How to Break Down a Whole Chicken

Published on 02/09/2023 · 9 min readLooking to step up your poultry cooking game? Kitchen Expert Alex Alcarraz gives instructions of how to break down a whole chicken in thirteen easy-to-follow steps!
Alex Alcarraz, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Alex Alcarraz

Photo by Toa Heftiba

The benefits of learning poultry fabrication mainly revolve around the fact that we consume a lot of it. It is affordable and easy to approach when cooking. It can be fried, sautéed, roasted, and stewed. Additionally, you can easily make fresh stock with the leftover bone. Plus, once you learn how to break down a chicken, it will be hard to forget it.

In this guide, I will show step by step how to break down a chicken the professional way with minimal effort. At first, this feat should take about 5–10 minutes—depending on how comfortable you are with the anatomy of the bird and the level of comfort that you have with your knives. Though the more practice you get, the quicker and easier the process becomes.

Let's get started!

Avoiding Kitchen Shears

As a disclaimer: I will not use kitchen shears (also known as poultry shears) for this tutorial because not every cook has them in their arsenal. They also snap the bones into very small pieces that can stick to the chicken meat—leading to bones in a meal that are easy to miss. Instead, the whole bird can be broken down with a sharp knife and some know-how.

Step One: Identifying the Bird

Full Chicken. Photo by Alex Alcarraz

This is a four-pound chicken that I am working on—a fairly standard in size at most grocery stores.

Step Two: Set Up Your Station

Chicken Mise en Place. Photo by Alex Alcarraz

Raw chicken juices can leak everywhere, so I like to place a sheet pan underneath my cutting board. The pan I am using in this picture is a half-size sheet pan, which gives me more space to work with. The cutting board on top is a simple, yellow plastic board—color coordinated to indicate that only poultry should be used on it.

I prefer using plastic boards when handling raw meat because of their non-porous surface, which makes them more sanitary and easier to wash under hot water and soap. I am using the Cangshan TC Series Boning Knife for this particular project. It has been my go-to for all my butchering sessions—including large roasts and primal cut breakdown.

Step Three: Wings

Cutting the Wing Off. Photos by Alex Alcarraz

Now that our mise en place (French culinary term for "to put in place") is done, we can start cutting the chicken. I like to first take care of the wings. Place the chicken in front of you with the breast facing toward you. Grab the chicken wing and find the joint that connects the wing and the winglet bone to the breast. This will give the breast a nice presentation during the cooking process. It is officially referred to as the "airline breast." Repeat the same cut on the other wing. Put the wings aside.

Step Four: Beginning the Legs

Removing Leg. Photos by Alex Alcarraz

I prefer to first break down the extremities, so next, we will move on to the legs. Trim down the extra skin and fat that are along the lower cavity. This fat can be a bit tough and too rubbery to render down. Following the shape of the breast, cut through the area that connects the leg to the spine. Do not cut all the way through, but only until the knife encounters the thigh bone. Using the hand that is not holding the knife, pull back the leg while keeping the chicken on the knife. This will open up the joint that connects the thigh to the spine.

Step Five: Thigh Joints

Photos by Alex Alcarraz

Lightly run the edge of the knife separating the chicken skin through to the spine. Turn the chicken over and pop the joint that connects the spine to the thigh. This may sound a bit graphic, but it is part of making this very simple and getting as much of the meat off the carcass. The bone will stick out if done properly.

Step Six: the Oyster

Finding the Oyster. Photos by Alex Alcarraz

Now it is time to get the best part of the chicken out: the oyster. This is the most succulent part of the chicken, tender and full of flavor. It’s located right where my finger is (near the thigh on the back of the chicken).

With the tip of the knife, trace the outside of the oyster. It is round and generally about an inch and a half in diameter. Next, push your index finger or thumb into the top outside part of the oyster and push underneath to make a clean removal of it.

Step Seven: Removing the Leg

Photo by Alex Alcarraz

Now that the oyster has been removed, we can cut the rest of the leg off. Since the socket and the bone of the thigh connecting the spine are separated, they will act as our guideline for the next cut. Using your knife, and using the spine of the chicken as a guide, cut through the rest of the meat and skin connected. Now you have the first quarter of the chicken off; congrats! Repeat steps four through seven for the other leg.

Step Eight: Beginning the Breasts

Photo by Alex Alcarraz

With this step, we are going to focus on the breasts. There is a wishbone at the very top that can be a bit annoying to deal with, but for this guide, we are going to focus more on getting as much meat off the rib cage of the chicken. Place the chicken breast side up pointing away. Feel the breastbone connecting the two breasts.

