Cutting a whole chicken into parts is a skill that every cook ought to have in his/her arsenal. You could ask your butcher to do this for you, or you can take the knife into your own hand and do it yourself at home.
It’s not only responsible (perhaps you read my previous post on the Basics of Whole Animal Meat Cookery), but it’s also economical. You can likely source delicious pasture-raised chicken from farmer’s markets if you’re willing to buy the whole bird, and even if you’re shopping at the grocery store, you’ll notice the price-per-pound is in your favor when you’re not selecting packages of drumsticks. Finding recipes for cut-up chicken is the easy part. You can toss those bone-in parts on the grill or stew them in a pot for a delicious curry or cacciatore depending on the weather and your mood. The trick is the before and after – how to get from whole to pieces, and what to do with the parts you don’t use.
I thought about filming or photographing the steps for cutting a whole bird into parts, but instead I scoured the interwebs and watched a lot of poultry hacking to bring you the best possible instructions that are already out there. So pick up your chicken, watch the video below (of a Bay Area veteran butcher in action) and practice some butchery at home.
You don’t need any heavy duty knives or equipment – a 6” boning knife is my tool of choice – and once you get the hang of it, you can break down a bird in minutes. But to start, just take your time and remember, it’ll taste great even if it doesn’t look perfect.
After you’ve got your chicken separated into legs (drumsticks and thighs, if you please), breasts and wings, you can decide what’s for dinner and what’s to save for later. I love to pan roast entire legs with shallots and other veggies in my cast iron skillet. Bone-in breasts are great for jerk chicken, and if you trim the breast meat off the bone you’ve got fixings for stir-fry. There is no need to use everything all at once, especially if you’re a small household. You can freeze the parts that your recipe doesn’t call for and use them in future meals. I save up the wings from several birds so I can enjoy a plate of hot wings alongside a salad of greens and blue cheese with a nice cold beer.
Then of course there are the bones, bits and backs. Inevitably, whole chickens will leave you with some bonus pieces and that’s where the stock comes in. Just collect the extras in a big resealable bag in your freezer until you’ve got a pot-full. Making stock can be as simple as simmering bones and water. Roast the bones in the oven until they’re nicely browned and fragrant, then move the bones to a stock pot and cover them with cold water. Gently bring the stock just to a bubble and then let it simmer and reduce – it can go all day, or even overnight, until you’ve got a nice rich stock. Strain the liquid, pack it into one-quart containers or bags, and store in your freezer for the next time a recipe calls. You’ll thank yourself when you have homemade stock to use in soups, stews or sauces.
Once you’ve got the hang of whole bird butchery, you can use the same technique to cut up turkeys, ducks or any poultry at home. And remember, everybody loves fried chicken!
photo credit: Heather Marold Thomason