Chicken Basics Part II: How to Cut Up and Cook a Chicken. Plus Stock and a Sauce

by amyloun


In a previous post, we roasted a whole chicken from Main Street Meats with salt and pepper and a few optional aromatics.  This time, we want to show how to cut a whole chicken into separate pieces and roast it with, again, only salt and pepper.  Cutting the raw whole chicken is a simple thing to do, but can be rather intimidating if you have never done it before or don’t feel like you know how.  There are many reasons why you might want to cut the whole chicken up before cooking it… having it cut up allows you to use only part of it for a meal and freeze or refrigerate the rest for a later meal.  It cooks more quickly this way as well.  You can cook different pieces in different ways or for different amounts of time.  It saves you from having to carve a whole bird after cooking before serving.  Yet, buying the whole chicken is more economical than buying the individual pieces, and of course, you have the whole carcass to use for chicken stock.

We served our roasted chicken with a simple sauce made with preserved lemon, capers and juice from the bird with bok choy, and potatoes. Any seasonal vegetables would go well with roasted chicken as well as rice or a salad. The sauce works with our previous post as well- the roasted whole chicken.  See the recipe below.

We served our roasted chicken with a simple sauce made with preserved lemon, capers, and juice from the bird, along with bok choy and potatoes. Any seasonal vegetables would go well with roasted chicken as well as rice or a salad. The sauce works with our previous post as well- the roasted whole chicken.  See the recipe below.


As we mentioned last time, starting with a quality bird is the most important element in getting a good result when roasting a chicken with only salt and pepper.  You want to look for chicken with no antibiotics or hormones and one that was allowed to move freely and feast on its natural diet of bugs and plants etc.  The farmers that provide Main Street Meats with their animals always go by these standards, including Fountain Springs Farm– where our bird was from.  The other important thing here is to have a really sharp knife.  It’s not totally necessary, but it does make things much easier.


Start by drying the bird with a paper towel or a clean cloth that can be washed in hot water later. We never rinse a bird when we know it comes from a  good source.  Placing your chicken breast side up on a cutting board, begin cutting the first breast piece by running the knife just to one side of the breast bone.

chicken-17 chicken-18 chicken-19

Cutting along the breast bone, you can begin to pull the breast meat away from the bone.

Cutting along the breast bone, you can begin to pull the breast meat away from the bone.


Turning the bird so that the neck is up, finish removing the breast from the bone with the knife.

Turning the bird so that the neck is up, finish removing the breast from the bone with the knife. Follow the wishbone down to the back of the bird.  Make your cut between the breast and the leg following the back bone down to the place you originally started the cut.


When butchering anything, don’t be afraid to feel with your hands.  Use your fingers more than the knife to feel your way.  Once you break down a chicken a couple of times you will become much more comfortable moving quickly and getting your hands dirty. Be confident on your first try because anything that gets cut wrong can still be used. You can just slice everything up before serving and no one will know the difference.


In this photo, the breast is on the right and the bird has been turned on its side to begin removing the leg quarter (the thigh and the leg).


This part is fun because you can really start to see the bird coming apart and see the progress you are making.  Using your hands, pull the leg and thigh bone down, dislodging the thigh bone from the joint. You’ll hear a little pop and feel the resistance go away.


At this point, all you are doing is cutting the skin along the back bone to release the thigh.  You also cut through the cartilage where the joint meets the back. The knife can cut through the cartilage without any problem so if you feel resistance, you’re hitting the bone and need to move the knife a little until it is easier to cut.

chicken-30 chicken-31 chicken-32 chicken-33 chicken-34 chicken-35chicken-36 chicken-37 chicken-39 chicken-40 chicken-41

Do the same thing with the other side.

Do the same thing with the other side.


The finished product… We left the wings on the carcass because they’re small and too much work to invest in cooking and they add to the stock. If you are a fan of wings, they are very easy to remove.


Generously salt and pepper the pieces on both sides. We used course sea salt, but any kind is fine, and black pepper.



Ready for the oven! We like cooking the thigh pieces first when cooking at a high temperature which we are doing this time. Otherwise breast meat could get dried out by the time the dark meat is fully cooked. Add the breasts to the same pan halfway through cooking.



Roasted Chicken (Cut Up)

Serves 4-6

1 Whole Chicken (4-6 LBS) Cut Up (For directions on cutting up the whole chicken, see the captions to the photos.)
Salt and Pepper
Oil, Butter, or Lard (optional… we didn’t use any because with a high quality bird, there’s plenty of fat content in the skin and you can baste it with its own liquid throughout cooking.)

