How to Cut Up a Whole Chicken (AKA a Chicken Autopsy)

Imagine: it’s Sunday afternoon and you’re wandering around the grocery store. You arrive at the meat section, and you don’t know what to make for meals this week. Pork chops? Nah. Chicken? Sure. You look at your options: prepackaged chicken breast, thighs, legs, or wings… choose one!

  • Chicken breast? Expensive, unless you buy a Costco sized package.

  • Thighs? Delicious, but not everyone likes dark meat.

  • Legs? What do you even do with a drumstick other than deep fry it?

  • Wings? You don’t want to eat buffalo wings all week. (Or maybe you do, that’s cool.)

Enter: the whole chicken. You can roast it whole or use the different cuts of meat for a variety of meals!

“But Why Should I Buy a Whole Chicken When I Can Buy it Cut Up at the Store?”

Breaking down a whole chicken is cheaper! Done properly, one chicken will yield two wings, two thighs, two drumsticks, two breasts, and a carcass perfect for making stock with. If you were to buy all of that separately, it would be more expensive than buying one chicken and breaking it down.

As an example, the chicken pictured in this post cost $12. If we were to buy two breasts the size of the ones that came off of our chicken, it’d cost us ~$10. So the thighs, legs, wings, and carcass for stock are all a bonus.

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Buying pre-cut chicken is nice and convenient, but you can break down a chicken in just a few minutes. Too lazy? We are too, but expensive pre-cut chicken is making us change our habits!

How to Cut Up a Whole Chicken

Cutting up a whole chicken is only as complicated as you make it. Work carefully, and with confidence, and you’ll be just fine. The basic theory behind breaking down a chicken, (or any animal really) is to remove the outermost parts first and work inwards. For a chicken, that means removing the wings and the legs so that you gain access to the breasts. (Yes, that was in fact the weirdest sentence that we’ve ever written.)

The Knife: If you’re going to be performing chicken surgery, we recommend using a sharp knife. Really any sharp knife will do. We have a boning knife that is designed to be used for the very purpose of separating meat from bones, but a fillet knife or a regular chef knife will do just fine as well. Just don’t use a serrated knife — it will tear up and destroy the meat.

boning knife

Step 1: Wings

The wings are probably the easiest part of the chicken to remove. Grab one of the wings and feel where it connects to the body. That’s the joint that you’re going to be cutting through. Take your knife and cut through the joint. You should feel a little resistance, but not much. If you’re using too much force, you’re cutting in the wrong spot. The wing should separate easily.

Cut here.

Cut here.

Step 2: Legs & Thighs

This is very similar to the wings. First, try to feel where the leg attaches to the body. Slice the skin in the leg crease to allow the leg to move freely away from the body. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to pop the joint right out. If not, use you knife to keep separating the meat. Then cut straight down and you should have yourself a chicken leg.

Yes, this is gross. But it’s where you need to cut.

Yes, this is gross. But it’s where you need to cut.

To remove the thigh from the drumstick, you’re going to need to locate the joint. Apparently there is a fat line that marks it, but if you can’t find this magical line, then you’re going to have to feel for the joint. Place your fingers where you think it is, and with your other hand start rocking the leg — you should be able to feel the movement of the joint in your fingers. To separate the two parts, you want to cut where the joint is! (In medical lingo, you just palpated a chicken joint. Good job!)

As you can see, our chicken has the wing still attached. It doesn’t matter which piece you cut off first!

As you can see, our chicken has the wing still attached. It doesn’t matter which piece you cut off first!

Step 3: Breasts

Now that the wings, legs, and thighs are removed, the last part to cut is the breasts! The breasts are separated by the spine — you want to run your knife as close to the bone as possible to ensure that you removing the entire breast from the carcass. You should hear the sound of your knife scraping against the carcass (that means you’re getting the maximal amount of meat). *shiver*

chicken breast cut

And that’s pretty much it. Just continue to run your knife by the bone until the breast detaches.

The breasts are pretty big, so you can cut them in half for a total of 10 chicken pieces!

The breasts are pretty big, so you can cut them in half for a total of 10 chicken pieces!

Mediocre Tips

  • Yes, touching a raw chicken is gross, and just thinking about it may make you gag. But the only way to get accurate cuts is to take a hands on approach. If the thought of chicken germs weird you out, bust out some latex or nitrile gloves and get to work.

  • Don’t use a wood cutting board for this operation — it’ll be hard to get all of the chicken nasty off of it. Place the patient (it’s the chicken, calm down) on a plastic cutting board instead!

  • As mentioned earlier, use a sharp knife. It’s important, so we’re mentioning it twice. A scalpel will do in a pinch.

  • Don’t throw away the body carcass! Use the bones to make a delicious chicken stock with some garlic cloves, carrots, celery, and onion.

  • Keep the skin on for super juicy chicken breasts! Bake at 400°F for 20-23 minutes — don’t over bake your chicken! Also, let that chicken breast rest before you cut into it.

Safeway robbed us of our chicken wing tips.

Safeway robbed us of our chicken wing tips.

Congrats, you’re now a chicken carving master! There are other methods of breaking down a whole chicken, but we think that this is the easiest way. (And we’re lazy, so the easy way is the best way.)

Remember to clean and disinfect your knife, the surface you cut your chicken on, and anything that the raw chicken came in contact with (like your hands, you filthy animals). We feel like we have to say this because we know we’ll have one asshole on our blog comment: “bUt SaMoNeLLa.”

Thanks for reading!

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