100 Techniques

Technique #30: Butcher Whole Chicken for Custom Parts

Don't be intimidated. With a little time, and a little practice, you'll add butchery to your culinary skillset.

Published Oct. 2, 2023.

This is Technique #30 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

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Mastering the process of cutting up a whole chicken will seriously boost your kitchen confidence and expand your cooking horizons.

If you’ve never done it, the first time might be slow. But it’s an easily learned skill that becomes simple after just a little practice.

First, Locate the Joints

The only kitchen tools you need are a cutting board, chef’s knife, and kitchen shears. The most challenging part is figuring out where the joints are. Wiggling the leg or wing and pulling it away from the body will help you locate them. 

Don’t be squeamish about getting in there with your fingers. You can even pop the leg joint out of its socket. When you cut, your knife should glide right through. If it hits something hard, you’re cutting through something other than a joint.

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Step by Step: How to Butcher a Whole Chicken

Follow these simple steps for how to easily break down a chicken. With a little time, and little practice, you’ll impress yourself with your new butchery skills.

Step 1: Remove the Legs

With breast side down and using chef’s knife, pull legs away from body and cut through joint between leg and body.

Step 2: Break Down the Legs

Cut each leg into 2 pieces—drumstick and thigh—by slicing through joint that connects them (marked by thin white line of fat).

Step 3: Remove the Wings

Flip chicken breast side up and remove wings by pulling wings away from body and slicing through each wing joint.

Step 4: Remove the Back

Turn chicken on its side and, using kitchen shears, remove back, cutting through rib bones on each side of backbone. Reserve back for making stock.

Step 5: Split the Breast Plate

Flip breast skin side down and, using chef’s knife, split by cutting in half through breast plate (marked by thin white line of cartilage). It helps to put your hand on top of knife blade to apply pressure.

Step 6: If Necessary, Halve the Breast

If needed for recipe, flip each breast piece over and cut in half crosswise.

For 3 Pounds of Parts, Buy a 4–Pound Chicken

You should expect about a 25 percent yield loss when cutting up whole chicken for parts. 

For example, if you need 3 pounds of parts, you should buy a 4-pound chicken. Even so, butchering a whole chicken yourself will always save you money over buying packaged parts. While boneless, skinless chicken breasts definitely have a place in our refrigerator, if that’s all you’re accustomed to buying, you’ll be shocked at the price saving.

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Benefits of Butchering

This technique will also give you better results in your finished dish. Packaged parts are inconsistent in size because they come from many different birds. You might get one leg quarter that’s twice as big as the other leg quarter, and this makes it difficult to cook them properly. 

Furthermore, a packaged, cut-up chicken doesn’t include the back, an essential ingredient for great homemade stock. The back can also be added to simmering foods like stew to lend flavor and body, the way a ham bone does.

Labels to Look For

We prefer to buy chickens labeled “USDA Organic.” We also recommend “air-chilled” chickens, which have been cooled by being hung from a conveyor belt in a cold room. “Water-chilled” chicken sits in a chlorinated bath, where it absorbs water that inflates cost. 

When buying whole chickens, choose broilers or fryers, which weigh 21⁄2 to 41⁄2 pounds. Don’t rinse the chicken before cutting it up, as this will only spread bacteria around the sink (and perhaps elsewhere).

Recipes That Use This Technique

Ready to show off your newfound chicken butchery skills? Try it with these five recipes.


Tandoori Chicken with Raita

Traditional tandoori chicken is marinated in yogurt and spices and roasted in a superhot tandoor oven to produce tender, flavorful meat and a beautiful char.
Get the Recipe

Slow-Roasted Chicken Parts with Shallot-Garlic Pan Sauce

The juiciest meat demands low heat; the crispiest skin, a hot sear. Could we achieve both?
Get the Recipe

Coq au Riesling

Julia Child made the French classic red wine–based coq au vin a popular dish, but we were drawn to the rich and refined white wine version.
Get the Recipe

Spice-Rubbed Roast Chicken Parts

We shave off cooking time by using chicken parts instead of a whole chicken.
Get the Recipe

Hot-Honey Chicken

Hidden among my grandmother's stack of recipes was a sweet, sneaky-hot surprise.
Get the Recipe

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