How to Cut Up a Whole Chicken, a Knife Skills Tutorial

Heather says:

Why would anyone want to cut up a whole chicken? It’s a useful skill to have, I tend to buy whatever is on sale and if whole chickens are on sale that week, then I load up. By buying a whole chicken, I have not restricted myself to one form of cooking or another. Additionally some people in this house are white meat fans, while others prefer the dark and good luck finding chicken breasts at a reasonable price on their own.

If you purchase whole chickens, come home and cut them up, they can be frozen in pieces. However, do not thaw the chicken, cut it up, and refreeze. That’s a big no on the safety meter.

As some readers of Home Ec 101 are vegetarian and others read their feeds first thing in the morning, I’m putting a cut, just so no one is surprised with pictures of raw chicken. You’re welcome.

Also, give my stepdaughter a big round of applause, she was a trooper and helped me take the pictures for this tutorial. It’s not every teen who’s willing to hang out with their stepmother over a chicken carcass, you know.

Disclaimer: I always use a cutting board, but for these pictures I wanted the chicken to show up against a darker background, so I put down a piece of wax paper. Don’t worry, I sanitized my work surface both before and after working with the chicken. Use a cutting board and be sure to sanitize it and your knife after use.

When purchasing poultry look for the grade stamp on the outside of the package, anything below Grade A is used by canners and processors. Can you say mechanically separated?

Remove the packaging, rinse the bird and remove the giblets and neck from the cavity.

Chicken parts:

1. Gizzard 2. Neck 3. Heart 4. Liver

Usually I only reserve the neck and give the rest to the dog, but that’s a whatever floats your boat decision.

Cut away the fat at the opening of the cavity, it just gets in the way later.

Cut through the skin connecting the leg to the body, this makes the thigh joint easier to locate.

Hold the body of the chicken in place with one hand and grasp the leg in the other. Twist the leg up and out of the joint, dislocating the hip. This gives you a place to cut the leg and thigh away from the chicken.

To separate the thigh from the leg, grasp the thigh in one hand and the leg in the other and dislocate the knee.

Then cut through the joint.

Then repeat these steps on the other side before moving on to the wings.

Grab the body of the chicken in one hand and the upper part of the wing in the other and twist away from the body. Cut through the shoulder joint.

Then separate the drumette from the rest of the wing, by dislocating the elbow and cutting through that joint.

If you’d like, separate the wing tip from the wing, in the same manner. I use the wingtips for chicken stock.

Repeat on the other side. (Sense a theme there?)

Grasp the back of the chicken firmly below the tail (the chicken should be upside down). Cut straight down through the ribs to mostly separate the back from the breast of the chicken.  This will have to be done on both sides.

Cut through both shoulders.

The back and breast are now separate. I save the back for stock. There is some meat on it and the the portion just under the shoulder blades are referred to as the oysters of the chicken and are a prized cut. However, they are small and one chicken only has two. Just don’t miss these when you roast a whole chicken.

I use a utility knife during almost the whole process, but for these last two cuts, I switch to my large chef knife as it takes a little bit of strength to accomplish it.

Cut through the sternum to split the chicken breasts. You may need to flip the bird over and finish cutting through the skin.

And there you have, one completely cut up chicken. Due to space, I only put one leg and one wing in the picture. Unless your chicken is mutant (and why would you eat that) you’ll have more parts.

It will take a little practice to feel confident in this skill, but once you have the knack it will get much faster.  Your first experience will be messy and clumsy, but hang in there; a few dinners down the line and you’ll tear that chicken up in no time.

Don’t forget to use the back, wing tips, and neck in chicken stock, just use the same proportions as I do in this turkey stock.

Any questions?

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Comments

  1. This is the most helpful tutorial I have ever seen. Great work!

  2. This will be handy to know seeing as how I'm going to venture into the world of being a locavore and I dare say there aren't many local farmers willing to cut up their chickens for me before going to market. Thanks for the visual! (Literally!)

  3. Love the new photos. Your "cutting up a chicken" tutorial was extremely helpful to me last week when I wanted to make your Garlic Brown Sugar Yummy Chicken (I don't think that was the exact name). My in-laws butchered about two dozen birds this year so I have four, whole chickens in my freezer waiting for me to figure out what to do with them. At least now I can get them into pieces easily and increase my options for using the meat. :-) Thank you ma'am.

