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How to break down a chicken in six minutes or less

Dawn Viola is a research and development chef and food writer. She serves on the board of directors for Slow Food Orlando, and works with local and national companies as a healthy recipe consultant with a focus on organic, local and sus...

How to ... Break down a chicken

Why are whole chickens so much cheaper than pieces? Because the store didn’t have to do a thing except bag the bird and place it on display. Being able to "fabricate" (cut up) a chicken into useable portions can save you quite a bit of money at the grocery store each week.

By cutting up your own chicken, you’re cutting out (no pun intended) the extra labor costs normally passed on to you at the grocery store. While you may not be able to break down a chicken in six minutes on your first try, after a few practice sessions, you’ll be the fastest poultry butcher on the block. The key is to find and expose the joints and cut between them for easy separation.

chicken fabrication

Step 1: Loosen up

Remove the whole chicken from the refrigerator and let it stand for 10 to 15 minutes to warm up slightly. With the breast-side up, gently press on the bird to flatten and loosen joints. How can you tell if it’s breast-side up? Wings and legs will be pointing to the sky. Whatever you do to one side of the bird, you should immediately do to the other, so it makes cutting easier. Start with the wings first, then legs and thighs, and then the breasts.

chicken fabrication, wings

Step 2: Wings

Grab hold of one of the wings and loosen the joints by gently pulling and twisting. Using a sharp boning knife, cut the skin and tendons on the wing bone – this will allow you to easily separate the skin and tendons. Twist at the joint and remove the top of the wing. Repeat for the other wing. You’ll see that part of the wing bone is still attached to the breast in this case. This is called an “airline breast,” and is also known as "hotel cut," "French cut," or "supreme." If you want to keep the entire wing intact, simply pull the wing bone backwards at the breast joint, find the separation between the join with your thumb and slice between the joint.

chicken fabrication, thighs

Step 3: Thighs and legs

Bend the thigh and leg backwards to pop the joint. Using your boning knife, slice the skin to expose the meat and bone. Using your fingers, gently pull the leg from the bones, being careful to keep the oyster attached. (The oyster is a small piece of dark meat, said to be the most tender part of the bird, that sits near the thigh.) Expose the joint where the thigh is attached to the body of the bird and run your knife between the joint to separate. Repeat on the other side.

To separate the thigh and leg, turn the leg over so the skin side is facing down. Look for the fat line that naturally runs between the thigh and leg. Behind this fat line is the joint. Gently bend the thigh and leg backwards at the fat line to break the joint; then, using the fat line as your guide, run your knife between the joint to separate the two pieces. Repeat on the other side.

chicken fabrication, breasts

Step 4: Breasts and tenderloins

Using your fingers, find the center breast bone. To separate the breasts, you will be slicing along each side of this bone. Once you feel where the bone is located, run your knife along the side of the bone from the top of the breast to the bottom. Make several long, fluid slices, as close to the bone as possible, until the breast is completely separated from the breast and keel bones. Using your fingers, gently pull the breast meat away from the bones. The tenderloin will be attached to the underside of the breast – this can be easily removed by gently pulling or can be left in place. Continue to gently pull the breast meat toward the neck area of the bird to expose the wing joint. Using your boning knife, slice the joint to remove the breast. Repeat on the other side.

Step 5: Save the bones!

Don't throw away the chicken bones or carcass. Wrap them in plastic wrap and freeze for up to six months. Once you have three or four saved up, use them to make chicken stock.

Chicken stock in less than 1 hour >>

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For more info on this topic...For more cooking tips, check this out:
Super Moms guide to cleaning & cooking for the family

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