Food & Drink

The lost art of cutting up a chicken

BBQ Chicken Skewers make the most of bland boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
BBQ Chicken Skewers make the most of bland boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The Washington Post

You could go your whole life without cutting up a whole raw chicken. But if it’s one of your favored proteins - and America eats more chicken per person than any other nation on Earth - learning how to do so is a smack-your-forehead, no-brainer endeavor. It’s even a little empowering.

We have gotten awfully used to the convenience of buying cut-up chicken parts, which found a place in retail markets more than five decades ago. Today, two-thirds of the chicken we consume has been dismantled by someone else, and we are paying dearly for the service. Some peg the parts’ rise to our penchant for lean breast meat, while others say it’s because we shudder at the thought of carving up a pink, fleshy body.

“We are a white-meat, boneless-skinless country,” says Tom Super, senior vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council, a lobbying group with such serious intentions that it has relegated poultry recipes to its allied websites. His assessment is accurate and data- driven: We go for the wings and breasts. That means more of our dark-meat and other chicken parts are shipped abroad where they are prized, rightly so, for their flavor. One out of every five pounds of commercially raised meat chickens is exported. Sustainably savvy, but sad.

Nobody taught you. It seems intimidating. Well, you can call up one of dozens of how-to videos online, narrated by the precise language of Martha Stewart or the folksy patter of a Kraft Foods kitcheneer. Play a few in succession, and you will find the same technique, give or take an airline breast here and an order-of- business there. The moving hands use big chef’s knives or poultry shears. Step by step, one side and then the other. Still, we are not motivated. What will it take?

“We would love to know the same thing,” says Daniel Salatin. “The average American family could save thousands if they bought whole chickens and cut ‘em up themselves.”

He is operations manager for Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia, where his family and famous firebrand farmer father, Joel Salatin, run a sustainable “clean meat” enterprise. They say they sell 8,000 to 12,000 pastured chickens a year, with an eight-piece package priced at $4.65 per pound - a buck more per pound than their whole birds. But Polyface’s boneless, skinless chicken breast halves cost $14 per pound.

“We didn’t start cutting up birds until the early 2000s,” Salatin says. There was a kind of perfect storm, as he sees it: Older, thriftier generations were doing less cooking. Families decreased in size. People lost the art and had the money to have someone else do the cutting. Plus, they were told that lean chicken was a more healthful meat option than beef.

The almighty factor is, of course, convenience. But when that is compared with the combined benefits of menu versatility, stretching food dollars and the surprising ease of the divvying itself, though, DIY butchery deserves consideration. “A home cook with a family can make three meals from one whole chicken,” Salatin says. “But you’d have to know what you’re doing.”

Brian Patterson knows what he’s doing. He has broken down thousands of whole chickens. Start to finish, it takes him about two minutes. Washington-area cooks know him as the “Knife Skills Guy” at L’Academie de Cuisine, where the former restaurant chef taught culinary cuts on onions, carrots, tomatoes and mangoes in recreational classes at the school’s Maryland locations. A whole chicken was the pièce de résistance.

When his instruction moved to the school’s professional culinary program, he found that his students had no more experience cutting up whole birds than the home cooks. Teaching them that skill has almost become a mission for him. The chef is all for removing some of the distance between people and processes of modern food: “It was a critter. You get to understand the structure, which is valuable for someone who’s carving a roasted bird as well,” Patterson says.

More of his pro-cutting logic: The bird stays fresher longer when it is whole. Super of the chicken council is not so sure about that, but he does say that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service set standards for, and began sampling, raw chicken parts for pathogens such as campylobacter and salmonella only in the past few years (as of February 2016); similar standards had been in place for whole birds since 1996.

If you eliminate the stress, They Will Cut.

That’s the takeaway lesson from my hands-on experience with newsroom colleagues. Over the past four months, sessions of five mostly millennial volunteers at a time spent an hour with me after work in the WaPo Food Lab - their own knives in hand, to help familiarize the process of breaking down a bird. We made sure their tools were sharp enough for the task and not too large, because when you know how to cut up a chicken into eight or 10 pieces, you don’t need to hack through a single bone.

The anatomy of the bird, being symmetrical, gives folks an immediate opportunity to practice what they have just learned. Remove one wingette, then do it again on the other side. One leg quarter, then the other. Treasures were uncovered along the way: Chefs and informed cooks know about the bird’s two “oysters” - those dime-size disks of dark meat that sit in pockets on the underside.

Each group noted how easy the task was, and the word “empowering” was mentioned more than once. Some knew the non-meaty parts are good for making stock and that the skin can be fried into crisp, sinful snacks. I bought chickens from different vendors and stores along the way, which prompted discussions about variations in skin color and tone, size and presence of a giblets packet - the liver, heart and/or gizzard. (Large-scale processors tend to sell those off for other uses; small-scale farmers may sell them separately or upon customer request.)

