Whether you're cooking for one or for an entire family, a whole chicken is an incredibly economical way to do it. It's not uncommon to find whole chickens on sale for around $1 per pound, which works out to around five bucks for the whole bird. A whole roasted chicken will provide a meal for a family, four meals for a couple, or possibly a week's worth of meals for one.
But suppose you're not making a whole roasted chicken? Maybe you're making fried or baked chicken. Or maybe your plan is to grill the breasts but braise the thighs and drumsticks. In that case, you've got to break that bird down into its separate parts: the breasts, thighs, drumsticks and wings.
You'll certainly save a bit of money by doing this, as compared with buying the various chicken parts individually—a couple of bucks at least. But if cost is the issue, you can always ask your butcher to cut up a whole chicken, even a bagged chicken, which they'll do for free, and even save the backbone and giblets for you.
So money isn't the main motivation here. What really makes cutting up a whole chicken worthwhile is the feeling of satisfaction that comes from being (or learning to be) accomplished and self-reliant in the kitchen. Also, you get to make stock.
What You'll Need
A sharp chef's knife is a must, and a spacious cutting board (preferably plastic or acrylic for optimal food safety) will make the job much easier. Some cooks will do the whole job using a knife, but a sharp pair of kitchen shears are extremely helpful for removing the backbone. Apart from that, though, there are no bones to cut through. Instead, the goal is to separate the joints and cut in between the bones.
Start by removing the giblets, which includes the neck, heart and other organs, from the body cavity. Thoroughly rinse the bird inside and out, and pat it dry with paper towels. You can reserve the neck for stock, and the remaining giblets you can do whatever you want with. Don't feel guilty for throwing them away. But if you want to, you could use them to make this old fashioned giblet gravy.
How to Cut Up a Whole Chicken
- Position the bird on your cutting board, breasts up, with the drumsticks pointing toward you.
- Pull one leg away from the body and slice through the skin between the leg and the body. Then bend the thigh downward, toward the cutting board, which will pop the thigh bone out of its socket. Slide your knife into that joint and cut straight through, separating the leg from the body. Repeat on the other side.
- Turn one leg section over, skin side-down, and cut along the line of fat between the drumstick and thigh, which will guide your knife right through the joint, separating the two pieces. Repeat with the other leg.
- Turn the chicken onto its side, and pull one wing away from the body. Feel where the wing joint meets the body. It's situated deeper within the body than you might think. Make a small cut on the outside of that joint, then another on the inside, slicing right through the joint and separating it from the body. You'll wind up with a nice, meaty wing. Turn the chicken onto its other side and repeat. If you want to remove the wing tips, simply trim them off with your shears and reserve them for stock.
- Turn the chicken over, so the breasts are on the cutting board, and locate the line of fat the runs diagonally up the side of the carcass, from the tail end all the way up toward the wing joint. With your shears, cut through the ribs, right along this line, then do the same on the other side. Set aside this resulting backbone piece for stock.
- For bone-in breasts, leave the chicken breast-side down and cut straight down right through the breastbone, splitting the breast into two halves. Or for boneless breasts, flip the chicken over so the breasts are facing up. Make a shallow cut through the skin between the breasts. Now starting with the left side, insert your knife just inside (to the left of) the central piece of cartilage between the two breasts. Pull the breast meat away from the bone while cutting under the meat with your knife until the whole breast comes free of the breastbone. Repeat with the other side. Save the breastbone; its ample cartilage makes it ideal for stock.
You now have 8 pieces of chicken: 2 breasts, two thighs, two drumsticks and two wings. Either cook them today or freeze them to use later. If you're freezing them, it's best to wrap them in plastic individually, then seal them in a freezer bag.
How to Make Stock
But that's not all. You will also have the backbone, breastbone, two wing tips and the neck, which you can use to make a wonderful, rich chicken stock. This is arguably the main advantage of cutting up a whole chicken. Simply cover these parts with cold water. You can optionally add some chopped onions, carrots, celery, garlic, dried herbs, and whole peppercorns. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for about 90 minutes. Then strain through a sieve lined with cheesecloth and refrigerate.
You can store the backbones, wing tips and other parts in a freezer bag in the freezer for several months. Make stock when you have collected enough parts.