The Right Way to Cut Up a Whole Chicken

Chicken is the most popular meat consumed in the US, and most of that is eaten in parts. Chicken breasts, in every form from tender only, to thin sliced scallops, boneless/skinless and on the bone with skin, to the restaurant fancy “airline” cut, boneless, but skin-on and wing drumette still attached. Wings could not be more popular, and drumsticks still are a hit with the kids and adults alike. Thighs are finally getting their due, with a recognition that they aren’t fundamentally less-healthy than breasts but are definitively more delicious and less likely to dry out in cooking.

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Cooking dinner shouldn't be complicated

The poultry counter is awash in custom cuts of chicken and price tags to match.  Boneless/skinless breasts can run you as much as $8.99 a pound, tenders $7.89, boneless thighs can be $6.89, and even a whole chicken already cut up is $2.99 per pound. But a whole intact chicken is likely to run you about $1.99 per pound. Certainly, you are paying for some extra weight with all the bones, and if you need a specific cut, like 8 thighs or two dozen wings, buying whole chickens is not going to be your best bet. But if you are up for a variety of pieces, learning how to break down a chicken is a good skill to have.

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For starters, decide what pieces you want to have. Sometimes, especially for grilling and roasting, keeping the leg and thighs attached can help keep them moist, and easier to manipulate. Bone-in breasts will retain more moisture on the grill than boneless, and more flavor in a braise. I personally always leave skin on to naturally baste the meat and then remove after cooking if I don’t want to consume it, but it is easily removed from pieces before cooking if you prefer. 

Boneless will always cook faster than bone-in, and is great for things like fajitas, tacos, and sandwiches. In my opinion, fried chicken should always be on the bone unless it is destined for a sandwich, in which case it should be a fried boneless thigh. I do not think skinless fried chicken should be a thing, but this is my preference, and I am not the fried chicken police.

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How to Cut Up a Chicken

What you’ll need:

  • Cutting board
  • Poultry shears
  • Sharp boning knife
  • Plate or tray to put the chicken parts on

A boning knife has a thin flexible blade with a very pointy tip that will help you navigate around the bones. You can make almost any cut of chicken with the shears alone, if they are sharp, except boneless breasts. The poultry shears I like best are from MAC.

To start, place the chicken on its back with the legs facing away from you. 

Hold one leg and pull it away from the body, creating a little triangle trampoline of chicken skin between the knee and the body. Using your boning knife or shears, cut through this triangle of skin so you can see the flesh beneath. 

Using your hands, grasp the leg/thigh quarter at the knee joint in one hand and the rest of the chicken in the other hand and bend straight back like you are opening a book until the thigh bone pops out of the socket. 

You can then use your boning knife or shears to cut through this joint and pull the whole thigh quarter away from the body, cutting through any skin once the flesh is off the bones. 

If you want to separate the leg and thigh at this moment, turn it over so the skin side is on the board. You will see a line of fat right at the joint, slice or cut along this line to go through the joint and separate the two pieces. Then repeat on the other side.

For boneless breasts, place the chicken on its back with the cavity facing away from you and the breast towards you. Then use your boning knife to make a long cut on one side of the breast bone, angling the cut at the front to work around the wishbone. Holding the breast with one hand, gently pull the meat away from the bone, using your knife in long thin cuts to help remove the meat from the carcass. 

When you get to the base, cut through the skin so that the only place the breast is attached is at the wing joint. Using the tip of your knife or your shears, cut through the joint so that you have a boneless breast with the wing attached.

I love wings, but when I cook them along with the rest of a cut-up chicken, I make sure to cut an extra inch or so of breast meat along with the wing to make for a more substantial portion, regardless of bone-in or boneless.

To do a bone-in breast, I highly recommend using your shears for ease and control. Cut first along the side of the breast bone, through the carcass, along the same line that you would have cut for boneless. Then cut through the ribs on the bottom to remove the breast from the backbone. You can then trim up the bone-in breast with your shears to remove extra fat and the thin rib section. 

Again, you can cut through the breast near the wing to create a nice wing portion with a section of breast meat.

Finally, don’t ignore the back! I find the back is a lovely cook’s treat or snack, or addition to the stock pot, so I always cook it alongside the rest of the chicken.

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