electronic Gourmet Guide

Why Does a Chicken Cross the Road?

by Prof. Steve Holzinger


Have you ever noticed that the largest section of the meat showcase in the supermarket is the cut up chicken parts? I think that if you are going to pay the price for chicken breast, you may as well buy the whole chicken and cut it up yourself, as it won't cost any more, and takes only a few minutes, IF you know how. All you need is a good French cooks knife and a cutting board. If you haven't got a good professional knife, perhaps now is the time to read the article on knives in our archive, and think about getting one. It is easy with the right tool, and not at all easy with a small dull homestyle knife. I will show you the easy, professional way to cut up the chicken for the many recipes that call for it.

If I were lucky, everyone in my family would like legs and thighs, as in the butcher shop where I buy, they are often on sale for 39-49 cents a pound! Too bad that some of us like the white meat, but we all like chicken terriaki, and I make that from the thighs. We all like fried chicken drumsticks, so that's the way we go. Teriyaki Today, Fried Drumsticks Tomorrow! Boy, do I save money on that, and eat well into the bargain. Of course, the whole chicken gets cut up for Southern Fried Chicken with Roasted Garlic Grits, my personal favorite.

Many of my favorite chicken dishes call for a chicken to be cut up into frying pieces. A chicken has twelve pieces that way. The breasts and thighs are cut into two, making a total of 8. Two legs and two wings bring us to 12. I save the back and neck for stock.

cut chicken

I start cutting up a chicken by removing the giblets and washing it well, inside and out. As a final rinse, I use water as hot as it comes from the tap, which doesn't cook it a bit, followed by a cold rinse. (Tip: I have found that a rinse with boiling water before roasting a chicken gives a crisper skin. I think that sanitation at poultry processing plants leaves something to be desired, so I wash my chickens very well. No harm done, even if I am wrong, but I read the trade magazines, and I see that the industry sees a need to improve processing sanitation. It certainly is coming with fish and beef.

Before cutting up the chicken, make sure that your knife is sharp, and the handle clean and not slippery. Make sure that the cutting board is secure and will not slip. A damp paper towel under it will help. Position your body so that you never pull the knife through the chicken in toward your body. If your hand slips, you want the knife moving away from you! Use common sense and reasonable care and you will be perfectly safe, but do remember that you are using a formidable tool. Have respect for what it can do! As many years as I have been cooking, I still take great care using sharp tools, and take precautions not to hurt myself. Only a fool would not!

I grasp the chicken by the leg, and insert the tip of my knife at the neck bone, alongside the backbone, and pull my knife down to the rear, cutting through the ribs parallel to the spine. with the tip of my knife, I nick the white cartilage breastbone in the center, and press from below to pop it, and pull it out. Then I cut along the centerline, dividing the chicken in two.

cut chicken

I take the half that has the neck and backbone, and place the heel of my knife along the backbone, and with the heavy part of my other hand, press down on the top of the knife to cut through the bones, removing the backbone. What you want to remember is, the heel of the knife is the "power" part, and you want to place it above the heaviest part of the bone. That way when you tap or push on the top of the blade with the heel of your other hand, it will power through. This is easier to do with a heavy knife. The chicken is now in halves. This is the way I split chickens for broiling. Now I place my knife on the natural dividing line between the breast and the leg and thigh, and cut through the skin, making the chicken into quarters. Avoid cutting the tip of the breast meat. If you lift the leg, you will see a change of color and appearance of the skin between the leg and the thigh. Cut just a trifle beyond this indicator. This is where to cut to separate the leg from the thigh.

The wing works the same way. The thigh with the leg removed is triangular in shape. Place the tip of your knife on the point, with the wide base towards you. The heavy bone is therefore under the heel of your knife. with the heavy part of your other hand press or tap on the top of the blade and it will go right through. The wing is removed from the breast in the same way as the leg from the thigh. The breast is cut in two by a cut parallel to the cut that removes the wing, but closer to the wing than the centerline, as the breast is thicker towards the wing. Use the same technique of positioning the heel of the knife over the heaviest part of the bone and tapping or pushing the top of the blade. NEVER use the knife as though it is a cleaver to chop with. Most people don't have good enough control of the knife to do this. Using a cleaver is a whole other technique that must be learned with great care. I cannot stress this enough. It is the chicken you want to cut!

So now you have cut a chicken into 12 parts! It was easy, and next time it will be much quicker. Now you can make Southern Fried Chicken, that is if you have a heavy pan with a cover. The old cast iron Wagner Ware skillets were my choice for years, until my Dad gave me a thick oval aluminum covered roaster pan. What you need is a pan that will spread the heat evenly. Boy am I going to get hate mail from the healthy eating crowd, but lard is the fat you want for Southern Fried to taste just right! I like peanut oil too, and which ever you use, a quarter inch in the bottom of the pan at medium heat is what you want. Let the fat get fully heated before adding the chicken, or it will stick, but remember fat must never smoke. Put some flour, salt and pepper (I like lots of freshly ground black pepper with a little hot shot of cayenne) in a brown paper bag, and shake the chicken well to coat it with flour. For extra crispy, I add cornmeal flour, like the Goya corn meal which is extra fine. You can toss in any spices that suit your fancy.

Lately, I've been cutting back on the salt and adding those powdered vegetable spices that are called salt substitutes. Chef Paul makes a great line of seasonings as well. Start the chicken skin side down, and don't rush it, let it get nice and brown on medium heat. Then turn it over and put the lid on for an equal time, about 10 minutes. with the lid on, the chicken fries and steams. Take care to lift the lid away from you so that the steam doesn't scald you. Now turn the chicken again to crisp the skin. Drain the chicken well on brown paper bags or paper towels, as you never want to serve greasy fried chicken. Hush puppies go so well with it, as do grits, especially garlic flavored ones. I smash the garlic with a pot, oil it lightly, and oven roast it till it is soft, and smoosh it out of its paper, and mash it in a pot with some butter, and then cook the grits on top of it. OOOhhheeeee! My son loves this.

My wife has more classical tastes. She loves a good chicken stew in brown sauce. chicken pot Chicken Chasseur is her favorite. Chasseur means Hunter, and this method was used to cook badly shot game, or tough old birds. If a bird is shot too close, the shot tears it up, or sometimes a piece of shot gets here or there in a bird. So you have to cut up the bird, trim off the raggedy or bloody parts and remove any shot. Then the cut up parts are sauté in a pan, floured or not, and then removed. Shallots and mushrooms are cooked in the fat, and if the bird was not floured, some flour is added and cooked to make a brown roux in the pan. Excess fat is poured off, and tomatoes are cooked with the mushrooms and shallots to give the sauce a rich warm color. Then Brandy and White Wine are added, and brown stock. The whole is simmered slowly, covered. Often the pot would sit on the back of the range all day at a very slow simmer, and the bird would become spoon tender. Of course, the rich brown gravy is the best part, so you want your favorite starch along to soak up the flavor of the gravy. Cacciatore is Italian for Hunter, and not surprisingly, chicken Cacciatore is made on a similar pattern, using onions and garlic, and more tomatoes the further south in Italy you go. Again, the chicken is cooked until it falls off the bone, and the starch is most often pasta.

Please don't think you have heard the last of chicken and chicken butchery. We need to learn to take the supremes, to bone a leg to make a ballotine, and to completely bone a chicken...


Steve's Chicken Recipes


© 1996, Steve K. Holzinger. All rights reserved.

This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.

Copyright © 2007, Forkmedia LLC. All rights reserved.


This page modified March 2007