Chicken is such a staple for anyone who is being mindful of their budget. Whenever a whole chicken goes on sale for $.99 per lb or less, I almost always get one; and it’s truly amazing how much you can get out of just one bird.
Taking apart a whole chicken is an invaluable skill for the thrifty cook! In fact, it was one of the first things they taught us in culinary school, after we mastered not cutting our fingers off that is… Today, I thought I would do a little primer on knives and how to break down a chicken into all it’s usable bits. Followed by recipes over the next few days for how I used up my little bird. Hope you like it!
[If you’re one of those people who already knows this stuff, I won’t have any hurt feelings if you skip this one, it’s quite basic. Recipes to come soon, I promise!]
First off, let’s talk about knives. Any craftsman deserves good tools and if you don’t have nice knives, I would highly recommend saving up for them. They make your work in the kitchen easier and safer. I like Wustof, but honestly, I haven’t tried out that many. Any fancy cooking store will let you try some out and find what you like best. I laid out the knives in order, from left to right, of how important each one is.
The most important is the chef’s knife, your basic, all-around, every-day guy. I have Japanese style one because I thought it was cool when I was a teenager, but any sort will do. Second most important is the steel because there’s no point in having nice things if you can’t take care of them! When you buy a nice chef’s knife, get a steel and a sleeve or knife case to keep the blade safe.
Next up is the paring knife, it’s so little and cute! It lets you do finer tasks and have precision with delicate ingredients. After that is the serrated knife, mine is off-set but that doesn’t really matter; the serrated knife is good on breads and slippery items like tomatoes and citrus. These are the essentials, everything else is just gravy and for if you want to get fancy with it.
The first of the fancy knives, the fifth from the left, is a filet knife. Skinny and flexible, like a… nevermind, that won’t end well. It’s good for meats and fish, but only necessary if you’re really into butchering larger portions of meat or fish than the average cook. Next is the poultry shears, they’re terrifyingly strong and sharp scissors; no further explanation needed, right? Last is the slicer, pretty useless but it’s nice for making nice clean slices of anything.
To take apart a whole chicken you’ll need either a paring knife or a filet knife and (maybe) some poultry shears. Let’s dig in!
You may ask, what the hell are those nasty bits they always leave inside the chicken? And why? What are they good for? As gross as it is, playing with chicken innards, they’re totally useful bits! The soft brown stuff (the bottom pile in my picture) is the liver and it’s great to make into pate or save and grind into your meatballs, like I do. The other bits, like the gizzard (the top pile in my picture) are all good for stock.
Next, clip off those little wing tips and toss them into the ‘for stock’ pile, there’s not really any meat on them but there’s still lots of good flavor in them!
Now for the legs! First step is to cut into the skin along the inside of the legs to that you can see the hip joint. Then get down in there and break the hip joint, pulling the legs down until you hear a crack. Next, cut along the bone and through the joint you just cracked apart to remove the legs, like you can see in the second picture. From here you can separate the leg quarters into the drumstick and thighs if you like; it’s best to cut along the little, yellow line of fat as a guide.
Now on to the breasts and wings. You just cut along the breast bone on one side and gently pull the meat away from the carcass as you make small cuts to help it along, like in the top two pictures. Crack the wing joint like you did with the legs and cut the whole thing off of the carcass. Repeat on the other side and you have two breast and wing pieces. If you were to take off the bottom portion of the wing, leaving the drumette on the breast, that would be called an ‘Airline Breast’ (I have no idea why, as I’ve never had anything resembling meat on an airplane before…) which is considered somewhat fancy. I prefer to take the wing off and remove the tenders as well (you can just pull those off) to make more pieces, like in the last picture.
Well, there you have it! That’s the classic, ‘Eight Piece’ way to take apart a whole chicken, and from here the possibilities are endless. Be sure to save that carcass – it’s wonderful for stock and there’s still some meat on it. I used mine to make some yummy Chicken and Herb Dumplings, recipe to come soon! Stay tuned friends!