  4. Kudos to your stepdaughter – the photos are great.

    I learned to do this watching The Frugal Gourmet in the 80s. The only thing I really do differently is to use a sturdy and sharp pair of kitchen scissors instead of a knife. I hurt myself much less that way. DO NOT use kitchen scissors where the handles are all plastic — the pressure you need to use to cut thru the joints may break the handles (been there, done that). Also, only use a knife that has a full tang (metal all the way thru the handle) otherwise, same thing – blade may break out of the handle when you use a lot of pressure. Yeah, been there done that one, too. And it was an OXO mini chef knife — I was extremely disappointed in them that day)

  5. Thank you for this, I found it extremely helpful. A tip that I was given by the executive chef at a former job was to always, always, always keep the hand you are holding the knife with completely dry. This reduces the chance of slipping and cutting yourself, which is really easy to do when you're cutting up raw meat.

  6. Tinkerschnitzel says:

    I learned by watching Julia Child. Ah, the childhood memories. lol

    I guess I'm going back to whole chicken, cause the grocery store wanted to charge me $7.99 a lb. for chicken breasts, then tell me they were buy 1 get 2 free. I don't think so. There were some expletives said within ear shot of several managers.

  7. Karen W says:

    Thanks – this is so timely – I was planning on trying to do this for the first time this week!

  8. Marianne says:

    Very helpful. Thank you for taking the time to do this. Thanks especially to your stepdaughter. The photos looked great!

  9. Helen Ellis says:

    Wow, now that's a play by play. This is so much more helpful than illustrations I've seen in classic cookbooks. Buying the whole bird is more economical. Now to work up my nerve and sharpen my surgical knife. Thanks for the detailed post,
    Helen

  10. meganmeow says:

    Heather, as a vegetarian I have to say I found those pictures very disgusting… but I mean that in a good way! This is the best tutorial on this subject I have ever seen and if I ever find a clean, cruelty-free whole chicken at a good price I promise to buy it and cut it up for my family.

    Thanks, and keep up the great work!

    • Thank you, Megan.
      Raw chicken is gross no matter who you are. I just try to make it a point to use all of the chicken, it feels less wasteful to me.
      I was just talking to a lady on Twitter who gets 2 chickens a month through her CSA for less than at the supermarket. That's not the case in my area, but it is certainly worth investigating.

    • Your phrase 'cruetly-free whole chicken' made me think of the first Christmas we spent in Houston. My mom went down to the local Whole Foods and the butcher was trying to 'sell' her on an organic free-range turkey vs farm (or whatever the other is called) turkey. Oh this turkey had such a great life, it could go out in the yard, etc. etc. To which her comment was, yeah until was killed and sent to the market. The look on the guys face was priceless, he'd obviously never really thought about it.

      • meganmeow says:

        Yeah, Casey, I totally understand that point and it did make me giggle a little… we do raise these animals as food and I don't have a problem with that. I do, however, try to live by this quote by Henry James (with many failings, I'm sure:-):

        Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.

        • meganmeow says:

          Yeah, Casey, I totally understand that point and it did make me giggle a little… we do raise these animals as food and I don't have a problem with that. I do, however, try to live by this quote by Henry James (with many failings, I'm sure:-):

  11. …. I'm so terrified, but here goes nothing! Geronimo!!

  12. top chef had a challenge for the fastest chicken cutter upper. I would never win because i can barely EAT chicken on the bone. good job on the tut!

  13. This was great!!! I wish more people knew how to buy a whole chicken and really use all of it!!! The first few times of separating a chicken can take a bit of time, but once you get the hang of it, it takes only takes a few minutes and you save sooo much money! Having the backs and other bits for stock is another added bonus!

  14. I grew up on a farm and still raise chickens on the side. That is some real mean chicken butchering you do there. You have a well seasoned skill that gives you an opportunity to save money now and then.

  15. The pictures really help – sometimes it's easy to get overwhelmed by a bunch of text in a multi-step process. This is going to help me save a lot of money the next time I host a party!
    Thank you!

  16. I just wanted to let you know that I linked back to this post from my blog, Deployment Kitchen 365; a project for me and my sister Army wives facing deployment. It is about friends, food and deployment and has just begun. I appreciate this tutorial, it is very useful and I hope you get some readership from my post and small following I have built up on Facebook.
    http://deploymentkitchen365.blogspot.com/

  17. Great instructions, but the don’t include removing the thigh from the body.

  18. HeatherSolos says:

    Both pictures 5 & 6 are related to removing the thigh from the body. :)

  19. Hi nice tutorial! I thought the ‘oysters’ are actually located on the lower back, near the thighs not up near the shoulder blades. But the whole back sure does have very delectable bits of meat when roasted! Good pickins for the chef.

  20. If you just cut the shoulder above the wing and pull down you can just pull the breast right off and then x cut around the wish bone and pull the tenders off..a lot less work and a lot less dangerous

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