Deboning Chicken, Turkey or Duck (turducken!) - How to Debone and Break Down Poultry

Another Turducken - just bcause they're things of beauty.
Another Turducken - just bcause they're things of beauty. | Source

Equipment

I love that this whole process needs nothing more than a wicked sharp chef's knife and a good cutting board. A good paring knife is really useful, as is a good pair of kitchen shears, but not necessary. Just make sure your blades are sharp, and your work surfaces perfectly clean, and you're good to go!

Interior view of a Turducken - turkey stuffed with duck stuffed with chicken - all of which were deboned competley.
Interior view of a Turducken - turkey stuffed with duck stuffed with chicken - all of which were deboned competley. | Source

Why do it yourself?

There are many reasons to learn how to debone a chicken - but in my own head it comes down to two that really matter. The first is flexibility - who cares which cuts are available in the grocery on any given day? I can simply produce whatever I like, whenever I like. More techniques open up to me - I can spatchcock a bird at will (how often do you get to use a rockin' work like spatchcock in conversation). I can remove part of the breast and backbone and stuff an entire bird before roasting. I can cut the entire thing for the best fried chicken ever. And the real reason I learned how to debone an entire chicken - I can custom cut my own to layer into a Turducken.

The second reason is purely economical. Whole chickens can frequently be found for well under $1.00 per pound - and if you shop sales carefully you can find them in my region for as little as $.59 a pound on occasion. Compare that with the $4.99 boneless, skinless tenders I saw yesterday, and the math is gorgeous. When the deep sales happen I buy as many as my freezer will hold. I've had people argue that they don't want to pay for the skin or bones - but that argument just doesn't hold water. Those skin and bones make for amazing homemade chicken stock - and it means that not one shred of any bird goes to waste. Indeed, with chicken broth selling for over $1.00 for a 12 ounce can, I'll use any extra parts I can.

On top of that - it's easy. I will admit the first time or two you do it, you'll probably wrestle a bit with it. You're pieces probably won't look pristine like the packaged, pre cut pieces at the store. This is definitely one of those things you just need to do a time or two. But you'll find yourself pretty proficient in no time - I got pretty good by my third or fourth bird, and can knock them out in under five minutes now with no trouble. And just plan on using the first bird or two you practice on in something that doesn't require beauty - chicken pot pie or chicken and dumplings are perfect!

Besides that - it's a pretty impressive thing to pull off in front of people. Want to impress someone? Pull this tricky little maneuver and they'll think you're a culinary rockstar. Which you will be. And if you want to produce one of the ultimate "ta-da" dishes of all time - the sublime Turducken - you'll need this handy little skill. So give it a try. Make a couple of practice runs, and before you know it, you'll be a master. Trust me.

Yeild from breaking down a chicken.
Yeild from breaking down a chicken. | Source

Cost Breakdown on a Breakdown

Think about this for a moment. Let's say you feed a family of 4-6. (Depends as well on if you feed adults, toddlers or teenagers). Purchase five-five pound birds at $.89 a pound - a pretty fair price around here. Breakdown all four chickens. You'll end up with 10 each legs, wings, breasts and thighs. From this you can also stash 10 chicken tenders. I'd use the following:

  1. Meal #1 using the ten legs. Grilled, baked, fried or smoked.
  2. Meal #2 using the ten thighs, use them in stir fries or braised off for a stew. Simmer the meat and use it in salad or in a soup or casserole.
  3. Meals #3, 4, 5 and 6 using the chicken breasts - if you cut each piece of breast in half, and pound it into a cutlet, you've got a very reasonable serving size with the 'premium' meat. This is a fabulous way to stretch a high quality protein, yet your diners will feel as though they've gotten a very fair sized portion. It's my favorite way to 'increase' white chicken meat. Sauté, pan fry or grill it and you're good to go.

Also - you still have a stash of ten tenders and ten wings. In this case I freeze both until I've done the second set of five chickens (I find they're easiest to do assembly line style). I then have enough of either for an additional meal from each the tenders and the wings.

You'll also have enough bones and trimmings to make at least three quarts of great chicken broth with the addition of about $2 in vegetables, herbs and spices.

