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Thursday, June 5, 2014

How to cut up a whole, roasted chicken

Beautiful platter of chicken pieces, isn't it? I roast whole chickens every few weeks, and use this method to cut the whole chicken into serving pieces.

So, on facebook the other week, we had a conversation about preparing a "company" dinner with what was in the kitchen already. For me, that meant using a whole chicken for the main course. (Great sale a couple of months ago on whole chickens.)

Many of us buy whole chickens, as this can be the least expensive way to buy chicken (aside from occasionally finding a great deal on chicken leg quarters). How to make a whole, roasted chicken presentable for guests, is the challenge.

There's always carving a chicken in the same way that you carve a turkey, taking slices off the bone. But I prefer to use this method of cutting a whole chicken into serving pieces. It just looks tidier upon serving.

I saw this done on a cooking show a while back. And I thought to myself, "hmm, that looks easy enough. Surely I could do this." And it is. I've been cutting up our whole chickens this way ever since, and been delighted with how neat it looks, as well as how much more chicken meat I'm able to use. (I wasn't getting the bones picked completely clean before, when I was making soup from the entire carcass.)

This is most easily done with a freshly oven-roasted or outdoor-grilled whole chicken, as the joints are loose and allow for easy positioning to make the cuts and breaks. But you can also do this with a rotisserie chicken, using a sharp, heavy knife and just a little more upper arm strength.

The cooking show, where I saw this done, cut the whole chicken into 4 large serving pieces. I found, for our family, that cutting this into 8 smaller serving pieces worked better. I'll show you both ways. Either way, you end up with the back section for soup scraps.

Cutting into 8 portions is ideal for families with small children, who can't eat the larger pieces, or, for individuals who would like a variety of meat at one meal, or, like for us, just don't want a huge amount of meat at any one meal. (Whole chickens seem to have gotten larger over the years.)

I'm not overly skilled with this, yet it only takes me about 10 minutes, total, to cut a whole, roasted chicken into serving pieces. And I don't need any special tools, but a chef's knife and cutting board. No poultry shears or any other cutting equipment. Here it is.

How to cut up a whole, roasted chicken for serving

After roasting, remove the chicken from the oven, and tent with foil. Allow to rest for 20-25 minutes. Don't rush it. Your work will be that much harder if you try to cut it up fresh out of the oven. A hot bird is more difficult to handle.

Step 1:  Cutting the leg/thigh portions off the chicken

cutting through the skin at the place where leg is attached to the body

Move chicken to a cutting surface. Using a heavy, chef's knife, cut the chicken in the joint-space between the leg and lower portion of the breast. This is a natural breaking point in the bird.

pressing the leg quarter out and down to cut it away from the bird easier

Cut the skin, press the leg out and down, and cut at the joint between thigh and body. Cut close to the bird, removing the entire thigh, along with the drumstick. Do this on both sides, and set leg quarters aside.

Step 2:  Cutting the back off the body

making that cut just below the wing

Now, set the bird on its side, so that the breast faces to one side, and the back to the other. Just below the point where the wing attaches to the breast, begin cutting the back away.

cutting the breast away from the back

Turn the bird over, and make the corresponding cut on the other side, just below the wing. You'll leave the breast portions completely intact. Set the back pieces aside for soup-making.

the entire breast without the back

Rest the breast portion on the cutting board, without the back attached. Trim off any extra skin and fat.

Step 3:  Cutting the breast into two halves

splitting the breast into halves

Place the double-breast on the cutting board, skin side up. With chefs knife, begin cutting the breast into two portions at the top, along the center breast bone. You'll have to break/cut the wishbone. Press down on the breast as you cut the whole in half.

the split breast with large breast bone to be removed

As you reach the end of the breast nearest the cavity, you should be able to wiggle the large part of the breast bone and cartilage right out of the chicken. Pull this out carefully and set aside with back pieces.

the "extra" bits -- meat and bones for making soup

Finishing cutting the breast into two parts. Pull out any loose bones on the underside, as desired. You should be able to pull most of the rib cage out from the underside. (There may be a small bone or two remaining in the breast after you finish.)

4 large portions, 2 leg quarters and 2 breasts

You now have 4 large serving portions, two leg quarters and two breast portions. For large eaters, this may be just right. For moderate appetites, or when wanting to give the option of different types of meat to your diners, you can cut these 4 pieces in halves, resulting in 8 smaller serving pieces.

Step 4:  Turning 4 pieces into 8 servings

leg quarters can be cut into 2 portions, thigh and drumstick

The leg quarter consists of both the thigh and drumstick together. Find the joint between thigh and lower leg.

leg and thigh

Pull at this joint. It will mostly come apart, and will need just a small cut at the joint to separate the leg quarter into drumstick and thigh.

breasts can be cut into 2 smaller portions each

Cut your breast pieces sideways, in half, leaving the wing attached to 1 half.

