Gordon Ramsay Butcher Chicken Guide: Cutting, Cooking, and Craving

There was a time that supermarkets sold only one or two types of chicken, but these days your chicken buying options at supermarkets are seemingly unlimited. Should you buy a whole chicken or specific chicken parts such as breasts, legs, wings, or thighs? The whole chicken will be cheaper on a per-pound basis but will require more work in butchering. Is the convenience of pre-cut chicken worth paying more?

The next step is deciphering terms like “natural,” “organic,” and “air-chilled,” Whole chickens or cut chicken that have these terms on their label tend to be more expensive, is the higher price justified?

How to Cut Up Whole Chicken

You’ll learn everything you need to know about preparing a whole chicken. From buying, breaking down a chicken into parts, and how to butterfly and truss a chicken. I will also go over boneless chicken breast, cut them into fillets, and cut them into fragile pieces called cutlets.

After reading this guide, you will become much more comfortable with buying and butchering a whole chicken.

How to Read Supermarket Labeling

Many claims cited on chicken Labeling are not regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture, while those that do are often poorly enforced. Here is how to evaluate which claims are meaningful and unenforceable and not worth the added expense that the trendy buzz words imply.

What is Air Chilled Chicken?

Air Chilled” chicken is cooled by passing through chambers filled with cold, purified air to cool the meat. This cooling process results in no added moisture, stronger flavor, and reduced chance of contamination. Contrast this method to the water chilled method where chickens are bathed in water to cool. This process results in diluted flavor and retains water, inflating the price per pound of the chicken.

Does USDA Organic Mean Anything?

For a chicken to be considered organic, it must be fed food grown without pesticides, receive no antibiotics, and have at least some access to the outdoors. If a chicken meets these standards, it receives the label of “USDA Organic.” “USDA Organic” is considered the gold standard for organic foods as it has been certified by the United States Department of Agriculture.

What Does Not Raised with Antibiotics Mean?

Raised no Antibiotics” should be an important term; unfortunately, it is not enforced by the USDA. Some loopholes surround the term “raised without antibiotics,” including farmers who will inject their eggs with antibiotics, not the chickens themselves, or feeding their chickens feather meal laced with residual antibiotics from birds that had been fed antibiotics. Be wary of this claim when you make your supermarket purchases.

What is Vegetarian-Fed Vs. Vegetarian Diet?

These terms are not regulated by the USDA and could mean anything. Is the producer feeding their chicken cheap, poor quality vegetarian items? You rely on the producer’s word that they are supplying you with a quality product, and there is no guarantee you are receiving a healthier product.

What is Natural and All Natural?

For meat to be considered “natural” or “all-natural,” all the USDA requires is that no synthetic substances have been added to a cut of fresh meat. Thus, producers can raise chickens under the most unnatural circumstances, feed them the most unnatural diets, and even inject them with broth during processing. The poultry could still fit the definition of “natural” or “all-natural,” so the buyer should understand what “Natural or “All Natural” really means before making a purchasing selection.

Is All Chicken Hormone Free?

The term “hormone-free” with chicken is false assurance, as the USDA does not permit the practice of steroids or hormones in the raising of chicken.

Shopping for Supermarket Cuts of Chicken

Compared to beef and pork, there are not many chicken cuts available to the consumer, which makes shopping for chicken much less confusing; now, with that said, there are still some important things to consider when you are buying chicken.

What Type of Whole Chickens are Commonly Available?

Whole chickens come in many sizes. Broilers and fryers are younger chickens that typically weigh between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 pounds, while a roaster is an older chicken that weighs between 5 and 7 pounds.

When buying chicken, I recommend avoiding chickens that have been “water chilled” or “enhanced” (injected with a broth of flavoring). I find the meat to be unnaturally spongy and having a “fake” taste. Unsure if the bird you are considering has been “water chilled” or “enhanced”? Look for the words “water gain” on the label as the USDA requires this to be disclosed.

Instead of “water chilled” or “enhanced,” look for a chicken that has been “air-chilled.” I find “air-chilled” chicken, without the excess water weight, to have much more of a natural texture while remaining juicy.

Different Cuts of Bone-in Chicken?

You can choose to buy a whole chicken at the supermarket or purchase a whole cut-up chicken or chicken parts. The issue with buying the cut-up chicken is it can sometimes be difficult to tell if the chicken has been butchered well. I recommend purchasing the whole chicken and butchering it yourself if you can spare the extra time.

The Difference Between Chicken Cutlet and Breast?

If you are buying boneless, skinless breasts at the market, be aware that breasts of different sizes are often packaged together, and they won’t cook through at the same rate. I recommend looking for a package where the breasts appear to be of a similar size and then take the time to pound them to an even thickness. To do this, place your chicken breasts in saran wrap and gently pound the breasts with a mallet until they appear to be of even thickness.

Chicken cutlets are a slice of meat off of the chicken breast. You can buy chicken cutlets at the store, but I don’t recommend them because they are often uneven and difficult to cook evenly. Instead, buy whole chicken breasts and cut your own, more even, cutlets.

