June 8, 2009

Technique: Breaking Down Poultry

Chicken 1

Photos by Donald L. Mark

There was a time when every home cook knew how to break down whole poultry into parts, because they didn't have a choice. Then we learned to pay exorbitant amounts of money for other people to do it for us. Well that's just silly. It only takes a small amount of instruction and one chicken to learn how to break down poultry, and you get to eat the chicken because YOU CAN'T FAIL.

Whole chickens are usually less expensive than their parts. The day I bought this one it was 99 cents per pound, wings were $1.29 per pound, legs and thighs were $2.39, and boneless skinless breasts were $3.29. If I had purchased just the two breast halves I would have spent about six dollars, but instead I bought the whole chicken for $4.27. You can get a quart of good chicken stock and four entrée portions from one chicken. That's about a dollar a serving plus a few cents for chicken stock.

Okay, so what do you need to break down a chicken? A cutting board, a knife, a plate for the parts, and some paper towels. I use a boning knife because I happen to have one, but any sharp knife you're comfortable with will work.

Start by rinsing the chicken in cold tap water, cleaning out the inner cavity where you'll find the neck, gizzard, liver, and heart, and patting it dry with paper towels. Save everything except the liver for chicken stock. Use the liver for paté, a quick snack, or pet food.

Lay the chicken on its back on the cutting board. Pull the leg and thigh away from the body and make an incision in the skin to give yourself room to work.

Chicken 2

Feel around to locate the joint between the hip and the thigh, then snap the thigh downward to pop it out.

Chicken 2a

Using the tip of your knife, remove the leg quarter from the body.

Chicken 3

Now, feel along the breast centerline with your fingers and locate the breast bone. Using the tip of your knife, make an incision along one side, keeping the tip of the blade against the bone and cartilage.

Chicken 4

Carefully scrape the tip of your knife along the rib cage while pulling outward on the meat to separate the breast from the bones.

Chicken 5

Cut along the wishbone, then pull the breast away from the rib cage, scraping the meat away from the rib cage as necessary, then cut it free.

Chicken 6

If you wish, remove the wing by first dislocating the joint, then cutting through the cartilage. Note how I've curled my fingers to keep them away from the knife. I want to cut the bird, not myself!

Chicken 7

Repeat these steps on the other side, and you're done. It's just that easy, and since all poultry are constructed the same, the instructions work just as well on duck, goose, turkey, or any other edible poultry. Makes you wonder why you paid so much more for those parts than you did for the whole bird.


  1. How very brave!
    The photos are excellent, and make it very easy to ascertain how the cutting is being done.
    Good job!

  2. very informative post, thanks for sharing

  3. Thanks for this post - I've been looking for a good explanation on how to break down a chicken. The pictures are extremely helpful!

  4. Thanks! Some of the people who've attended my classes asked me for photos because they wanted a reference, so I asked my father to take photos while I worked. I'm glad it's helpful.

  5. That's a great outline on the chicken cut-up. If I have kitchen scissors for example that are sharp, can those be used as well?

  6. Kitchen scissors don't work very well. They'll do in a pinch, but they really aren't heavy enough. Poultry shears are best for this job. The biggest difference in procedure is that with poultry shears you'll just cut through the center of the breast bone instead of along the side. The other cuts will be at the same places.

  7. I do it the way my grandma taught me, we cut the "wishbone" out of the breast meat. . makes one more piece, plus you can make a wish and pull it with someone you like! I couldn't begin to tell you how to do it, you just have to feel it.

  8. You're lucky to have had a grandmother teach you.

    You can actually get eleven pieces out of a chicken if you want: 2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 breast halves, 2 wings, back, neck, and wishbone. Plus the innards. I just pull the easy five: 2 breast halves, 2 leg and thigh quarters, and a carcass for stock.

  9. I do feel lucky, we also raised the chickens, which she had to kill and pluck them because that was part of a farm wife's job. Grandma also cut the back into two pieces and one of them she called the "boney back", don't remember which one. I love the "oyster" in the lower back!

  10. I bet those chickens tasted great! When I was a child I spent a summer on a farm, and had to gather eggs. When a hen stopped laying, I had to kill and pluck her for dinner. It gives you a whole different perspective, having to butcher your own dinner. That's one of the reasons I prefer to buy the whole chicken.

  11. My daddy used to cut a chicken into pieces including a juicy piece that had the wish bone, how do you cut the wishbone piece out with the juicy meat still on it?