Friday, August 7, 2009

Cutting up a chicken

We had our second chicken processing last weekend, August 2nd. We slaughtered, dipped, plucked, and eviscerated 117 Cornish Cross broilers and a couple of ornery hens who had been cannibalizing eggs from the laying boxes for the last few weeks.

It still amazes me that feed, water, breeding and a lot of labor can turn this:

into this:

...and all in about 8 weeks. It's really a miracle of science (breeding a chicken to grow so quickly into something so edible) and nature and I feel blessed to witness and take part.

More practically though, once the chickens make the transition from creature to meat, it becomes time for us to figure out what to do with the food we've produced.

Our chickens taste good. Really good. And roasted whole, they've been said to make older folks weep (only a slight exaggeration) and exclaim that they haven't tasted anything so chickeny since they were growing up in XYZ pre-industrial country.

But sometimes it's easier to have chicken pieces rather than the whole kit-and-kaboodle, so the other day, our neighbor Megan (a former chickenstress herself, and an expert on many things poultry) came over to show me and Susan how to cut up a chicken for storage.

The main trick Megan taught us was how to separate the chicken into the traditional bits: breast, wing, leg, thigh, back, without muscling our way through bones. Instead, she showed us how to feel out the joints and cut around them. In the whole process, the only place we had to cut through bone was a 2'' section between the breasts. Pretty amazing.

The main tips I got from the lesson were:
  • use a really really sharp knife. it doesn't have to be big. even a paring knife will do for everything except that small section of breast bone
  • always cut away the skin and flesh around the part you're working on to get a better view of the bone to separate
  • move the joints to locate the points where your knife can cut through
  • I may never be able to do this as fast as Martin Yan, but I sure can do it better than before!

1) Cut off the neck fat and reserve for tasty broths and soups

2) With the chicken breast-down, feel for the joint of the wing by moving the wing back and forth. When you've located the round joint, cut away the skin and flesh around the joint, starting with the top and working your way around. Once you can see the white joint, use your knife to separate the two (you may need to also pull a bit to "pop" the two pieces apart). Repeat with the wing on the other side. You don't have to do the wing first, but it makes it a little easier to deal with the leg.

3) Turn the chicken breast-side up. Holding the drumstick in one hand and pulling away from the chicken's body, begin cutting the leg and thigh away. When you reach the joint that connects the leg, wiggle it back and forth to see where it's attached.

Be sure to cut away all the skin and flesh so you can see well, then cut through the cartilage between the joint to separate completely. Repeat on the other side.

4) To separate the thigh and drummet, hold the piece of meat perpendicular to the cutting surface, drumstick bone pointed down, so that the point of connection between the drumstick and thigh is pointing up. With your finger, feel along the top edge for a bump and small indentation -- this is the joint and where you should cut (the bump stays with the drumstick). You can also wiggle the leg and thigh joint to feel it out. Cut the two apart, and separate the cartilage between the joint with your knife (you may need to apply slight pressure to "pop" it apart). Repeat with other side.
5) Voila! You have your chicken body left. Look inside the cavity from the back and notice where the rib bones come together on each side of the chicken. You'll see that the bones don't actually join, but have a small gap.

Cut down the gap on either side to separate the top from the bottom.

To completely separate, either grab the two halves (top and bottom) in each hand and pull, or for those with more finesse, it's possible to feel out the bones holding the two halves together and separate with a few knife strokes.

6) Leave the back as is, or cut into two pieces. Starting just below the ribs, cut away flesh and skin, then grab either end and crack apart.

7) To separate the remaining breasts, you can place the piece, flesh side down and chop in half with a heavy knife or cleaver OR you can start flesh-side up, feeling out the breastbone and cutting the skin and meat close right up against one side of the bone. Cut through the cartilage until you reach the last bit of bone. Prop the breast up perpendicular to the table, bone part on your surface, and use the butt end of your knife to break the last piece.

And that's a wrap!


  1. ack, what a process! i am very impressed :) any exciting dishes you're planning on making down the road?

    (and LOL at the "haven't tasted anything so chickeny since they were growing up in XYZ pre-industrial country" line :) )

  2. Happy birthday my dear! I would cut you up a chicken if I were in town to do it. Speaking of which, I maaaaay be getting a friend to drive my car here, in which case I'd be able to drive back to SoCal and stop by in the bay. Cool eh?

  3. Man, that sounds like a damn good chicken.

  4. @ Derek -- Yeah, it's pretty ridiculously delicious. I have 4 tiny ones, under 2lbs each. I boiled the first one and used the meat in Chicken and Fresh Corn soup. I'm using the second one tonight for Hainanese chicken rice. YUM...