How To Break Down A Chicken

The basic skill of butchering a chicken seems to have been lost in our modern age of fast food and ready prepared meals. But I’d like to show you a very simple way to break down whole chickens and prepare them for simple delicious meals.

Breaking down a chicken is a great way to utilize the entire animal and reduce waste. It can also save you money. An entire chicken costs as little as $10. This won’t be a superhero organic chicken (they cost about $20-25), but the natural chickens from your local supermarket. Bought separately, you’ll pay $16- $20 for all the chicken pieces already cut up and packaged. Why waste $10 when you can buy a whole chicken and butcher it yourself? It takes less than 5 minutes to butcher a whole chicken once you have done it a few times, and you get to keep the bones, which make great stock. 

Over the years I have seen many different ways of butchering  a chicken.  When I was a child, I watched my grandmother in Ireland cut chickens up into what we know today as the basic 8 cut. 2 breast, 2 thighs, 2 legs and 2 wings. My mother continued doing the same method and passed it on to me. By the age of 14 I was pretty adept at cutting up chickens.

Nearly 25 years later, I am butchering chickens pretty much the same way at a butcher shop in Seattle. Going through culinary school, I watched different instructors break down chickens in various different ways, some more complicated than others. With each different method, I’ve seen the person who does it swear it’s is the right way.  For me there is no right way. The right way is the way that works for you.

A sharp knife is all you need. I like to use a knife with a stiff blade such as this Sabatier boning knife. Victorinox also make great boning knives, and are pretty cheap. Their semi-flexible boning knife is $20 and is great value. I personally think a stiff or semi-flexible blade works better for chickens.

The Classic 8 Cut Method For Breaking Down A Chicken

Step 1: Stretch It Out

Lay the chicken on a flat work surface with the wings facing you and the legs further away from you. Pull on the chicken legs to loosen the bird up.

Whole chicken ready to be broken down
Whole chicken ready to be broken down

Step 2: First Cut To Remove Thighs & Legs

Hold the chicken by the leg and pull it away from the bird gently, you will see the skin stretch between the leg and the breast. With a sharp knife, cut through where the stretched skin is connected to the breast – there is a natural seam.  Repeat on the other side.

First cut to remove thighs and legs
First cut to remove thighs and legs
Both sides cut
Both sides cut

Step 3: Dislocate The Thighs

Turn the bird over, and feel for where the shoulder joint connects to the thigh (it’s right next to the oyster muscle which I’m pressing in the picture below with my fingers).  Press down on the oyster muscle and pull upwards on the thigh to disconnect it, the bone will pop out of the socket. Repeat on the other side.

Locating the oyster muscle
Locating the oyster muscle
Dislocating the thigh joint
Bone pops out after dislocating the thigh joint
Both thighs dislocated
Both thighs dislocated

Step 4: Removing The Thighs

Turn the bird over. Insert the tip of the knife into the oyster muscle and scoop the muscle out.  It should come cleanly away from the bone.

Scooping out the oyster muscle
Scooping out the oyster muscle

Step 5: Separating The Thighs

Hold your knife against the chicken’s carcass and pull the leg away. Cut cleanly through the exposed tendon and cartilage. Repeat on the other side.  Set thighs aside.

Remove thigh
Cut through the end of the thigh meat to remove the thigh and leg together
Both legs & thighs removed
Both legs & thighs removed

Step 7: Removing The Breast

Feel for the breast bone with your fingers and cut along it. Keep the pressure of the knife against the breast bone, and gently pull away the breast meat as you cut.  Cut straight through the wishbone, which is located at the thicker end of the breast (chicken butt!). You can remove the wishbone first if you really need to make a wish!

First cut to remove breast
First cut to remove breast

Step 8: Separating The Breast From The Carcass

To remove the breast from the carcass, simply cut the breast in front of the wing joint.  Once the breast is removed, you can pull out the wish bone with your fingers.

Wing and breast joint
Cut in front of the wing and breast joint for a boneless breast and behind the joint for an airline breast
Removal of wishbone
Removal of wishbone

Step 9: Airline Breast

If you want an airline breast (which just leaves the drumette attached, which is basically part of the wing), then cut behind the wing and breast joint, leaving the wing attached to the breast.

Removing the breast with the wing attached
Removing the breast with the wing attached for an airline breast, cutting behind the wing and breast joint
Dislocating the wing
Dislocating the wing helps to get a clean cut and neat finish prior to cutting the wing off. Make a small cut where you can feel the joint, and then just snap the wing and drumette apart for the airline breast
Removing the wing tip
Cut in between the drumette and wing, which is easy once the joint is dislocated 
Boneless chicken breast and airline breast side by side
Boneless chicken breast and airline breast side by side

Step 10: Separating The Leg & Thigh

To separate the leg from the thigh, look for the line of fat that separates the drumstick from the thigh (my knife is resting on it in this picture). Move your knife an 1/8″ towards the drumstick, then cut straight through the joint.

Separating the leg from the thigh
Separating the leg from the thigh, cut slightly closer to the drumstick side
Cut through the leg and thigh joint
Cut through the leg and thigh joint
Cut through to separate leg and thigh
You should miss the bone and be able to make a clean cut. Set the drumstick aside and repeat with the other thigh and leg. (The legs can also be boned out, stuffed and rolled, that’s for another post!)

Step 11: Deboning The Thigh

Debone the thigh by trimming away the meat surrounding the bone and cut it out on either side. I like to use my index finger and thumb to grab the bone.  Then you can lift it up and slice the bone out. Use your knife to scrape the meat away from the bone in a downward motion. Then cut the thigh bone out, leaving as much meat on the thigh as possible. Feel the thigh with your fingers and you should feel a small piece of gristle.  This is the kneecap.  Cut the kneecap off, and the thigh is finished.

Debone the thigh
Exposing the thigh bone before cutting it out

Step 12: Trim Any Excess Fat & Check For Bones

The chicken should be finished now, so just check for any large pieces of skin or fat and trim them as you see fit.

Final 8 cut with the carcass
Here we have the finished chicken, ready for cooking. One boneless breast, one airline breast, two boneless thighs, two drumsticks, two wings, one drumette, with the other attached to the airline breast.  You’ll also have the carcass, which is great for chicken stock

The only way to get good at breaking chickens down is to do it yourself. If you do it every time you buy a chicken, or maybe once a week, I guarantee you will be surprised at how easy it is. Within 3-4 attempts you will have your chicken thighs, drumsticks, wings and breasts all separated and ready to cook or save in packages in 5 minutes.

Stay tuned for my post on chicken stock and how to make great chicken sauces.