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Cooking Tips

How to Break Down a Chicken

Some of our recipes call for chicken parts and recommend cutting up a whole chicken. Here's why we recommend this (yes, it's really worth the work!) and how to do it.
By Published Jan. 3, 2018

Cutting a chicken into parts is not difficult, but it does take a little know-how and you do get better at it with practice. (Our favorite way to practice is with fried chicken recipes, of course.) 

We recommend breaking down a whole chicken into parts for three main reasons: It’s cheaper; the parts will be of a similar size and thus cook more evenly; and you get to save the wingtips and backs for homemade stock (we like to keep them in a bag in the freezer until we have enough for a big batch of stock). We found a 4-pound bird gave us 3 pounds of parts if we included the wings in that weight, as we often do in our fried chicken recipes. However, a 4½- to 5-pound chicken was necessary to yield an average of 3 pounds of pieces without the wings.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Butchering a whole chicken into parts isn’t hard and has many benefits to the home cook, but does take a little know-how. Use these steps to do practice this important skill.

Breaking down a chicken

1. POSITION CHICKEN
Orient bird on board breast-side up with wings away from you.

Breaking down a chicken

2. START TO REMOVE WINGS
Bend wings out from body, and use a sharp knife to cut through the skin to free the wing.

Breaking down a chicken

3. REMOVE WINGS
Use boning knife to slice between joint and breast to free wing. Repeat on other side.

Breaking down a chicken

4. RETURN TO STARTING ORIENTATION
The chicken should look like this.

Breaking down a chicken

5. CUT SKIN ON TOPS OF LEGS
Pull drumstick away from chicken and use small strokes to cut skin and loosen leg from body.

Breaking down a chicken

6. REMOVE LEGS
Bend leg quarters down to “pop” and expose joint. Maneuver tip of knife around base of joint and cut leg free. Repeat on other side.

Breaking down a chicken

7. RETURN TO STARTING ORIENTATION
The chicken should look like this.

Breaking down a chicken

8. REMOVE BACKBONE
Flip chicken breast side down with cavity facing you. Using shears, cut on both sides of backbone to remove it (and save it for stock).

Breaking down a chicken

9. FOR BREASTS WITH RIB MEAT
Orient breasts as shown.

Breaking down a chicken

10. REMOVE RIB MEAT
Use a heavy chef’s knife to cut through rib meat and remove from both sides.

Breaking down a chicken

11. CLEAN BREASTS
Orient breasts as shown.

Breaking down a chicken

12. START TO SPLIT BREASTS
Carefully cut through skin on top of center of breasts and work your knife into and through the meat.

Breaking down a chicken

13. SLICE THROUGH BREASTBONE
Using both hands on the knife, cut through the breastbone to split breasts in two.

Breaking down a chicken

14. CUT BREASTS IN TWO
Again with both hands on the knife for controlled power, cut each split breast in two.

Breaking down a chicken

15. SEPARATE DRUMSTICKS FROM THIGHS
Use a chef’s knife to cut at the seam that naturally separates the drumstick from the thigh. Repeat with other leg.

Breaking down a chicken

16. REMOVE WINGTIPS
Cut through wingtips; they can be saved (along with the backbone) for stock.

Looking for more information on working with chicken? Check out our archive of chicken-related articles.