It’s time to stop being chicken and face a cooking task that seems intimidating: breaking down a whole chicken. If you’ve long avoided buying whole chickens at the grocery store because you weren’t sure, exactly, how to turn that bird into wings, thighs, legs and breasts you can use in your favorite chicken recipes, you definitely aren’t alone. The idea of breaking apart a chicken can be both overwhelming and confusing. But we’re here to tell you that it’s not nearly as difficult as it seems.
Breaking down a whole chicken does require a little practice and the right know-how. It’s part anatomy lesson and part honing your knife skills. At first, the process can feel awkward. But as you practice and get comfortable with each step, you’ll find it becomes faster, easier and well, a little less messy!
There’s another benefit to mastering the art of breaking down a chicken: You’ll be able to do more with the meat. Just hacking away at a whole chicken isn’t a great idea; you won’t be able to efficiently maximize all of the available meat. But when it’s butchered correctly, buying a whole chicken and cutting it yourself can offer up some significant savings. A whole chicken is often cheaper than buying packaged, already-butchered cuts of chicken breasts, thighs, legs and more; it can cost anywhere from three to six times more per pound when you opt for a pack of boneless, skinless chicken breasts instead of the entire bird. Plus, you’ll be able to use up the entire chicken (yes, even the bones!) to stretch your dollar and your food.
And you can’t overlook the extra bit of control you’ll have over preparing your meals with home-butchered chicken. When you break down the bird yourself, you can easily remove the skin and fat from each piece. Poultry skin is one of the top sources of fat and saturated fat – and slicing it up yourself allows you to strip away as much as 6 grams of fat from half a breast or 8 grams of fat from a leg. On its own, skin- and fat-free, chicken meat is a high-potassium and low-fat source of protein that can be used in endless recipes and meals.
If you’re ready to take advantage of all of these benefits, grab your sharpest chef’s knife and get ready to build your confidence and skillset.
What you’ll need
- Paper towels
- Cutting board
- Sharp chef’s knife
- Sharp kitchen shears
How to cut and debone a chicken, step by step
1. Prep the chicken
Remove the chicken from packaging and pat dry with paper towels. (Note: It’s not necessary to rinse the chicken with water, and health officials warn that rinsing chicken in the kitchen sink is a risk for spreading bacteria.)
2. Make your first cut
Place the chicken on a cutting board with the legs closest to you. To remove the legs and thighs, pull one leg away from the body and make a small cut in the skin between the leg and the body. Repeat with the other leg.
3. Cut away the legs and thighs
Bend the leg and thigh piece away from the body until the ball of thighbone pops away from the hip socket. Cut between the ball and the socket to remove the leg and thigh piece. Repeat with the other leg and thigh.
4. Separate the leg from the thigh
Separate the leg and thigh by cutting along the fat line just above the hip bone at the top of the leg. Repeat to separate other leg and thigh.
5. Tackle the wings
Flip the chicken over on its breast so the wing pieces are closest to you.Pull one wing away from the body and cut down through the skin and joint. Repeat with the other wing. Then, remove and discard the wing tips by using hand pressure on the knife blade to cut straight down through the bone where the wing tip bends.
6. Work on the breast
Using kitchen shears, separate the back from the breast. Cut along the fat line and through the rib bones at the base of one side of the breast. Repeat by cutting along the fat line on the other side of the breast. Discard the back (or keep it to make chicken stock).
Then, separate the breast from the breastbone. Place the breast skin side down with the meatier end closest to you. Make a small cut through the cartilage at the top of the breastbone. Bend the two breast sides away from each other to expose the tip of the breastbone.
Run your thumbs under both sides of the breastbone to expose the whole bone. Pull up on the bone to remove it.
7. Create two boneless, skinless breasts
Cut along the line where the breastbone was removed to separate the meat into two breast halves.
Remove the skin from each piece (including the legs and wings too, if desired) by holding the chicken in one hand and firmly grasping, then pulling the skin in the other. You can use a paper towel for extra grip. Pull the skin from the meat end down toward the skinny end.
8. The final product
At the end, you should have a total of eight pieces: two thighs, two breast halves, two legs and two wings.Section divider
Recipes for every cut of chicken
Chicken is truly one of the most versatile ingredients available. It’s like a blank canvas – you can use it as a primary protein and make it the star of your dinner plate. Or, you can incorporate it into casseroles, tacos, soups, sandwiches or even pot pies. It shines in pretty much any and every form.
And remember, when you purchase a whole chicken and break it down yourself, you’ll have plenty to work with. You can utilize each piece of the bird, from the bones to the skin (if you don’t mind keeping it on!), in different ways. We’re sharing some of our favorite ideas for each and every part below.