The subject of whether to rinse the chicken came up often. The Food and Drug Administration says no, as splashed water can spread bacteria. I understand the impulse to wash, because birds treated with a salt-solution for packing look like they are in need of a shower. But a few minutes of verticality over the garbage can, plus a pat-down with paper towels, will make them suitable for handling.

Poultry shears work, especially when you want to spatchcock, or butterfly, a whole bird by cutting through the backbone. For cutting chicken into parts, a six-inch knife with a thin, flexible blade is preferable. But ever since I watched the famous French chef Michel Roux break down a couple of chickens using my $5 serrated paring knife, I have followed suit.

You cut through skin to expose joints, which can be bent till they pop. You can cut close to that cartilage without brute force. You also cut along some thin lines of fat, as professionals do in seam butchery. Bones lend flavor, so leaving them in will improve the taste of most cut-up parts. But once you head down this road, you can see how the meat of a chicken thigh is easily teased away from the bone with short cutting strokes, attached marginally by cartilage at the top and bottom.

Americans eat an average of 91 pounds of chicken per person per year, according to the NCC’s Super. Even if we embraced the DIY bird breakdown, would we know what to do with all of it? Isn’t just buying the bits we eat more economical in the long run than creating waste?

Again, a little education can do wonders, and looking into the chicken habits of other cultures is a fine place to start.

“As a Filipino of a certain age, I learned how to kill the chicken, bleed it and cut it up when I was growing up,” says Annie Cabayan Wilderman. As an assistant manager at Capitol Hill Poultry in Eastern Market, she sees people buying more parts than whole chickens, and she cringes at the thought of all those backs and necks going to waste: “There is no focus on how to mitigate it in this country.”

On a recent weekend afternoon, she showed me how the gizzard and other giblets can be cooked, separately, to eliminate impurities, and used as flavor and texture enhancers. Chicken feet were offered as well: “They are the tastiest! That’s why we don’t use bouillon cubes.” The giblets joined wing tips and other skin-on bony bits in a pot for a thorough saute. Then she added water, fresh ginger and a touch of seasoning blend known to Filipino cooks. Within an hour of furious bubbling, simple and inexpensive ingredients yielded an impressively chicken-y broth. Chayote, green papaya, baby bok choy and fresh pepper leaves completed the soup, which is called tinola in her native country.

The meaty parts of the chicken got a similar saute treatment, a different seasoning blend and braise. She began by using a little salt and running water - no fan of the FDA no-rinse guideline - to get rid of what she calls some “gooey” membranes between skin and flesh.

And because boneless, skinless chicken breasts offer little flavor yet sell so well, she brought along the makings for marinated chunks to be skewered and then grill-basted with a mahogany-colored ginger-soy sauce.

Surely all that food, from one whole chicken, makes learning the art of poultry butchering all the more opportune.

BBQ Chicken Skewers

9 Servings

The marinade/basting sauce turns bland chicken breast into something quite flavorful. These can be cooked on an outdoor grill as well (medium-high heat).

You’ll need to soak 8-inch bamboo skewers in water for 30 minutes before grilling.

Calamansi (calamondin) is a type of tart orange, and its juice or extract is typically available in bottled and frozen form at Filipino markets.

MAKE AHEAD: The chicken needs to marinate for at least 3 hours and up to overnight.

Adapted from Patrick and Helen Healy, owners of Pinoy Kitchens catering ( in Washington, D.C.

1 cup low-sodium soy sauce

3 tablespoons light brown sugar

1/4 cup frozen calamansi juice (see headnote; may substitute a 50-50 mix of fresh lime juice and fresh orange juice)

1/4 cup minced garlic (cloves from 1 head)

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup ketchup

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (no tenderloins), cut into large chunks

Combine the soy sauce and brown sugar in a mixing bowl, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Stir in the calamansi juice, garlic, pepper and ketchup until well incorporated. Reserve 1/4 cup of the marinade, separately, for basting; stir the oil into the 1/4 cup of reserved marinade.

Add the chicken to the mixing bowl and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to overnight.

Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Once it’s quite hot, skewer the marinated chicken pieces close together. Discard any remaining marinade in the bowl.

Place them on the grill pan and cook for 8 to 12 minutes total, turning them and basting with the reserved marinade-oil mixture every few minutes. You’re looking to achieve a rich mahogany brown and an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

Serve warm.

Annie’s Chicken Chayote Soup (Tinola)

4 to 6 servings

The less-meaty parts and odd pieces from a whole cut-up chicken make for a surprisingly flavorful soup here, in the Filipino tradition of use-it-all cooking.

If you are game, you can add chicken feet; see the VARIATION, below.

