Monday, October 18, 2010

A Lesson from the Butcher's Daughter: How to Cut Up a Whole Chicken

That title makes me sound super-experienced, like I worked in my dad's butcher shop as I was growing up or something.  Not even close.  My dad was actually in the army for most of my childhood and all of my adolescent years. He's been retired from the army for about ten years now and works at a market up in Park City as a butcher for extra income. As for me, this post documents my very first attempt at cutting up a whole chicken a la butcher-style. Sorry if my lack of butcher training or experience comes as a disappointment.

In any case, cutting up a whole chicken is not only easy, but it's a really great way to save money.  For example, I bought this all-natural, whole chicken at $1.29/lb. In the end it cost me somewhere between $4-5 total. Compare this to buying the chicken in separate pieces (I used the pricing from the same store): 

A whole fryer chicken, cut into pieces by the butcher, costs 1.69/lb. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs cost 2.79/lb; 1.89/lb for bone-in with the skin. Bone-in chicken breasts cost 2.79/lb; for boneless, skinless chicken breast, it cost 4.99/lb. I'm no math genius, but even I can see that you can save money by cutting the chicken up yourself. Especially when it comes to the breasts -- I cut the skin off and removed the bones myself. I'm willing to bet I got at least a pound of boneless, skinless chicken breast  and I know for much, much cheaper than $4.99.   Plus, going about getting your chicken this way saves even more money because you use the back of the chicken, along with the bones and neck, to make homemade stock. I don't know why I never did this before...

Oh wait, I do know why.  Because it seemed intimidating. I was afraid I was going to mangle the thing instead of getting clean, nice cuts like the butcher does for the meat department.  It seemed like too much trouble anyway. In all honesty, it's no trouble at all. Sure, it's a little extra work, but even for my first time, it didn't take that long (and that's with me checking my instructions carefully and taking pictures, not to mention washing my hands every time before I picked up my camera).

One note: all these pictures and instructions seem kind of gruesome. At least they do to me. It's to put this...hands on with your food. But, you know what? I think that's important.  I think people are a little too removed from their food and where it comes from. Instead of being an actual chicken, the meat just comes nicely packaged and available without much thought to the animal. Getting up close and personal with you food helps with gratitude, I think.

Okay, I'm done waxing philosophical.  Here's the how-to for cutting up a whole chicken...

Before you get started, be sure you have: 1) a nice, sharp knife (a good pair of kitchen shears help a lot, too); 2) a good-sized cutting board, one that is used exclusively for meat and easy to clean; 3) a baking sheet or plate for the cut-up pieces; 4) a stock pot for bones and extra skin.  {I think it's worth noting that I got my instructions on how to do this from Everyday Food magazine. I love that publication!}

Step 1

With the breast side facing up, pull the legs away from the body. Slice through the skin between the breast and drumstick. I used both the knife and shears here.

Note: when you first unwrap your chicken, you'll notice that inside of the cavity is the neck, along with some of the giblets. I threw out the giblets, but I saved the neck. Put that in a pot -- you'll use it, along with all the rest of the carcass (as pictured in step #9), for homemade stock.

Step 2

Turn chicken on its side and bed each leg back until the thigh bone pops out of its socket (ewwww...). This isn't for the faint of heart -- give that leg a good tug. The leg should be able to lie flat on the cutting board if you've done it right. Cut through the joint and skin to detach each leg completely.

Step 3

Next, lay the chicken on its side again, pull the wing away from the body, and cut through the joint to remove the wing. This is easier to cut than the leg.

Step 4

These next two pictures are the grossest. I guess it is the Halloween season...

Lift up the chicken and cut downward through the rib cage and then through the shoulder joints. This was the worst part, in my opinion. Anyway, this separates the breast from the back. Put the back into the stock pot.

Step 5

With the breast skin side down, split the center bone using a chopping motion. This takes a little muscle.  Then slice through the meat and the skin to separate it into two pieces. Once I finished cutting down the center, I removed the bones from the breast meat. You can leave the bone, if you'd like, since some recipes call for the bone-in meat. If you remove the bones, put them in the stock pot, too.

Step 6

I flipped the breasts over and removed the skin and fat. The shears are great for this. If you want, you can cut the breast diagonally for smaller pieces. You could also cut them into strips for chicken tenders.

Step 7

Next, you're going to divide the legs so you have the thighs and the drumsticks separated. If you cut in the right area, right through the joint, it's really easy.  As illustrated by my awesome Photoshop skills, there is a line of white fat on the legs. Just follow that line and cut through.

Step 8

Ta-da! When you're finished, you'll have 6-10  (this all depends if you divide the breasts and legs) nicely divided parts.  From there, you can either use the pieces in a recipe immediately like I did (thank you, Pioneer Woman) or you can put them in freezer bags for later. 

Step 9

This step is optional, but you should totally do it. That's just my humble opinion. Take it for what it's worth. Homemade stock is so, so easy to make. You barely have to do anything. Plus, it's nice to really use up everything of the chicken. Nothing goes to waste. All you have to do is boil the carcass in some water with some vegetables and herbs. Let it simmer and reduce for an hour or so and you've got delicious, homemade chicken stock (for a more detailed how-to, go my post about it here). I got 7 1/2 cups of stock - that's almost two of those boxes of stock you buy at the store. Those boxes of stock usually go for about $2 each, so this extra step saved me about $4.  Totally worth the time.

So be brave. Whip out that butcher knife and do the work yourself.  It's not so bad and it'll save you a lot of money in the process.


StrivingSimply said...

I've always wondered how the cost ratios would work out. We are white meat folks, so we get prepackaged boneless, skinless chicken breasts at Costco for $2.40-something a pound. I do, however, make a mean roast chicken which we eat occasionally. I've never been able to carve the bird well - I just pick with my fingers when cooked. Thanks for the tutorial!

Ruby Rach said...

Thankyou so much for this post - today we killed four of our excess roosters who were being quite vicious, so I quickly had to learn how to cut them up. Mine don't look quite as neat as yours, however, and they were a lot less photogenic with their bloody necks, but should hopefully make for some great eating!

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