By Chef Julie Wilson
Welcome to September! A confusing time in New England – sometimes it’s as hot as mid July, and sometimes you feel autumn creeping in. We haven’t quite made it to the change of seasons yet, but we’re ready. While most people think of going to school or making homemade apple pies during this time, we like to think a little bit outside the box… we’re thinking about chicken. Yes, that’s right. It’s National Chicken month, folks. Time to learn all about our feathered friends.
Like some of you out there, I am a pastry person. Give me a cake, cookie, or pie recipe and I know what to do. But butchering an animal isn’t exactly my forte. Unfortunately, you can’t live on pastry alone, believe me, I would. We also need sustenance from the savory side. As a meat-eater I regularly consume chicken. It’s one of the most popular proteins on the market because of its versatility and high protein count. A combo of the utmost importance in my opinion. So, what does it take to say goodbye to the packaged cuts of meat in the supermarket and hello to butchering a chicken at home? Well, in my case, Chef Colby.
I was intimidated by the idea of cutting up this beautiful bird. What if I mess up? Where do I begin? I don’t want to be covered in chicken juice! Well, I think a lot of people have these fears, otherwise we’d all be skillfully hacking away in our kitchens. But as Chef Colby said “this will be better than you think”. And it was. Granted, he made it look easy, but he also gave me a great starting point for when I try this on my own.
Before we start, let’s do a virtual mise en place… what exactly do we need?
A boning knife like Chef Colby was using would make the process much easier. He was using a “simple boning knife… Western-style boning knife.” It’s blade extended down to the handle and it was “rounded to match the bones, so when you scrap it, you get all the meat off.’ Additionally, you’ll need a cutting board, a pair of gloves, a dry towel, and about 5 bowels to separate your chicken cuts into as you go to keep things organized.
Now that we’re ready, let’s talk about fat. Chef Colby made some very emphatic points, saying that “The fat on a chicken is a gift from God.” He went on to say much more about this “gift”.
“You don’t pull it off or get rid of it, you use that fat, always, because it’s going to come off in the cooking process. Similar to visceral fat. Lower melting point, keeps everything moist and super flavorful. It’s all going to melt right off in the cooking process and keep things beautiful. You never EVER want to get rid of it because fat is your friend. Especial on something so lean as a chicken.”
It looks like we’ll need to keep the fat on if we want to achieve chicken-cooking greatness. And we do.
Time to get down to business. To begin, we put on our gloves and put our chicken on a cutting board. Then we made sure it was as dry as it could be.
Watch the full raw video of our Informal butchering lesson!
“I always make sure my chickens are very, very dry before I work with them in any way, shape, or form. That is to keep it from slipping, from getting contamination in other places, all that good stuff. The dryer the better, that goes for all your proteins, but especially with chicken.”
Another helpful hint Chef Colby shared was…
“Never ever rinse your proteins. Never rinse it. All it does it just spread contamination into your sink, which is unnecessary.”
Seems like a pretty sold start to me. Once we dried off the chicken using a towel, we moved onto something more strategic – where to cut.
“Think valleys, always think valleys. Where it comes down and meets is a joint. Anytime you have a joint that’s where the knife is gonna go! You’ve got to put it there because it would be a million times more impossible to put it through the actual bone itself. So why do that to yourself. You find where it is, and use the mechanics of the bird.”
It’s a logic-based cutting system! This give us novices a way to think about the overall process in a methodical way. If you have a baking brain, you’re usually going to want some guidelines to go by… cut at the joints is a great one. Write that down!
Before we jumped right into this basic method, we talked about some other ways to butcher the bird.
“We could spatchcock it, which means take out the spine, spread it open, take out the keel bone/breast bone, and I usually leave the ribs on, they help protect the meat from drying out. Grill it; it will cook exponentially faster. Thighs and breasts will cook at the same time. So much faster and more even. There’s more contact with the bird, so more flavor coming into it.”
Another popular way would be to…
“Truss your chicken if you’re roasting it whole. Which means to tie it up very nicely and to basically bring the legs together with a string and push the legs into the breast creating a more compact [chicken], which will allow it to cook more evenly. Cooking evenly basically gives you more control.”