Preheat the oven to 375F.  Place seasoned leg quarters in a cast iron skillet or any deep baking dish.  Place in the oven on the middle rack, skin side up, for 20 minutes.  Add the chicken breasts, skin side down, to the pan.  Placing them skin side down will crisp the skin because the pan is nice and hot and already has some liquid in it from the leg pieces.  Turn the oven down to 325F and cook for another 20 minutes.  You can always cut into the breast to check to see if it is done.  We have found that 20 minutes is a perfect amount of time to fully cook chicken breasts.  Fully cooked, the breasts should have an internal temperature of about 165.  Now turn the oven off with the bird still in there and let rest for 5-10 minutes.  This works wonderfully as a warming oven to make sure the chicken is nice and hot when you are ready to serve it, and it won’t dry out the bird.   You can place aluminum foil loosely over the pan while it’s resting.

Lemon Caper Sauce

Pan Drippings from the cooked chicken
2 tsp Capers
2 T Butter
1/2 cup White Wine or Chicken Stock
2 T Lemon Juice (from 2 lemons)
1 tsp chopped Preserved Lemon (if available) or 1 tsp Lemon Zest
Salt to taste

Nice additions (optional):  2 tsp Fresh Thyme or Fresh Tarragon

Take the chicken pieces out of the pan and put into a serving dish.  This sauce only takes a few seconds to make as long as you’ve got your ingredients ready. On the stovetop, in the same pan, on low heat, simmer the pan drippings from the chicken.  Add the white wine (or broth), capers, lemon zest, and fresh herbs if using.  Bring back to a slow simmer.  Remove from heat.  Add butter and lemon juice and whisk vigorously.  You should have a silky smooth thin sauce.  You can add more wine (or broth) or lemon juice if you need to stretch the sauce a bit more.   Taste and add salt if needed.  Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve immediately.  This sauce is also delicious with any kind of white fish or salmon (using chicken broth, vegetable stock, or white wine in place of the drippings).

A Note on Preserved Lemons:

Preserved lemons are lemons that are packed in salt. They taste briny and citrusy and go great with fish, chicken, and a dirty martini.  🙂  We make ours at home in a 1 Qt. Mason jar.  Start with 2 lemons, cut them in half, and with a knife, score the rind on the outside of each half, making a cross.  Add about 1/2 cup course kosher salt to the bottom of the mason jar and put one lemon half in the jar, pressing it down with the handle of a long wooden spoon to release the juice.  Add another 1/2 cup salt and add the second half lemon.  Repeat making layers or salt, lemon, salt, lemon, etc… pressing each half down with the end of the spoon.  Now add a final layer of salt, covering the lemon completely so there’s no lemon peeking out of the salt.  Place a cheesecloth or coffee filter over the mason jar and secure with a rubberband or the outside ring of a mason jar top.  Let cure for 1 month.  Nice additions to your salt mixture are 1 spring fresh rosemary, 10 black whole peppercorns, and 2 bay leaves (fresh if available).  You can sprinkle the peppercorns throughout the layering process and press the other herbs into the jar at the end.  It doesn’t have to look pretty .  The rosemary will release oils during the curing process.  When doing any kind of salt curing, it is never necessary to add any additions or aromatics.  We just add it if we have it around.

Chicken Stock:

1 Chicken Back (with bones and scraps from other pieces thrown in if you want)
1/2 Onion
1 Celery Stalk
1/2 Carrot
2 Bay Leaves
5 Peppercorns

One of the best parts of buying a whole chicken is the stock you can make with the carcass!  It feels good to know you are using the whole animal and you are saving money. Chicken stock is used in so many other recipes that it is always good to have around.  You can always freeze it.  This recipe is for 1 Chicken Back (carcass).  Just double, triple, etc. the ingredients for more backs.  To make a really big batch of stock, we save a few carcasses and do them all together.  You can stick them in the freezer until you’re ready for them.

Place the chicken carcass in a large pot- it should be a pretty snug fit, but don’t worry too much. Put all of the rest of the ingredients in the pot and fill it with water to about 1 inch over the chicken back.  Bring it to a simmer- do not boil.  Remove the film that forms on the top and let it gently simmer for 4-6 hours.  One good trick is to place the pot in a preheated to 200F oven after bringing to a simmer and removing the film.  This way you don’t have to watch it.  Whether doing it on the stovetop or in the oven, you can cover it to retain more liquid, or leave it uncovered if you prefer a denser stock.  Once it’s done, strain it to remove all of the ingredients and you have a delicious homemade stock!