The recipe calls for fresh pepper leaves, like those from a Thai chile pepper plant, which are a little bitter; fresh spinach or watercress are suitable substitutes. It also uses a small amount of a powdered soup base mix for tinola, which is available via To make your own (without MSG), see the NOTE, below.

MAKE AHEAD: The gizzard/heart and livers can be cooked a day or two in advance and refrigerated.

From Washington resident Annie Cabayan Wilderman.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/2 small onion, cut into slivers

12 to 16 ounces skin-on chicken parts, such as wingettes, drumettes, neck, back, gizzard, heart, livers (see VARIATION)

2 1/2 cups water

One 1 1/2-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, cut into small matchsticks (julienne)

1 to 2 teaspoons powdered tinola ginger soup base, such as Mama Sita’s brand (see headnote and NOTE)

1/2 green papaya, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch-thick half-moon slices

2 chayote, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch half-moon slices (about 9 ounces each)

2 baby bok choy

2 handfuls fresh pepper leaves (may substitute baby spinach or watercress; see headnote)

Fish sauce, for serving (optional)

Combine the oil and the onion in a deep saute pan over medium heat. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion has softened, then add the chicken parts. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring a few times, to pick up a little color.

Add 1 cup of the water and ginger. Increase the heat to medium-high; cook for about 30 minutes. (During this time, you can skim any foam off the surface, but it’s not necessary.)

Taste the broth; it should be chicken-y. Stir in a teaspoon of the powdered soup base and reduce the heat to medium. Add papaya and 1 cup water; cook for 10 minutes, then add the chayote and cook for 10 minutes or until it is just crisp-tender. Taste the broth; add more of the soup base, as needed.

While the soup is cooking, trim the ends of the baby bok choy and cut lengthwise. Rinse well to remove any grit. Rinse the pepper leaves well.

Add the remaining 1/2 cup water, the baby bok choy and pepper leaves; increase the heat to medium-high and cook for 5 minutes, or just until the greens have wilted.

Serve hot, with fish sauce for passing at the table.

NOTE: To make your own spice blend for this soup, combine 1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger, 1/2 teaspoon onion powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon cane sugar in a small bowl.

VARIATION: To keep impurities out of the soup, boil the gizzard, heart and the livers separately. Place the gizzard and heart in one deep saucepan and the livers in a separate one. Fill each with 6 cups of water and add 1 teaspoon of salt in each one. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; cook the gizzard for 1 hour and the livers for 25 minutes. Drain and rinse before adding to the soup. (Cook 4 to 8 chicken feet the same way.)

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 6, using DIY soup mix and spinach leaves): 220 calories, 12 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 115 mg cholesterol, 250 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

Annie’s Chicken Stew (Caldereta)

4 to 6 servings

This is an easy and light-tasting stew, made more colorful and texturally appealing than a traditional Filipino caldereta with the addition of bell peppers. The name is derived from the Spanish word for “cauldron.”

The seasoning blend used in this recipe is a DIY version of Mama Sita’s brand Caldereta Spicy Sauce Mix. The mix is available at Filipino markets and via

Serve with jasmine or brown rice.

MAKE AHEAD: The caldereta tastes even better after a day’s refrigeration; can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. To reheat, warm in a saute pan over medium heat, add 1/2 to 3/4 cup water.

From Washington resident Annie Cabayan Wilderman.

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/2 small onion, cut into slivers

2 to 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken parts, such as drumsticks, thighs and breasts cut crosswise into 1-inch-thick pieces

3 1/2 cups water

2 teaspoons seasoning blend (see headnote and NOTE)

10 to 12 ounces small skin-on potatoes, preferably a mix of purple, red and gold, cut into halves or quarters

3 medium carrots, scrubbed well and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 cup frozen peas

1/2 medium red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 medium yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice

Combine 2 tablespoons of the oil and the onion in a deep saute pan over medium heat. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion has softened, then add the chicken parts. Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring a few times, so that the chicken browns in spots and picks up a little color. Add 1 cup of water and increase the heat to medium-high; cook for 10 minutes, then add the seasoning blend, 2 more cups of water and cook for 30 minutes, stirring a few times.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the potatoes and cook for about 25 minutes or until tender, turning the pieces occasionally so that they brown and crisp on their cut sides. Keep warm over low heat.

Reduce the heat to medium; add the remaining 1/2 cup of water to the stew and the carrots, but do not stir them in; cook for 10 minutes, then add the peas, but do not stir them in; cook for 5 minutes, then stir to incorporate.

Use a slotted spoon to add the potatoes to the chicken mixture, leaving behind the oil in their skillet and stirring them in to incorporate. Cook for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat. Add the red and yellow bell peppers, stirring gently.

Serve warm.

NOTE: To make the seasoning blend, combine 1/4 teaspoon each tomato powder, salt, onion powder, rice flour, cane sugar, garlic powder, citric acid and annatto powder.