Stories / Guides and Tips

How to Break Down a Chicken

James Beard offers a lesson in poultry anatomy

James Beard

October 16, 2018


James Beard's Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic
Photo and Food Styling: Judy Kim

In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from the pleasures of asparagus to a sandwich manifesto to a lesson in chicken anatomy, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

Beard on Food: Chicken Anatomy Lesson

I have always preferred the dark meat of chicken. In former days I would always cook chicken so the dark meat would be done to my taste (juicy, with a hint of pink) and then wonder what to do with the light meat, which was invariably overcooked. Well, chicken in parts solved my problem. I can have dark meat to my heart’s content. If I want to be very economical, I buy two or three chickens at a time, cut them up, use the dark meat for broiling, and save the light meat for chicken hash or some other dish in which texture and juiciness don’t matter that much. Sometimes I bone the breast meat, beat it flat, and treat it as I would veal cutlets.

Everyone who cooks should know how to cut up a chicken. I have discovered that very few people do know, and it’s so simple. Here is the cutting process, which needs only a little patience and a good sharp knife.

First, use your finger to locate the joints of the chicken. The major ones are at the point where the thigh joins the body and the point where the wing joins the body. There is also a joint between the leg and thigh, or drumstick and second joint; and there are two joints in the wing. To remove the leg and thigh in one good piece, cut through the skin that connects them to the body, and cut down through the flesh. You will see that the dark meat is separated from the light in this section. Then push away the leg from the body very gently until the “hip” joint appears and begins to divide. The joint can now be severed easily. Remove the other leg and thigh.

You have a choice of severing the wing at the second joint or where it joins the body. I recommend the latter. Again, cut through the skin connecting the wing to the body, and continure cutting through the flesh. Bend away the wing gently until the joint separates. Cut through the joint. Proceed to the other wing. Then cut across the chicken where the lower back and breast divide. It is easy to slice through the little rib bones, and there is just one small joint to sever. You can use poultry shears for this part of the operation. To divide the breast into halves, press it down firmly from the skin side, until you hear a crack. Turn it flesh side up. Remove the breast bone and the small piece of gristle at the end by running your finger along the flesh to loosen it from the bone.

If you are sentimental and want to preserve the wishbone at the end of the breast, you can cut off that piece at the joints, but if you are a realist, you will simply cut right through the wishbone and divide the breast into two pieces. With a sharp pair of scissors trim the rib bones off the breast. Also trim the back and break it into two pieces. In addition to the pieces you have cut, you will also have the neck, gizzard, liver, and heart.

If I were cutting up several chickens, I would use the backs and necks for a broth and freeze the breasts for poaching or for chicken cutlets. I might use the gizzards, hearts, and livers, adding extra amounts of each, for a sandwich spread. I often use the legs and thighs to prepare a startling, unusual, and delicious chicken dish. (You can, of course, buy legs and thighs alone for this recipe.)

Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic requires a 3-quart casserole with a good tight cover. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Rinse 8 to 10 chicken legs and thighs in cold water, and pat dry with paper towels. Peel 40 cloves of garlic (about 3 bulbs) and leave whole. Cut 4 stalks of celery in thin slices. Dip the chicken in olive oil to thoroughly coat each piece (you will need about 2/3 cup oil altogether) and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and a dash of nutmeg. Put the chicken in the casserole along with the residue of oil. Add the garlic, slices celery, 6 sprigs parsley, 1 tablespoon dried tarragon, and ¼ cup dry vermouth. Seal the top of the casserole with a sheet of foil. And cover tightly with the lid. Bake for 1 ½ hours. Do not remove the lid during the baking period. Serve directly from the casserole, or transfer the chicken pieces to a serving dish. With this serve hot toast or thin slices of pumpernickel. Invite your guests to spread the softened garlic on the bread. They will find that the strong flavor has disappeared, leaving a wonderful, buttery paste perfumed with garlic. Serves six to eight.

Read more essays from Beard on Food.