Knife Skills: How to Break Down a Chicken in 10 EZ Steps

How to Break Down a Chicken in 10 EZ Steps.


The purpose of this article is to give you quick instruction on how to break a whole chicken down into its varying parts. Shun Sora has a 5 piece set with all the tools you will need for this lesson. Chicken ballotine is the process of deboning a chicken. We’re not doing that here.

Why would you learn this?

First, you’ll look cool. And who doesn’t want that? Next, this will provide you with a whole new layer to your cuisine. But mostly it is a knife skill that, if you are serious about this, you really must learn.

Did i forget to mention: you’ll save money!

Consider your options.  Boneless breasts often cost around three times more than whole chicken.

Rather than buying a standard two-pack of breasts, you can buy a whole chicken, which comes with those same breasts, plus two legs, and a back. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll get a free liver, heart, and gizzard hidden inside!

Here’s a couple of hints:

  • Buy air-chilled chickens. Bell and Evans (and other “premium” brands) air-chill their chickens with cold air after slaughter rather than dumping into an ice bath like the mass-market brands. This means that they come to the market with less retained water. This means, simply, that  you’re not paying for the weight of the added water. As an added benefit, you get more concentrated flavor.
  • Avoid kosher birds. Kosher birds have been heavily salted before packaging in order to remove excess liquid. This has a benefit for roasting.
  • But there are recipes where excess salt can ruin the dish. A braised chicken recipe where the braising liquid is subsequently reduced can get far too salty from the excess salt within the chicken. It also limits your stock-making ability, since a salty stock cannot be reduced.

My personal preference is to pay the extra money for premium brands of free range or specialty heirloom breeds because of the improved flavor they offer. There’s not much worse than bad chicken. Scratch that. There are a lot worse things. But bad chicken is pretty bad.



First, get a chicken. I would suggest you begin with a smaller bird. Maybe something in the one to two pound range. Then,  a sharp chef’s knife, and either a set of poultry shears or a cleaver. Extra coolness points if you’ve got the cleaver but (full disclosure) the shears work just as well. And consider how you look when someone wanders into the kitchen and sees you: hair flying all over the place; a crazed look on your face; and this hatchet thing raised over your head. . . not the best image. (p.s. everywhere you look the one consistent recommendation is a good sharp knife)

Step 1 : Get Acquaintedchicken-3

Place the chicken on its back on the cutting board with the legs pointing towards you.

And grab the chicken by the drumstick. Pull the leg outwards from the body until the skin is stretched taught.

Step 2:  Remove the Leg(s)chicken-4

Begin  by cutting through the skin between the leg and the body. Cut approximately halfway between the leg and the body. Don’t cut too deep—just through the skin.

Step 3chicken-5

Put down your knife. Place one hand on top of the bird and with the other grasp the leg. Don’t grab the leg bone at the bottom. But rather, grab it where the leg and thigh come together.

Now,  twist it downwards away from the body until the ball joint pops out of the socket close to the carcass. This shouldn’t require much force. You’re not trying to rip the leg off the body. You are only dislocating this hip joint.

Step 4chicken-6

Use your chef’s knife to completely remove the leg and thigh by cutting through the joint you just exposed. Make sure to get the little nugget of meat that sits closest to the chicken’s spine . If you’ve done this properly, you will be making an easy cut through the joint and another easy cut through the skin. You should now be holding in your hand a leg and thigh. Set this aside and repeat the process on the other leg.

Step 5

Repeat steps 2 through 5 on the second leg. It’s okay to spin the bird around on your cutting board. This is way safer than trying the advanced “overhand” technique.

These next steps are highly controversial! At this point, you need to ask yourself how this particular chicken will be used.

If, for example, you want chicken cutlets, then it’s probably better to remove the breast meat at this point and keep the carcass intact. However, if you’re planning on baking or roasting the breast with the bone, then proceed.

Step 6: Separate the Breastchicken-8

Pick up the chicken by the backbone and stand it up vertically on your cutting board with the butt end pointing up. If the legs were still attached, they would be pointing to the sky.  Use your chef’s knife to cut through the skin and cartilage between the breast and the back. Cut until you get through the first or second ribs.

Step 7chicken-9

Switch over to your cleaver, and continue cutting through the ribs using short, firm strokes. Alternatively, use poultry shears to cut through the ribs on both sides.

Step 8chicken-10

Then, use the tip of the cleaver to cut through the shoulder bones on either side (or use poultry shears).

Step 9chicken-11

The backbone should now be completely separated from the breast. Save it for stock.

Again, we come to an area of controversy. Why, I am asked, am I changing tools so much? Isn’t there an easier way? And the answer is “YES”!

Steps 6, 7 & 8 can all be safely accomplished using shears rather than a cleaver. There, i said it.

Step 10chicken-12

Now, split the breast. Take the breast (the wings are still attached) and place it skin side up on the board. With your chefs knife, cut through either side of the breast bone until you hit the sternum. Use your free hand to press down firmly on the blade until it cracks through the bone.


If you are only looking for 4 pieces of chicken, you’re all done! To continue breaking it down into 8 pieces, read on…

Step 11chicken-14

Using your fingertip, locate the ball joint between the thigh and drumstick.

Step 12chicken-15

Cut through the joint with your chef’s knife, separating the thigh from the drumstick.

Step 13chicken-16

Now, cut each breast in half crosswise by pressing down on your knife blade with your free hand until you crack through the breastbone.


Follow these simple steps and you will be an expert by your third bird.

Next, we will learn what to do with all those lovely extras!


Watch Jacques do the break down:

This is chicken ballotine:

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