How can I ask you to do something that can easily be done by a butcher? That’s a fair question, and I want to assure you that I’m not suggesting this to make your life more difficult. On the contrary; I want to give you a valuable skill that will make you a more effective and accomplished as a cook, andenable you to feel more connected to the craft of cooking. And, it will, ultimately, make you less needy of butchers to do everything for you. It’s time we all learned to master a culinary procedure that was second nature to our grandmothers. Other than the sense of accomplishment from performing this earthy task, there are several other reasons to acquire this skill. First, when you purchase a pre-cut chicken or chicken parts, you’re not able to view the original condition of the bird. The only way to have more control over the quality of your poultry is to see the bird whole. Also, when chickens are pre-cut, the bony chicken backs often are split up and attached to other parts. Since the backs aren’t great for eating but make wonderful stock, why cook them with the rest of the chicken? It makes more sense to remove the backs yourself and store them in your freezer until you develop a substantial stash; then use them to enrich a hefty pot of chicken stock. Finally, when you learn to cut up a raw chicken you also learn how to locate the “points of interference” (hard bone); this makes you more proficient at carving cooked poultry instead of simply “winging it” (no pun intended) and hoping for the best.
Necessary equipment: You will need a well-sharpened 10-inch carving knife, a strong pair of kitchen scissors, and preferably a wooden (not plastic) cutting surface. Recent research has reversed the long-held opinion that wood encouraged the growth of bacteria. It is now believed to be safer than plastic, but be sure to wash it well with a mild disinfectant after cutting up poultry.
To prepare chicken to be cut up: Thoroughly rinse and dry the chicken. Pull out any excess fat from the opening of the cavity and trim away excess skin. If desired, cut both fat and skin into small pieces and store them together in the freezer until you accumulate enough to make Rendered Chicken Fat (page 110 of My Book); otherwise discard them.
1. To remove legs
Lay chicken, breast up, on your work surface. Grasp a drumstick and gently pull it away from the body to stretch the piece of skin in between the leg and body. Using a sharp carving knife, make a slit in the skin only without severing the meat. Firmly grab the top of the leg and bend it all the way back, down and away from the body to release the thigh (hip) bone from its socket. Bend leg still further until the tip of the bone has broken away from the body and is sticking straight up. (This is the hard bone or the “point of interference.”) By now the only thing connecting the leg to the body is the flesh from the bottom side of the back. Grasp the chicken by the leg and simply cut off the leg going under and around the thigh bone. Repeat with the remaining leg.
2. To separate drumstick from thigh
Place the leg with thigh attached (thigh skin side down) on your work surface and use your fingertips to locate the small empty space that’s between the top of the meaty drumstick and the beginning of the thigh. Remove your finger as you place the blade of your knife in this space. In one “down-away-from-you and back-toward-you” stroke cut and separate the drumstick from the thigh.
3. To remove wings
First locate the spot under the wings (the armpit) as if you were going to “tickle the chicken.”To do this, lift up the chicken by the wing away from the body to stretch the skin that connects the wing to the body. This will expose the “ticklish spot.” With your knife, make an incision (about 1/3 inch) into this spot and, while holding the wing, bend it back and down while twisting to release the wing bone from its socket. Bend back further to expose totally the round white bone tip and, using your knife, cut down, under and around the bone; this will release the wing into your hand.
4. To remove back
Using your knife or sharp kitchen scissors, cut along each side of the back bone removing any thin, flimsy, fleshy side areas along with the back. This will leave you with one whole chicken breast. (Place the chicken back into a heavy-duty plastic bag and store in the freezer for making stock.)
5. To split breast
Place breast skin side down on work surface with the tip of the breast facing away from you. On the center of the bottom edge near you, you’ll see a whitish, translucent piece of cartilage laying directly over the breast bone (your point of interference). Place the blade of your knifeon the cartilage and with a firm (but not hard) blow, knock your hand against the top (dull side) of the blade so it will penetrate the cartilage without splintering the breast bone.Bend both sides of the breast down and away from each other to open the cartilage and expose the thin, curved breast bone. Use your thumb to pry under and around the bone to release it (this takes a bit of muscle).Lift out the bone (add it to the bag with the back in the freezer) and run your thumb down the center of the breast under the remaining pieces of cartilage and the translucent skin, to release both from the flesh. Remove and discard cartilage. Cut directly down the center of the breast separating it in two equal halves. See, you did it!
To butterfly whole poultry so it lays perfectly flat
Use poultry shears to cut up (or down) each side of the backbone, removing it completely. Turn the bird, skin side down, with the wings closest to you. Remove the breast bone and cartilage, as described above. Either cut off the bony wing tips or bend them underneath the breast, to protect them from burning. The bird should now lay perfectly flat and, when opened fully, should resemble a butterfly. To see Lauren doing this,
To clean up
When finished, wash your cutting surface as well as all utensils (and your hands) thoroughly before using them to prepare other foods that might be eaten raw. It’s a good idea to have separate cutting boards—one for working with meats, one for vegetables, and one for making yeast breads.