8 small servings from 1 whole chicken

Voila! Eight nice serving portions. Before serving, I tuck the skin around each piece, as it just makes a tidier serving package. Cover with foil and pop the platter of chicken pieces into a warm oven while everything else is finishing up. Easy-peasy done!

Bones in the serving portions

When cutting the thigh and drumstick apart, the thigh bone often comes loose. I just remove it, and tuck the skin around and under the thigh meat, to make one tidy little serving piece.

There are a couple of small breast bones that often remain in the breast meat. If I turn the breast over, I can easily remove these bones, along with a bit of cartilage, to make easy-to-eat serving pieces.

In addition to being a tidy way to serve a whole chicken, this cutting method allows for super easy soup preparation. The meat scraps on the backbone are easily accessible for removing. Then I simmer the remaining bones in water, with seasonings and vegetables for the broth.

Nice and tidy serving pieces and super easy soup-making -- that's my kind of kitchen task.


  1. I just made a whole chicken last night, and did some similar cutting up. I appreciate your detailed explanation and will keep these guidelines in mind for the next one!
    Jo Ann

    1. Hi Jo Ann,
      Yum! Roasted chicken dinner! That's always a huge hit in our house. And the cutting up is really pretty easy, isn't it?!
      Have a great day!

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I've cut them up before cooking but never after and that could come in handy sometimes.

    1. Your welcome, Cat. I've only once attempted to cut up a whole, uncooked chicken, and it was a lot of work, as I didn't have poultry shears or a cleaver. I think having the right tools for the job makes a big difference, as well as experience. Kudos to you for cutting them up, uncooked! I think that would be nice to be able to do well. Then different pieces could be put together with like pieces from several chickens.

  3. I love roasted chicken. Lately I've been following economiesofkale's directions for doing it in the crockpot, as it frequently works around my schedule better. I slice the breast meat into several slices. I like how nice and neat it looks like that and, as you mentioned, it's easier to get good portion control that way (my kids prefer breast meat while hubby and I love dark meat). I'm glad I'm not the only one who has problems with that thigh bone!

    Hope your weather is lovely today and you can get outside.

    1. Hi Kris,
      In our family, we have some who like the bone-in servings, and two of us prefer it all boneless. This works well for us, as the bone-in diners can have drumsticks and wings, while the thighs and breasts can easily be made boneless.
      We're having great weather this week, not the June-gloom of many years. So, I hope to get out this afternoon. Hope you're having a lovely June!

  4. I roast whole chickens frequently, more so in the winter than summer. I sometimes think the best part about roasting chickens is gathering all the skin, fat, bones, and drippings in the pan to make broth. I even add boiling water to the pan in order to scrape loose any little bits and pieces stuck to it. I have no problem gathering the nibbled bones from the plates after dinner since it's all sterilized in the cooking process. Sometimes I take the crispy skin from the chicken before serving and save it for broth too as it adds so much flavor to the stock. My family complains about that since everyone loves the crispy skin but I do try to get away with it as often as I can.

    1. Hi Linda,
      That's funny about the chicken skin! I do let my family have whatever chicken skin they want (not all of us like it, though), then save the rest for the stock. It's all soggy and not appealing by day 2 (but my hubby would still eat it soggy, if I let him!) The chicken stock is so wonderful to have on hand in the freezer, to add to soups and sauces. But there's never enough of it!

  5. I don't cut very many chickens here because my husband loves to do it. In fact, he likes to cut up any cooked meat because he snacks a lot while he's doing it. :)

    1. Hi live and learn,
      What a great husband to do that for you! Makes your job easier, and he gets a snack!

  6. Thanks for that. As a very messy meat cutter I really appreciate the tips!

  7. That chicken looks delicious! Would you share the recipe?

    1. Hi Ruthie,
      Thanks. I vary what I rub on the chicken with what I have and what season it is. But this one is a lemon and rosemary rub. I finely chop fresh rosemary leaves, add a bit of lemon zest, some salt and pepper and mix all together. Then I sprinkle about 1 tablespoon of lemon juice over the skin, and rub in the herbs/seasonings. Sometimes, I stuff the cavity with fresh herbs and/or the peels of lemons. Then it's just oven-roasted. I think its about 325 degrees F, for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on weight of chicken. But ultimately, I determine if it's done by the temp, 165 F in the breast portion. I check on the chicken every 45 minutes or so, and turn the baking pan around, as my oven has a hot spot on one side. And that's really all I do.


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