Tutorial: How to Break Down a Whole Chicken

I don’t go out of my way to purchase organic fruits and vegetables, but I do for poultry and red meat. Buying all organic produce would get prohibitively expensive fast, but buying organic meat 1) keeps my meat purchases (and therefore consumption) low and 2) actually requires more organic plant material in the form of animal feed than I would be purchasing in a weekly grocery trip. I know I can’t do everything, so I try to pick my battles.

Because organic meat can be so much more expensive than conventional, I tend to buy either odd cuts or bulk packages to stretch my dollar a bit further. One excellent way to get the most value is to buy whole chickens and break them down into parts.

I first learned how to do this from this excellent tutorial, but the blogger does not seem to be active anymore, so I thought I would make my version. 

You will need:

  • A very sharp, narrow knife (mine is an 8 inch sashimi knife, similar here)
  • A nonporous cutting board with a ridge around the outside to catch juices
  • A bowl of ice
  • A bowl for scrap bones or skin
  • Freezer-safe containers (if you’re not using the chicken right away; mine are from a takeaway restaurant but there are similar here)
  • Scissors (optional)


First, lay the chicken down breast up. Make a few shallow cuts on the skin where the thigh meets the body.20170326_174253.jpg

Pull the thigh down while pushing up toward the back, right underneath where you made your initial cut. The bone and joint should start to protrude; keep pushing until you hear a popping sound.


Slice at roughly a 45° angle right behind the rounded joint. You will know you’ve found the joint because there will be very little resistance as you slice.


Find where the thigh and drumstick meet (there should be a thin line of fat) and cut along that line to separate.


20170326_174501 (1).jpg

Repeat for the other leg.

If you want your thighs and drumsticks to be skinless, work off a little of the skin using the tip of your knife.


It should become easier to pull the skin off but, if you run into trouble, run the sharp edge of the knife just under and against the skin and it will come off more easily.


If you want to debone the thighs, flip them over so the “inside” or cut side is facing up. Locate the bone and place your knife alongside it. Using short strokes, cut at the base of the bone, rolling the bone away until it is cut free.



Place the thighs and drumsticks in the bowl of ice and keep the bones and skin aside. Do this for all pieces as they are removed.


Stretch out the wings. Slice straight up and down at the “elbow” of each wing. Again, you will know you have the joint because there should be little to no resistance.


You should now have a rib area with the breasts still attached. Using the knife, start peeling the skin off using the same technique as for the legs.  (You can see the bowl I’ve put the skin and bones in to the right.)



Once the skin is off, you should see a line of fat in the middle of the breasts. Start cutting just left of the line, cutting at a slight angle to the left. There’s a bone you’re avoiding here; if you run into it, just angle a little further to the left. Repeat with the right breast.





Flip the breasts over so the cut side is facing up. You should see a smaller piece that looks smoother and shinier. This is the tenderloin, and should come right out with some gentle pulling or one cut.


Finally, at the top of the chicken should be the drummettes. Much like the drumstick, locate the joint where the drummette is connected to the body and cut through it at a slight angle. (These can be hard to find so I have to manhandle it a bit.)


Put what chicken you are not going to use right away in freezer-safe containers. I like to put the thighs, drumsticks, wings, and drummettes in one container and the breasts and tenderloins in another. Freeze whatever you don’t use right away. Thaw the frozen chicken in the way you normally would: by leaving it in its container in the fridge for a day or using the microwave’s defrost settings.


That’s it! Can you believe how easy this is? Now that I’m practiced, it takes no more than 15 minutes for me to take the whole bird apart. Give yourself some time to learn and you’ll be a pro in no time.20170326_174229

Afterward, put the carcass and any removed skin or bones in a freezer-safe bag, squeeze all the air you can get out, and store in the freezer. Don’t throw it away! Next up: how to make homemade stock. It’s so easy to make and store, you’ll never buy it at the store again.


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