast is removed, you can pull out the wish bone with your fingers.
Step 8: Airline Breast
If you want an airline breast (which just leaves the drumette attached, which is basically part of the wing), then cut behind the wing and breast joint, leaving the wing attached to the breast.
Step 9: Separating The Leg & Thigh
To separate the leg from the thigh, look for the line of fat that separates the drumstick from the thigh (my knife is resting on it in this picture). Move your knife an 1/8″ towards the drumstick, then cut straight through the joint.
Step 10: Deboning The Thigh
Debone the thigh by trimming away the meat surrounding the bone and cut it out on either side. I like to use my index finger and thumb to grab the bone. Then you can lift it up and slice the bone out. Use your knife to scrape the meat away from the bone in a downward motion. Then cut the thigh bone out, leaving as much meat on the thigh as possible. Feel the thigh with your fingers and you should feel a small piece of gristle. This is the kneecap. Cut the kneecap off, and the thigh is finished.
Step 11: Trim Any Excess Fat & Check For Bones
The chicken should be finished now, so just check for any large pieces of skin or fat and trim them as you see fit.
The only way to get good at breaking chickens down is to do it yourself. If you do it every time you buy a chicken, or maybe once a week, I guarantee you will be surprised at how easy it is. Within 3-4 attempts you will have your chicken thighs, drumsticks, wings and breasts all separated and ready to cook or save in packages in 5 minutes.
Stay tuned for my post on chicken stock and how to make great chicken sauces.