Breaking Down a Chicken

By Zack Northcutt
Photography by Jenna Noel

A good knife is always the best start to any kitchen project. For breaking down a chicken, my first choice would be a flexible boning knife, but a six-inch utility knife will work just fine. Make sure the knife is sharp, then get a large plastic cutting board (plastic absorbs less moisture than wood and is better suited for raw meats of any type, especially chicken). Make sure the bird is dry; place it on a clean kitchen towel if it still slips around on the board.


1. Place the chicken on its back.

2. Cut the skin between the breast and the thighs on both sides of the chicken—cutting up from the tail at a 45-degree angle all the way toward the back, freeing up the legs.


3. Grab a leg with one hand and hold the body with the other. Grasp the leg at the top, near the hip, and pull the leg up and away from the bird—popping the leg from the hip socket so that the legs will lie flat. Now the chicken will be well-seated on the cutting board.

4. Now remove the breasts. A tip to getting a few extra ounces of breast meat is to remove the wishbone first. Find the bone on top of the breast, right in the middle of the muscle, and make two small, shallow cuts on either side of the neck cavity. Follow the bone with your blade up and in, toward the breastplate, or keel. Grab the bone firmly with your fingers, and pry it out.


5. Make the first cut down from the top of the bird, a bit off-center from the keel. Get the knife to scrape as close to the breastbone as possible, then slide the blade to the bottom of the breast—freeing it from the bone. Keep slicing toward the tail of the bird—removing the breast from the ribs. Return to the top of the bird where the breast is attached, right above the wing. Cut up from the tail toward the wing joint—staying as close to the bone as possible—and remove the breast meat. Repeat the same process on the other side of the bird to produce two skin-on breasts with tenders in place.

6. The wings come off easily from the shoulder, and a quick cut at the elbow joint will separate the wings from the drumettes (these are great for quick-fried snacks while the larger pieces are cooking).


7. The legs are tricky, and you want to keep as much of the “oyster,” or back meat, on as possible. Flip the bird over, breast-side down, place the knife in the hip joint and cut down toward the tail. Angle the knife toward the center of the back to keep it as close to the backbone as possible. Repeat on the other side to have two whole legs.

8. If you want to separate the legs from the thighs, look for the fat line on the skin at the knee joint. This is a good guideline to cut through the joint and avoid having to chop through the bones.

A few things to keep in mind: always try to move in purposeful, long knife strokes—only use small cuts when maneuvering around tight joints. Whenever you can, cut as close to the bone as possible to yield the most meat. And most of all, watch your fingers!


For the stock:

1 whole chicken rib cage and back,
   roughly chopped
1 yellow onion, roughly chopped
4 stalks celery, roughly chopped
2 large carrots, roughly chopped
½ c. white wine
2 bay leaves
1 stem rosemary
1 stem thyme
2 t. black pepper

On a rimmed baking sheet, roast the rib cage and back with the aromatic vegetables for at least 20 minutes at 400°, until evenly browned. Take out the pan and deglaze it with the wine—scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add this to a small stock pot with the herbs and pepper and just enough water to cover the bones. Simmer for at least an hour, then carefully strain through a fine-mesh strainer or a double layer of cheesecloth laid over a bowl. Discard the solids and set the stock aside.

For the legs and thighs:
2 chicken thighs
2 chicken legs
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil, as needed
4 mustard green leaves, julienned
4 new potatoes, quartered
4 radishes, quartered
Chicken stock, as needed

Preheat a deep roasting pan in the oven on medium heat, and let it get hot before adding anything to it. Season the legs and thighs well with salt and pepper. Add enough oil to coat the hot pan, and put the meat in—letting it render for a while so that it gets golden brown. Turn and repeat on the other side. Remove the meat when it is ready and add in the mustard greens. Stir until wilted, then add the meat back in and place the potatoes and radishes in the pan in a single layer. Cover the meat and vegetables with the stock and place in a 275° oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

For the breasts (start when the thighs
   are just finishing):
2 chicken breasts
1 t. butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil, as needed

Place a sauté pan on the stove on medium heat and let it get hot. Season the breasts well with salt and pepper, place skin-side down in the pan, wait 5 minutes then add the butter. Turn the oven, with the leg meat and vegetables inside, up to 375°. After another 5 minutes, turn the breasts skin-side up in the pan and place the pan in the oven. After 10 minutes in the oven, remove the leg meat and breasts and serve.

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