I’ve noticed a trend, of late, at the markets I frequent wherein it has been difficult to find cut-up whole chicken. All I can see are packages of breasts, thighs, and drumsticks, most of which are boned and skinned. That, in itself, is unfortunate, but a dearth of dismembered poultry should not be cause for rending of garments, shearing of hair, and/or cursing unto the heavens like Lear upon the heath. It is perfectly easy to cut up a chicken: all that is required is a good, sharp knife, a reputable pair of poultry shears or a cleaver, and “the courage of your convictions.” It’s as economic as it is practical: if chicken is on sale, you can buy a whole bird for under $9, while finding the pieces individually is more likely to cost you upwards of $14 at a reputable vendor. And everything you don’t use can be saved, should you choose to do so.
Prepare your mise en place with the aforementioned instruments of cutting (for the knife, I prefer a 6″ chef’s knife, perfectly sharp, but if you intend to explore beyond cutting poultry to boning it–not a sexual colloquialism–a boning knife is a worthwhile investment, a cutting board (preferably one with a well,) poultry shears or a cleaver (and unless you’re a serial killer or buy your meat en masse, there’s no need to invest in a cleaver,) and paper towels for blotting and drying. Remove your bird from its packaging and dry it well with paper towels. Place it breast side up on your cutting board and pick up a drumstick.
Letting gravity be your friend, but not defying it, use your knife to cut around the thigh joint of the bird’s torso. In some cases, this will separate the joint in the moment; otherwise, you will have to use your shears to cut the leg from the body. Do the same with the other leg. This is a good time to wash and dry your hands–it’s important to get a good grip (again, in this connotation, NOT a sexual inference.)
Now, you must split the breasts (sorry, still not sexy.) Run your knife down the breastbone, slicing as close to the bone as your competency allows. The torso will split a little on its own at this point, looking a little like a Chest Hugger from the Alien franchise. Do not let this intimidate you! Use your shears to split the ribs from the backbone and pull the breasts from the remaining carcass. Save the spine and ribs for stock, as well as the neck.
If you like the offal, save that, too! Never forget that if you “cut the dickens out of [your] finger,” liver acts as a coagulant.
Now you have your bird in quarters, and you can have your way with her, as long as it doesn’t frighten the horses. A quartered chicken works very well for braising or fricaseeing. (I must admit that “fricassee” has always sounded like a sex act to me, but it’s not, really.) You can certainly separate the wings and drumsticks if you plan to fry the chicken, or if you simply want to save those parts for stock. I think that a pan roasted chicken is best done in quarters, though, and I’ve had great success with it.
So, there’s really no need to be chicken about cutting up a chicken: just give in to the Hannibal Lecter and Sweeney Todd that resides in us all, grab a knife and a cleaver or shears, and cut and chop away! and remember, this works for any bird, be it turkey, goose, duck, chicken, or quail. But I will judge you if you’re so sadistic as to draw and quarter a quail. What are you, Norman Bates? All serial killers aside, with or without Chianti and fava beans, it’s just the way to cook!