There was a time, little children, when chickens were only available in their entirety – heads, feathers, feet, and all. They were never sold in a red-and-white striped box already cooked; you had to dispatch the bird (or have the butcher do that for you), take off its little chicken’s suit and cook it yourself. Then grocers started being competitive with each other and somebody started offering de-feathered birds, and then someone else started removing the feet, and pretty soon you could buy a whole chicken without any of that stuff. But that was as far as it went for many years.
When I was a wee tot – and dear knows that was back in the Dark Ages – chickens were only available as whole-body. Parts were not for sale separately unless they were special-ordered way ahead of time. And that was when chicken was expensive. This might come as a shock, but veal was cheaper than chicken. S’truth. There was a popular recipe called Veal Birds – veal disguised to make it look like the more expensive and therefore desirable chicken. Now we have recipes for Chicken Piccata – chicken prepared in a recipe traditionally made with veal.
And then growing methods changed. By the 1950s, it was possible to raise a chicken to market weight in 1/3 the time it had fifty years before. Unless you buy free-range chicken, that fryer in the plastic wrap was raised in a highly efficient “intensive” factory setting with genetic selection and nutritional modifications for rapid development. The discussion of ethics and morality of that are for another time and place, but the result for consumers was that supermarket chicken plummeted in price and skyrocketed in availability.
Coincidentally, American interest in cooking began to grow at the same time that chicken prices fell and availability rose. It became very profitable for growers to offer chicken parts, such as a tray of legs or wings, and mark those up considerably per pound from a whole-body chicken. The wings in particular are a moneymaker, especially in the winter when they’re often consumed on Sunday afternoons in front of a TV turned to sports. When you think about how little meat is on a chicken wing, you realize that chicken growers are laughing all the way to the bank.
Which is why it’s a good thing to know how to cut up a chicken. Back in the 1930s my father worked at a chicken processing plant. As a result, he could cut up a whole chicken in – I am not exaggerating – twenty seconds. I asked him once to show me how. He whipped out a knife and went whappity whappity chop chop chop and suddenly the whole chicken had been reduced to a neat pile of parts. Obviously I didn’t learn much from that. I tried going by the drawings in cookbooks, which bore about as much resemblance to an actual chicken as a Barbie doll does to actual female anatomy. It was many years before I taught myself how, leaving a lot of badly mangled chicken parts in my wake.
I’m not going to claim that this is the approved technique used by fine chefs and cooking authorities the world over. This method ignores completely, for instance, the “Airline cut,” an oddity I first encountered in England – a boneless chicken breast with the first joint of the wing attached. It looks like something went terribly wrong in surgery. And I have no interest in making boneless, skinless chicken breasts – to me, it’s the blandest part of the chicken and I don’t see any point in glamorizing it.
But I am going to claim that big money can be saved by buying whole chickens and cutting them up yourself. Looking at a Safeway advertisement online today, whole chickens cost 99 cents a pound, while drumsticks/breasts/thigh packs are $1.99/pound. Getting even more ridiculous, boneless skinless chicken breasts range from $4.49 to $5.49 per pound. That’s just insane. The more work that’s done for you, the more you pay. Sometimes it’s worth it to have someone do work for you, but I say not in this instance.
You won’t do this perfectly the first time, so practice on a chicken that you’re going to make into soup or chicken salad, something where looks won’t matter.
Beware: full frontal nudity and violence ahead.
You are going to need a decent knife for this. I don’t mean a steak knife or paring knife. You need a chef’s knife (at least 9″) or better yet, a cleaver. You can get a decent cleaver for around $20. Chinese gift shops, hardware stores, and cooking stores have them, though you’ll pay more at cooking stores. This is not a toy: you can do some serious damage with this baby, so don’t just hack down without making sure your fingers are out of the way. That said, don’t be afraid, either. Keep your hands and the handle clean and as dry and grease-free as possible.
Below is a whole chicken, breast side up. I say this because some people don’t know which side is which. The breast is the soft, fleshy, breast-y side. The back is the bony side. She’s rather flagrantly flaunting herself here, the saucy minx.
The first thing you do is remove the giblets from the cavity. If the chicken is still icy inside, you may have to run water into the cavity to loosen them.
Not all chickens will have all the parts listed. Once in a while you get a chicken with nothing inside,or you might get one with two livers. Sometimes they’re packaged in a little bag, sometimes not. Depends on what happened when the chicken went through the assembly line (those organs are not the ones belonging to the chicken herself but to her chicken buddies who also met their fate that day).
The neck is the bony part. The heart is small, firm, oval, and looks not unlike a human heart (sorry if that freaks you out). The liver is soft and floppy and will be the largest part. Sometimes it has a lot of green color, in which case, throw it away. That means the bile duct ruptured and bile spilled into it. Bile is about the bitterest taste you can imagine and will ruin anything it touches. If the chicken liver is yellowish, that’s OK; it will be extra-rich. The gizzard is a double-lobed butterfly-shaped organ that is very tough. Set all of these aside.
[Side story: in 1980 my mother was working on Thanksgiving Day, and my brother and I were in charge of making dinner. We found the neck in the body cavity, but the giblets were missing, so we went ahead and roasted the turkey. When my mother got home, we told her that turkey didn't have any giblets. She gave us a withering look and said, "You dumb kids," reached into the neck cavity, and pulled out a small bag of now-roasted giblets.]
First remove the wings:
Flip the chicken over so it’s breast-side-down. Pull the wing away from the body so that you can probe into the joint with the tip of the cleaver, slicing the skin so you can see what you’re doing.
Repeat on the other side of the chicken. Set wings aside.
Now remove the legs and thighs:
Turn the chicken on its back so the breast is up. Pull the leg away from the body and again use the cleaver to slice through the skin so you can see what you’re doing.
As you pull the leg and slice the skin, the thigh will be exposed.
When the thigh starts to come away from the body, pull it to the side away from the chicken body (not up, and not toward you) and continue to probe with the cleaver. The thigh socket will be exposed. You want to cut into the far side of the socket joint (that is, the side closest to the chicken) because that is a LOT easier than cutting through the thigh bone.
You now have a thigh-leg piece. If you wish, you can leave it as is and cook it that way, but if you want to separate them:
Now you have the thigh and the leg pieces. Repeat on the other side of the chicken. Set those parts aside with the wings.
If your cutting surface is getting greasy, you might want to mop up some of the grease and wash your hands and the cleaver handle too. Once everything you’re working with gets greasy, it’s easy to slip and cut wrong, or worse, cut yourself.
Now you’re going to split the breast:
This looks scarier than it is. What’s the worst that could happen? It takes a little muscle to push the cleaver into the breast, but have faith and keep a steady hand. You’ll hear some cracking as the bones split.
Pull the split breast apart to reveal the interior cavity.
Flip the chicken over. This is what you have:
Now cut and separate the breasts from the back. This is pretty easy cutting.
Now you have two half-breasts, the back, and the pope’s nose.
You can leave the breasts as is, or cut them in half again.
So now you have something that looks like this:
You have now cut up a whole chicken.
Some people cook the back and pope’s nose along with the other meatier parts, but I put them ( along with the neck & organs) in a bag in the freezer. When I collect about 5-6 pounds worth, I simmer them with an onion, a couple of carrots & celery stalks, peppercorns, white wine, and water to cover to make chicken stock. If you like chicken livers or making pâté, collect those in a small freezer container until you have enough for your purpose.
And sometimes I just simmer the heart, gizzard, and liver until they’re tender and cooked all the way through, cut them into small pieces, and give them to the cats.