How to Butcher a Chicken
In this excerpt from his newest book, The 4-Hour Chef, Timothy Ferriss shares Marco Canora's sure-fire technique for carving chickens into thighs, legs, wings, and breasts
“If skill could be gained by watching, every dog would become a butcher.” —Turkish proverb
Boning knife (ideal) and/or chef's knife; 1 whole chicken
OPTIONAL MUSIC PAIRING
“Genesis” by Justice
Kingo (pronounced “KING-go”) was a one-year-old Labradoodle with black-and-white patterning, including little while boots. He looked like a tiny cow.
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He was frenetically jumping in front of me, begging for attention, so I put down my rum and Coke to play-fight. Steve Rinella was seated next to me on the couch, watching the Sportsman Channel and explaining how the Fu Manchu is the mullet of the 2010s. I gave Kingo another paw swipe, which led to wrestling, as it always does. Then I suddenly found myself giving the little 23-lb creature a deep-tissue massage. Mmm … nice backstraps, I thought (this is another name for the loin of the deer, which runs over and along the spine, above the tenderloin). Moving on, I noted that the flank wouldn't yield much, and that's when I creeped myself out. I turned to Steve: “Is it normal to start seeing backstraps in everything?”
“Oh, yeah. The same thing happens to me when I'm giving my wife a backrub.”
Once you start butchering in any capacity, your selective attention will be weird for a while. I'd broken down my first deer that afternoon, and now all I saw was cuts—shank, flank, and so on—in everything that moved.
Chronologically, killing comes before butchering, but psychologically, butching is better to learn first. It's a skill you can practice far more frequently.
With experience, butchering a chicken becomes an intuitive process. The bird's own anatomy guides you through the snaps and slices that reduce it to the familiar components. You need only your hands and a few low-finesse cuts with a chef's knife (a thin boning knife is helpful, but not necessary).
Here's how chef Marco Canora learned to carve his chickens into thighs, legs, wings, and breasts:
00: STRETCH SKIN
Marco ensures good skin coverage by pulling on the legs and pinching the breast to spread the skin downward (see pic 1A). Later, if roasting the breast skin-side down, you'll be glad there is a good spread of skin to prevent the breasts from drying out.
01: BREAK BACK
Make slanted side cuts into the skin between thigh and breast on either side with a boning knife (see pic 1B), then use a chef's knife to cut down the center toward the spine at an angle until you hit the spine (see pic 1C). Finish the job by holding the breast and the thighs in either hand and then bending the chicken open so its back snaps at a vertebra (see pic 1E). You now have two pieces of chicken: 2/3 with two thighs and two legs; 1/3 with double breast and two wings.
02: REMOVE THIGHS FROM BACK
Position the lower half of the bird with the thighs spread open and the legs toward you. Ride your boning knife into the crease at the hip and slice partway along and toward the backbone, trying to keep as much meat as possible (see pic 1F). Set aside the knife and use your hands to pop the hip toward you and expose the ball-and-socket joint. Slice the thigh away from the back completely, using the middle of the joint to guide you. Repeat on the other thigh.
03: SEPARATE DRUMSTICKS FROM THIGHS
Find the knee—the joint between the thigh and drumstick (leg). You can detect this seam by running your finger along the joint and feeling the slight gap in the bone. Use the boning knife to separate each drumstick and thigh at the sem; there should be little resistance as you slide (see pics 1G and 1H).
04: CHOP OFF KNUCKLES AND WING TIPS
Marco suggests removing the nubby ends of the legs; as the drumsticks cook, the exposed bone enhances flavor. Position the heel of the chef's knife just above the knuckle and strike the spine of the blade with the palm of your hand (see pic 2A). Repeat. Similarly, Marco recommends slicing off the mostly meatless wing tips, which are better as stock. Slice off each wing tip at the wrist joint (see pic 2B).
05: CUT OFF WINGS
As with the knee, feel out the sliceable joint between the breast and wing of the bird (the elbow). Slice through the joint and repeat on the other side (see pic 2C).
06: SEPARATE DOUBLE BREAST FROM BACK
It's time to remove the rest of the backbone. Things get more difficult here. Position the double breast so that the neck is pointing away from you, chest side up. Fully insert the chef's knife into the chest cavity and point it directly into the cutting board with the bird draped over the knife's spine. You'll be making two diagonal, internal cuts to the left and the right of the spine—Marco calls it “a leverage-snap-through-the-bone kind of scenario.” Using your off hand to hold the chicken and knife point against the cutting board (you can use a kitchen towel for safety), crunch downward through the middle of the ribs on one side of the rib cage (see pic 2D). With the knife's point still in contact with the cutting board, repeat the same crunching, downward cut on the other side of the rib cage. (If the crunch doesn't cut through the ribs, drag back with a few hard slices afterward.)
07: DISLODGE THE KEEL BONE
While you could split the breastbone in half at this point, you'd be skipping Marco's favorite step: pulling out the semisoft breastbone, or keel bone. Removing the keel bone makes it easier to serve the cooked breasts later. Turn the double breast around so that the wing nubs are nearest to you. Place the heel of your knife along one side of the keel bone and give the knife's spine a little point—light enough to cut only the semisoft edge of the keel bone, not the breast itself (see pic 2E). Make the same light cut on the other side of the keel bone. Splay the double breast open, pop the keel bone up (see pic 2F), then gradually run your thumbs under the ridge of the keel bone toward the tapered front, separating the keel bone from the breast until it can be pulled out completely (see pic 2G). Slide the double breast into two with a chef's knife by cutting through the recessed area where the keel bone was (see pic 2H).
NOTE: Directly under either side of the keel bone are the two tenderloins. In some cases, if the keel bone is removed with special care, the two tenderloins will be beautifully encased in a silver skin that keeps them attached to the breast for cooking.
Excerpted from The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life (New Harvest). Copyright © 2012 by Timothy Ferriss. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.