So - cost of chicken - $22.25

Cost of stock ingredients - $2

Total cost in - $24.25 (and whatever your taxes are). The yield? High quality protein for six and a half meals, plus three quarts of stock, which would be about $10 if store bought (and nowhere near as delicious). (Call it seven meals with the stock and extra tenders and wings).You've gotten in return meals that break down to $3.46 each. Compare that to the boneless, skinless chicken breasts at $3.99 a pound, or even the skinless chicken thighs at $2.49 a pound, when each meal would run $5.98 to $7.98 and the savings are HUGE!

Separating the thigh and leg in breaking down a bird.
Separating the thigh and leg in breaking down a bird. | Source
You can further debone chicken legs if you wish.
You can further debone chicken legs if you wish. | Source
The backbone cut.
The backbone cut. | Source

Spatchcocking? Is that legal?

Spatchcock may be my favorite word. It just sounds awesome. It also sounds as though you've done something mysterious, possibly involving incantations, when all you've done is butterfly something. It's usually used to refer to poultry that has been partially, but not entirely deboned.

In spatchcocking a bird, simply remove the backbone so that the bird can be opened. This allows for a more even surface area, which leads to more even cooking. It' especially effective on the grill and smoker. If grilling, cover the bird with a heavy baking sheet, on which you place a couple of bricks - or anything of similar heft. Cast iron skillets also work well.

Alan Davidson explains in The Oxford Companion to Food: "The theory is that the word is an abbreviation of 'dispatch the cock,'. So it sounds awesome, it's effective, and best of all - leads to deliciousness.

A spatchcocked bird - in this case a turkey grilled without weights.
A spatchcocked bird - in this case a turkey grilled without weights. | Source
Exposing the backbone.
Exposing the backbone. | Source

Breaking down a bird

Often when people talk about deboning poultry, what they really mean is to break it down. All this means is taking the entire chicken or turkey, and turning it into it's various parts and pieces. You aren't removing the bones from the individual parts, just turning the whole bird into more manageable pieces. All will have their bones and wings still attached, you'll just then have something more resembling the pieces typically sold under "fryer, cut up". This is the simplest thing to do, and might be a good practice the first time or two. You'll learn where the various bones and joints are located. To break down a bird all you need to do is this:

  1. Put your chicken, breast side up on the cutting board. You'll remove the wing tips first. Find the wing joint and remove the tips - those go into your baggie of bits and bobs from which you'll make stock later.
  2. If using a paring knife, run the tip down the side of the leg where it attaches to the back. This exposes the joint. Pull the leg backwards until you hear a pop - this means you've broken the leg joint. You can know run the knife into the joint in order to separate the leg. You may find it necessary to run the tip of your knife into the joint to separate the tendon - it's the tendon that's the hardest to cut, not the bones at this point. Once the tendon is cut the leg will cut right off. If you wish, you can cut the meat off the bone at this point, or leave it whole, depending on how you intend to cook it. Repeat with the other leg.
  3. Turn the chicken around so that one of the wings is facing you. With your fingertips, find the breastbone in the center. Using short, shallow cuts, follow the length of the breastbone until you've separated the top portion and begun to expose the ribs. Repeat on the other side of the breastbone.
  4. If you have kitchen shears you can use them now to cut along the breastbone where you've exposed the ribs. You can remove the breastbone in a whole piece. Pop that in your baggie with the wing times.
  5. Turn the bird over and repeat the process you used with the breastbone, just do it for the backbone. The back also goes into the stock baggie - those are prime stock ingredients - don't throw them out!
  6. You now have two large pieces with the thighs and wings attached. You're almost done! Turn one half, wing side up, and make a shallow cut in the skin to expose the wing joint. Bend the wing backwards until you hear the pop, then work the tip of your knife into the joint to separate it as you did the legs. Repeat with the other side.
  7. Repeat the same procedure with the thighs - these can be a bit trickier, so take a minute to examine both sides to see where the joint is. Again - there's a major tendon in there that will be far easier to deal with if you can cut that. The joint itself should separate easily with a single cut once that tendon is severed. Repeat again.
  8. You know have eight pieces of chicken - two each breasts, legs, wings and thighs. You can do all kinds of things now. The thigh bone is easy to remove from the meat with a single cut or two - simply fold the meat back a bit, pushing the bone forward, and you'll easily see how to remove the one bone. You can also remove the skin with just a slice or two to separate the membrane holding it to the meat. Or leave it whole - cooking poultry with the bones means more flavorful finished dishes.
  9. For the breast halves you can do a couple of things. The skin comes off easily. But if you turn it on it's side you'll be able to make short, shallow cuts that will remove the meat from the ribs in one large piece. Once that's done you can even separate the 'tenderloin' or 'tender' from the main piece of breast meat. I often keep a heavy duty plastic bag in the freezer and toss the tenders in there until I have a nice stash. They make perfect chicken fingers or can quickly grill to top a nice big salad.