We did neither of these ways, but a more traditional way by starting with the wings tips first. As it turns out, they aren’t good for much else other than stock!
“They always come off. They are nothing but a flavor enhancer for a stock or a court bouillon or something where you’re just trying to flavor. They’re useless except for stock because there’s no meat on them. They are attacked to the flats and then the drumettes, which basically make up the whole wing itself.”
Sometimes you have to drop the deadweight. See ya later wing tips! We then moved onto the meat of the issue.
“So what I’m going to do today is I’m going to take off the wings first. I like to do it this way just because if you pull these wings you can see how the skin in the armpit there is nice and taught, nice and strong. That’s an indicator that I can put my knife right there; it’s a visual cue. And then, what’s going to happen is the bone is going to stop me. And now this is a ball and socket joint, so now I can open it up and you can see where the ball and socket go, which means that all i need to to do is put my knife in cut it down. And then I’m going to cut away from the breast.”
Another great indicator if we’re doing this correctly – visual cues! Never enter into a cooking endeavor without using all your senses. Sure, you’re following a master chef at work, but you have to think and feel and see on your own because every protein is a little bit different.
Once we removed the wings, by skillfully cutting down through the arm joints and away from the breast, we moved onto the legs, which were a bit more complex. We flipped the chicken onto it’s back and continued on.
“In the thigh area you can see where the chicken breasts are and you can see the thighs. They are not attached by any muscles. So what you do, is you find this loose skin and make a simple incision. Now we can just go in open it up [with our hands]. We find where we popped it [ball and socket bone joint] earlier. There’s the thigh, but we can see the meat of the thigh and we can feel it next to the bone back here. We are going to simply just use our knife to cut that thigh right off the bone, but you want to be careful and get the oyster [on the other side of the chicken you can feel it]. An extra little bit it’s nice. Basically you’re just staying where the cartilage and the soft meat of the animal is.”
We’re using the bones as an outline, as well as our previously discussed senses. You can’t be afraid to really go for it. I think it also helped Chef Colby was wearing gloves. That gave him the freedom to use his hands without worry of one of my aforementioned dislikes – chicken juice.
We weren’t done with the legs just yet. It was time to separate them into drumsticks and thighs.
“Excess fat and skin – we can just trim off. I like to keep as much skin on at all times because skin equates flavor which equates crispiness which equates beauty. We’re always looking for visual cues. They teach us where to put the knife.”
Continuing to talk about the visual cues, we spoke about the color of the drumstick to help us know where to cut.
“Bitonal, the apex of the perfect round cartoon drumstick is going to be right where those two [tones] meet. If you feel there with your finger, you can feel where the joint is. You just bring your knife in and you cut right down. Simple. Easy through.”
Now that we had a “perfect cartoon” drumstick, we needed to de-bone the thighs.
“Bone in skin-on thighs. [You] can an simply enough remove the skin from the thigh by tearing it off with your hand. Notice where the ball joint is, I simply cut right next to the bone and use my fingers to kind of open it up and just pull the meat away from the bone, just a little bit. Get it as far away from the bone as possible. Pull it. Cut off any excess cartilage. Now I have boneless skinless thighs.”
At this point, we’ve come to the main event. The body of the chicken, which includes the breasts and tenders.
“I’m feeling for the keel bone and go to the left of it. I’m just going to go straight down. Knowing the anatomy of the bird is crucial because you need to know that the keel bone is like a lamp. it juts out. Cut straight down until you hit the part that juts out in the belly there.. I left the wishbone in. Follow the wishbone straight down, which is a good technique when your first starting butchery – it will help guide you. Cut down and stay on the ribs until I’m through. “Flip it over and pull off the tender. Other side. Final side. Do the same thing. “
And suddenly we were done. I was struck by just how quickly he was able to get through this task. It helps that he’a a butcher and Chef, but he made me think I could give it a try. Of course I would need just a little more time… double the time really. But I left this educational interaction feeling fully informed and ready to give it a go. I was fortunate enough to watch Chef Colby do this in person. If you’d like the same opportunity PLUS a hands-on experience, join us for the next chicken butchery class taught by the one and only Chef Colby. Check out our class calendar for more info. I could still use some practice myself… maybe I’ll see you there!
Chef Colby Bergeron