Against the Grain: The Best Way to Cut a Chicken Breast
Kitchen Expert Clark Grant gives a step by step guide to cutting a chicken breast, as well as the different options you have when cutting your chicken breast.
Before we begin, if you bought a whole bird at the store and want to break it down into its individual parts for use in different recipes you have earmarked for your family's dinners for the week, you can read my complete instructions for breaking down a whole chicken here. Now, let's dive into the different ways to utilize a chicken breast and the applications that work best!
Steps to Cutting a Chicken Breast
First, get out your plastic cutting board that you use for raw meat, fish, and poultry and place it on a damp rag or paper towel on your counter, so it doesn't move and wiggle around on you. Safety first!
So looking at the whole bird, think about a bird’s anatomy similar to yours. We really aren't that different anatomically speaking when it comes to identifying the bird’s various parts. Now, you are staring down at the chicken's chest with the legs lying on your cutting board. The wings will be up above the breast (you can learn how to cut these in this article) and off to the sides. Running down the middle of the chest is the breast bone. Imagine this bone as a "v" that runs down behind the breasts and into the chicken's ribs, similar to mammals. Take a sharp knife, preferably a boning knife though a sharp chef's knife will also work, and cut just on either side of the breastbone.
Next, you will run your knife along the bone in slow, shallow, long cuts to separate the muscle from the bone. Use the bone as your guide as you slowly free the meat. Take your time and slowly slice the meat away from the bone. Let the knife blade do the work, don't saw or get too aggressive. A sharp knife is of utmost importance here. The anatomy of the chicken will show you the way, I promise. Each breast will separate from the meat on its own. If done properly, the tender will remain attached to the lobe.
Now you have your freshly removed, skin-on, tenderloin-attached chicken breast ready for your recipe. You should be able to see that a thin membrane attaches the tenderloin to the back of the breast. You can easily remove the tenderloin by just pulling on it, generally speaking. If it doesn't come off that easily, use your knife to carefully slice through the membrane while gently pulling on the tender. You do not have to remove the tender if you don't want to; however, this may make some applications easier. The tenderloin has a tough piece of sinew towards its fat or top side. You will want to be cognizant of this as it is not great to eat. You can remove it by threading it between the tines of a fork, grasping the white piece of sinew with a damp paper towel, and pulling on it while holding the tenderloin to the cutting board with the fork.
The chicken breast is a muscle mass. All muscle masses develop with grain or tiny white muscle fibers running one way. The grain of a chicken breast runs from the top or where the wings attach or the more rounded end to the bottom or where the breast meets the legs or the more pointy end. Slicing your chicken against the grain will be more tender than cutting it with the grain. Enough with all that grain talk. Let's get down to cooking with gas!
Chicken Breast Options
Say you want to make a stir fry or fajitas. You have two options here. You can cut your chicken breast into cubes or strips. That is up to you. Both will work equally as well. You can cut it into cubes by cutting the breast once into strips from top to bottom and then cross-cutting them into cubes. As for strips, cut them across the grain, as we talked about earlier. To do this, start by slicing thinner strips across the breast from the top or rounded part down to the bottom or pointy part. Then proceed as directed in your recipe. I recommend using your chef's knife for dicing or cubing your chicken breast. Your tender may come off the breast if you haven't previously removed it when dicing your chicken breast. If it does, that's okay. Just go ahead and cut it up into cubes as well. You can also cook your chicken first, cool it, and dice it up for chicken salad!
Another way to utilize chicken breast is for tendies. You can use just the tenderloin for this, which would be the truest form of chicken tenders, but you can also just slice the chicken breast into chicken strips, bread, and fry or bake as you would like. Again, cut the breast from top to bottom with the grain in the preferred-sized strips you would like!
Chicken Cutlet Ideas
You can use chicken cutlets for great dishes such as chicken marsala or chicken parmesan. If you are buying free-range, hormone-free chicken, then your breasts might not be as thick as they are when you purchase standard commodity chicken. Leaving my personal feelings on how we raise chicken aside, let's make the best of what we are working with. A super thick chicken breast will be troublesome with most cooking applications as it takes so much time to cook that you end up with a dry chicken breast. This is where knowing how to make cutlets comes in handy.
How to Cut Chicken Cutlets
Chicken cutlets are basically thin slices of whole chicken breast. This can also be called butterflying a chicken breast. The name butterfly with chicken can get ambiguous. I discuss the other form of butterfly chicken breast below. Take your chicken breast and place it flat on your cutting board. Next, hold down the breast with your non-dominant hand. Try to force your fingers and thumb as far upward as possible when doing this to keep them safe. Imagine trying to make a reversed cupped hand to hold it down. If this still scares you, then get a pair of cut-resistant gloves from your local kitchen store. I recommend you wear a vinyl or latex glove on top of these gloves so they don't get contaminated with chicken juice.
With your chef’s knife or boning knife held parallel to the cutting board, carefully slice the chicken breast in half. Once you've done this, you have chicken cutlets that are great for grilling, salad, or any application where you want a full piece of juicy chicken. If you do not slice all the way through the breast and leave a small "hinge," you will have one version of the butterflied chicken breast. In the simplest terms, this applies to butterflying any protein, including steaks. This allows the piece of meat or poultry to cook quicker and more evenly.
You can find chicken breasts labeled as “butterfly” in the store that might look different from the halved cutlet. Most of the time, both chicken breast lobes are attached at the center by the membrane that connects them to the breastbone. This membrane is tough and not edible. You will want to cut the membrane out by starting on either side of it and slicing from the top of the breast, or thick side, down to the bottom. Then you can remove this easily and proceed with your preferred application.
Safety and Sanitation
Let's talk a little about safety and sanitation when working with poultry. Chicken and other poultry juices contain bacteria that can make you sick if you don't follow the correct procedures. While working with each piece of chicken, use a towel or paper towel designated for use with raw meat to wipe up any juices. For extra safety, store the rag or paper towel in a diluted sanitizer solution such as a very weak bleach solution of 1 tablespoon bleach to 1 quart of water. Don't use scented bleach for this.
If you do not want to use bleach, you can also find other sanitizing solutions, such as a quaternary disinfectant. Keeping your workspace sanitary and clean will remove most worries of bacterial contamination. Always work with your raw chicken separately from any ready-to-eat or cooked foods. Work with one chicken breast at a time on the center of the cutting board and make clean cuts with a sharp knife. If you have trouble cutting the chicken, run your knife a couple of times on your honing steel or give it a few passes with gentle pressure on a knife sharpener.
In summation, don't be discouraged from cutting your chicken. Use this guide to help you get the different cuts that fit your needs. You will gain more confidence and comfort each time you prep your own.
One last tip/trick from a professional chef: If you want to get your chicken sliced into super thin strips, pop it in the freezer for 15 minutes or so so that it partially freezes. Doing so reduces the, for lack of a better word, squishiness of the breast and makes it easier for you to slice thin.
For help finding the best knives for cutting through chicken breasts, reach out to a Cutlery Expert here on Curated!