Ok - that's breaking down a whole chicken. Once you've done it a time or two you'll find you can do it in just a few minutes. And you have the bonus tenders, as well as a nice start on some amazing homemade chicken stock, which in my opinion is one of the things that should be in every great cook's arsenal. Super simple! But - there's another technique that will really increase your versatility. And that's deboning an entire chicken.

Removing the backbone
Removing the backbone | Source
This chickenn has been completely deboned, then filled with something fabulous, and is now ready to seal up and roast.
This chickenn has been completely deboned, then filled with something fabulous, and is now ready to seal up and roast. | Source
Removing the thigh bone.
Removing the thigh bone. | Source
Seperating the wing and thigh joints.
Seperating the wing and thigh joints. | Source
Turkey that's been boned to use in a Turducken, and stuffed. This one is ready to roll and seal for cooking.
Turkey that's been boned to use in a Turducken, and stuffed. This one is ready to roll and seal for cooking. | Source

Deboning the Whole Bird

I've tried several methods to do this, and finally reverted to the absolute classics. Julia Child and Jacques Pepin first published these way back in the 60's and 70's and I don't think there's a better way to do it. This is really when you'll probably butcher (and not in a good way) the bird the first time you try it - I did! But maybe not I happen to be a particularly skilled klutz - and I pulled it off pretty well on my second try!

This is also what will allow you to accomplish everything from the most luscious, crispy grilled chicken in the world, to a gorgeously stuffed and rolled roasted bird - to the interior layer of the Almighty Turducken. This is one of those kitchen skills that is just plain basic and useful. Well worth the time and bit of trouble to learn it. The payoff is magnificent! Here's how:

  1. With the bird on the cutting board lift the skin around the neck. Using a paring knife, separate the wishbone, and pull the wishbone out.
  2. Turn the bird upside down, and make a long cut down each side of the backbone, exposing the bone. If you have heavy kitchen shears, you can then cut the backbone out, following the lines where you exposed the bone. If not, use the tip of your knife to cut evenly along the length of both sides of the backbone, cutting the meat away from the bone.
  3. Now cut the tendons connecting the wings and and legs. You can now pull away the bones from the carcass in one piece - or two if you already pulled the backbone.
  4. The one part I think is tricky is next. Cut the skin at the end of the drumstick, then lift the thigh, and cut to separate the meat from the bone, pushing the meat back as you do.
  5. Now - you can remove the 'tenders' or filets in one piece. Use these to fill in any places on the breast where you may have ended up with skin and no meat under it. This keeps all the skin covered with meat in a nice, even layer.
  6. Almost done! Cut off the wing tips - add the tips to the bones. These help make your awesome soup stock. From the inside (meat side) cut all around the wing bones, and remove them.

Now you've got several options - Pepin recommended placing the chicken, skin side down on a cutting board, covering it with plastic wrap and pounding it to an even thickness. This is certainly a very classic French technique. In America though - if you want Culinary Fame Far and Wide, pop it skin side down on a medium hot grill, covered with a baking sheet on which you've placed several bricks. Amazingly crispy skin and juicy succulence inside. Wow.

And if you want to achieve culinary immortality - assemble a Turducken. De bone completely a chicken, and a duck - they all have the same pieces and parts, so it's the same method. Debone a very large turkey up until the point where you'd remove the legs, thighs and wings. Leave those intact. Lay the turkey out, breast side down, and add a layer of stuffing if you wish. Add the duck and repeat the stuffing. Finally, add the chicken with a final bit of stuffing. You have a triple layer bird.

Call in an extra pair of hands - it makes a huge difference. Because you're now going to pull the turkey together, enclosing the other elements. So you'll have a turkey stuffed with duck stuffed with chicken. The second pair of hands comes into play now - because you will need to do one of two things. You'll either need to truss the turkey very well with butcher's twine, or (my preferred method) stitch the opening where the backbone was closed, using kitchen string and a large upholstery needle. The result, when you turn it over, is a turkey that looks like any other, but contains deliciousness beyond belief!

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