If you’re like most people, you’re looking for ways to save money on your food. This is especially true when purchasing high-quality ingredients like pastured meats. In this case, you can save money by doing your own simple butchery. A good meat to start with is chicken: it's very easy to break down, and takes up less freezer space than, say, a quarter hog.
To get an idea of the savings to be had, if you purchase a whole pastured bird, you’re spending about $3-$5 per pound, whereas if you bought the cuts separately, you would be spending as much as $9-$11 per pound for skinless/boneless breasts, $7-$8 per pound for thighs, and $15-$16 per pound for tenders.
Not to mention, by buying a whole animal, you'll get some bonus recipes that you wouldn't get with individual cuts.
First, you need to buy fresh chicken that has not been frozen. (You should never freeze raw meat that has already thawed.) I will normally purchase 4-6 birds at a time. These chickens came from Heritage Farm in Ridgway, who you can see more of in our virtual tour or our video The Farm Buying Club: Making Farm-to-Table Convenient. You can find other local sources of humanely raised chicken from our virtual farm tour page or by downloading Pittsburgh's Guide to Ethical Farms. (And here are just a few reasons you should be supporting an ethical farm.)
Next, decide what cuts you want. Chickens can be broken into breasts, wings, and legs, and each of those cuts can be broken down further, skinned, and de-boned. It all depends on how you like to eat it. You'll always be left with the backs and necks (great for stock, especially with chicken feet, if you can get them), excess skin, and excess fat (for schmaltz or chips!). There may also be some organs in the cavity.
For this demonstration, I bought 4 fresh chickens and made the following: an 8-pack of wings, a 4-pack of thighs, a 4-pack of breasts, a 4-pack of boneless/skinless breast cutlets, two skinless/boneless chicken thighs, two 4-packs of drumsticks, one pack of chicken tenders, stock, and schmaltz. Customize your cuts depending on your preference and how many people you plan to cook for.
Sturdy cutting board
Important food safety note: To avoid salmonella contamination, be sure to wash your hands after touching raw chicken and before touching anything else in your kitchen. Even better, wear food-safe gloves while working with any raw meat.
Step 1: Break down the chicken.
1. Set the chicken flat on its back. Pull the legs out, away from the breast and cut straight down between leg and breast until you reach the bone.
2. Pick up the chicken and bend the leg backward until the joint pops out. Cut between the leg joint and the back/breast to separate the leg from the rest of the carcass.
3. Lay the leg flat on the cutting board and use your finger to find where the drumstick and thigh joints meet. Cut diagonally between the two joints. You may have to use some force, but you shouldn’t be cutting through solid bone, just the cartilage between. (You can skip this step if you'd prefer to keep the leg in one piece.)
4. Bend the wings backwards to find the joint and cut between the shoulder joint and carcass.
5. Use the poultry shears to separate the breasts from the back and neck. Cut directly right beneath the breasts all the way up to the neck. If you have trouble cutting around the neck/shoulder area, you can pull the back up and over the breasts to break the bone and it will be much easier to see where to cut.
6. Lay the breast, skin-up, flat on the cutting board. Make a cut on each side of the breast bone. If you’re planning to cut the meat off the breast bone and ribs, you can leave the breasts in one piece.
Step 2: Customize your chicken pieces.
If you eat all of your chicken skin-on and bone-in, you can skip to Step 3. Just package the pieces in whatever combinations you want.
For boneless, skinless thighs:
1. Peel off the skin. It should come off easily.
2. Flip the thigh over and cut as close as you can to the bone. Roll the bone with your non-cutting hand and continue to use the knife to separate the bone from the meat, minimizing the amount of meat that is stuck to the bone.
3. Cut any excess skin, fat, bone, or cartilage that you missed, and set the bones aside for the stock.
For boneless, skinless breasts:
1. Peel the skin from the breasts with your hands.
2. Regardless of whether you kept the two breasts in one piece or split them in two, you will just be separating the breasts from the ribs. Find the breast bone, and starting from the top (thick end) of the breast use the knife to peel the meat away from the bone, cutting as closely as possible to the breastbone and ribs.
3. Use the tip of your knife to cut the remaining piece of wishbone from the thick end of the breast.
4. Once the breast is completely free from the ribs, peel the tender away from the breast with your hands. The tender is located on the underside of the breast.
For breast cutlets:
1. Once you have boneless, skinless breasts, lay the breast flat on the cutting board, and place your non-cutting hand flat on top of the breast to secure it.
2. Being very careful not to cut yourself, cut from the thick end of the breast down toward the thinner end (imagine you are cutting open a hot dog bun). Try your best to cut the breast directly in half, in one motion rather than sawing it.
3. Take each half and place between two pieces of plastic wrap or inside a plastic bag. Use a meat tenderizer or the bottom of a heavy pan to carefully pound the meat until it is an even thickness.
Step 3: Use all of the leftover bones, fat, and organs.
To make stock:
Add all of the chicken backs, necks, bones, and feet (if you have them) along with:
1 onion, quartered
4 carrots, cut in chunks
4 celery ribs, cut in chunks
Some sprigs of thyme and parsley
2 bay leaves
2 whole garlic cloves
Filtered water (enough to cover)
Place all of the ingredients into a large stock pot. Bring to a boil on high heat. Turn down heat to medium low and let simmer. Skim off any foam (also called scum) that floats to the surface. Simmer, uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to 8. Add hot water as needed to cover ingredients. Strain through fine mesh or a seive, discard solids, and let cool. Refrigerate overnight and remove any solidified fat that will collect on top. This stock will keep in the fridge for about 7 days or you can freeze it.
To render the chicken fat:
Cut up any excess chicken fat and skin you have leftover and place in a stockpot. Cook on low heat, stirring occasionally. Once cracklings are golden brown, remove from heat and strain. Let the fat cool, then refrigerate. The cracklings make a delicious snack and the fat is great for roasting potatoes!
What to do with hearts, livers, and gizzards:
Gravy is often made with the gizzard, heart, and neck. See my turkey recipe for instructions.
Chicken liver pâté is very popular: Chicken Liver Pâté
Another recipe to consider: Chicken Liver and Heart Ragu
Step 4: Package and freeze.
This is best done with a vacuum sealer. But freezer zip bags and freezer paper will do the job, too. Place the chicken in the bags, get as much air out as possible, and seal the bags completely. If you think they might stay in the freezer for a long time, wrap the bag in freezer paper, securing with masking tape, for more protection from freezer burn.
Step 5: Thaw as needed by submerging the sealed bags in cold, running water and cook according to your favorite recipe!