Step Nine: Opening the Breasts

Photos by Alex Alcarraz

Feeling the center bone connecting the two breasts, with your knife, cut along the left side of that bone. Try to cut as close to the breastbone and rib cage as possible.

Step Ten: Separating the Breasts

Photo by Alex Alcarraz

Once you complete the cut, use your other hand to lightly pull the breast towards the left to allow for more visibility. Meanwhile, continue to use the tip of the knife to release the meat off the rib cage. You will not cut through the wishbone, but only go around it with your knife and continue to follow in the initial direction.

Step Eleven: Shoulder Joint

Photo by Alex Alcarraz

Once you have released most of the breast, there will be a small shoulder joint to cut through. This bone connects the drumette of the wing to the rest of the chicken. We will keep that initial bone as part of our finished chicken breast—making it an official airline chicken breast. You can make the joint more visible by running your index finger into the connecting joints and using the tip of the knife to release them. Once they are released, you have your first breast half.

Step Twelve: Repeat

Repeat steps eight through twelve on the opposite side of the chicken. If you need to turn the direction of the chicken breast to face you instead, feel free to do so.

Step Thirteen: Breaking Down the Legs

Photos by Alex Alcarraz

Let's continue the breakdown of the legs. Take one leg and put it skin side down on the cutting board. Run your index finger along the top of the drumstick to find the connecting joint of the thigh and drumstick. Once you find it, cut through the joints at a 45-degree angle. Now you have a drumstick and a bone-in thigh. For additional help, there is a white fat line that can be followed as well. Repeat the same process with the other leg.

Going Over the Cuts

Photo by Alex Alcarraz

After all that hard work, you now have two wings with the wing tips still attached, followed by two airline chicken breasts with the tenders. You can remove these if you want by simply pulling them off. Finally, there are two chicken thighs and two chicken drumsticks.

What to Do with all this Chicken?

The chicken pieces are now ready to be cooked as best you see fit. I recommend you use the thigh and drumsticks for stews, braises, and soups. The chicken breast is lean and delicious, so pan-roasting and finishing it off in the oven is a great way to showcase its flavor. Of course, make sure to use a thermometer for extra caution. Stick it into the thickest part of the breast to find out its internal temperature—which should be at 165°F.

The wings hold a lot of collagen in them, which is great to add to a stock for more richness and nutritional value. You could also fry them up and toss them in some Buffalo sauce!

With the rest of the chicken carcass, a stock is the obvious thing to make. Rinse the bones in cold water until they run clean. This is to allow all of the blood that can be on them to be washed away. Oftentimes if not rinsed, it can impart a not-so-pleasant flavor into your stock. Alternatively, set your oven to 400°F, season the bones with salt and pepper, and toss them in your preferred vegetable oil. Roast the bones until they are nicely browned. This way you will have a more flavorful stock with a deeper amber color.

A Good Stock Recipe

If you go into the store and see boxes labeled "bone broth", that just means stock. Do not be misguided by labeling that maintains a normal stock is a broth. Broths must be made with stock and actual meat, hence traditional chicken broth. A broth made with bones is just stock. So instead of paying for the marketing tactics of food suppliers, make your own!

I have a 10-month-old at home, so making a stock after breaking down a whole chicken allows me to really make the best food I can for him. Let's look at the ingredients:

  • 3 tbsp. butter - you can use the same amount of olive oil, if you prefer
  • 1 carrot - rough, chopped into coins
  • 2 onions - rough, chopped into squares
  • 1 celery stem - rough chopped
  • 1 thyme sprig
  • 2 garlic cloves - crushed
  • 1 chicken carcass rinsed - including wings
  • 2.5 qt. (80oz) water
  • 3 tsp. salt

In a medium-sized pot, add the butter, garlic, and vegetables. This vegetable mix of onions, carrots, and celery is called mirepoix. Sweat everything for about 5–10 minutes at medium heat.

Add the thyme and the chicken carcass along with the wings and stir well. Then, add the water and bring it to a boil. Then reduce the heat to a light simmer. Simmer for two and a half hours.

With a ladle, skim the top of the simmering stock of any floating impurities and unwanted fat. Season with salt.

Using a fine strainer, strain the stock into a large bowl or empty pot to allow it to cool. Discard the vegetables and bones.

Place the stock over an ice bath for a quicker cool-down, or leave it outside for an hour at room temp and then place it in the fridge for another hour uncovered. Place in desired storage containers once fully chilled. Keep refrigerated for up to a week, or freeze for up to two months for best flavor.

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