Does Ground Chicken Taste Good?

Ground chicken is typically available either prepackaged or grounds to order. The prepackaged ground chicken is made of either white or dark meat, while if you get it ground to order, the choice of meat is up to you.

While dark meat is juicier due to its higher fat content, I’ve always preferred white meat’s consistency and flavor. I don’t generally purchase ground chicken, so you can experiment with which type of meat you prefer.

What Does Salting and Marinating with Brine do to the Chicken?

Salting Chicken

I like using kosher salt when salting chicken prepare in advance, so the meat stays juicy. Whenever salt is put on raw chicken, juices within are pulled to the top. The salt breaks down and melts and releases liquid creating a brine of its own juice that is ultimately absorbed by the chicken.

Salting changes the makeup of the muscles, allowing the meat to retain more of its own juices. Salting needs time. You can rush the process, but the wait will be worth it once you bite into that golden crispy skin.

Kosher Salt Method  
Whole Chicken Min 6 hours or up to 24 hours 1 tsp. per lb. Rub in salt equally inside the whole chicken’s body cavity as well as beneath the skin of breasts and legs and let it stand to rest in the refrigerator on top of a wire rack on top of a rimmed baking sheet. (Place in film wrap if salting for any time longer than 12 hours.)
Bone-In Chicken Pcs. Min 6 hours or up to 24 hours ¾ tsp. per lb. If using skin-on poultry, Rub in salt equally in the middle of both the skin and the meat; make sure to leave the skin attached. Then let it stand to rest in the refrigerator on top of a wire rack on top of a rimmed baking sheet. (Place in film wrap if salting for any time longer than 12 hours.)

Brining Chicken

Brining chicken works in pretty much in the same manner as salting does. Salt in the brine pretty much seasons the poultry’s meat and starts to promote a physical change in the meat’s protein structure, as it tenderizes by creating gaps in between the meat that fills up with brine water, which keeps the meat very juicy, tasty and flavorful.  

Using brine works much faster than salting. It will also make lean cuts much juicer since it adds not just retains the moisture into the meat. Also, take note that brine helps the browning process as well also; you will need to make sure you have a brining container that will fit inside your fridge.

I prefer using table salt when making the brine; it dissolves much quicker when added to water. The chart below has a list of poultry items that I typically will brine, with notes on how long to brine and the correct amount of water needed. Do not Brine Water-Chilled Chicken.

Cold Water Table Salt
1 chicken (3½ to 4 lb.) ½ to 1 hour 2 qt. ½ c.
2 chickens (3½ to 4 lb. ea.) ½ to 1 hour 3 qt. ¾ c.
4 lb. bone-in chicken pcs. (whole breasts, split breasts, leg quarters, thighs, and/or drum-sticks) ½ to 1 hour 2 qt. ½ c.
4 ea. boneless, skinless chicken breasts ½ to 1 hour 2 qt. ¼ c.

How to Truss a Chicken

Step 1: To make sure the wings don’t burn, bend them slightly away from the body then slide the wing tips under the neck area

Step 2: Cross the ends of the drumsticks over one another and then secure them with twine using a double knot

Step 3: Trim the excess twine from the drumsticks, leaving about 1/2 twine

How to Cut Whole Chicken into Parts

Step 1: I find that removing the legs first makes it easier to butcher the chicken’s rest. First, locate the area where the leg attaches to the breast and cut through the skin at that point. Next, pop the leg joint out of its socket using your hands, then continue to detach the leg from the body.

Step 2: Turn each leg quarter skin side down. Locate the small white fate line between the thigh and drumstick and cut through that joint using a sharp chef’s knife.

Step 3: Flip the chicken over and remove the wings by slicing through each wing joint, then remove the wingtips by slicing through the cartilage. You will find that most recipes that call for whole butchered chickens do not utilize the wings since they contain less meat than the other chicken pieces. I recommend freezing these pieces and using them to make chicken stock or bone broth later.

Step 4: Using kitchen shears, cut all the way up the chicken’s backbone to remove it. The backbone contains almost no meat, and it only serves to get in the way of butchering the breasts. That said, the backbone, like the wings, is good for making chicken stock.

Step 5: Flip the chicken skin side down and look for the thin white line down the breastplate center. When you locate this line, cut through it using a chef’s knife and then lay each split breast skin side up.

Step 6: Using a chef’s knife, cut through each skin side up chicken breast crosswise due to the chicken breasts being fairly large; cutting them in half speeds up cooking time.

How to Butterfly Whole Chicken

Step 1: Place the chicken breast side up on your cutting board and use the heel of your hand to press down on the breastbone until the chicken is flattened. If you’ve flattened the chicken correctly, you will hear a crack of the breastbone.

Step 2: Now place the chicken breast-side down and use kitchen shears to cut along each side of the backbone from the tail end through the neck. Removing the backbone allows you to flatten the chicken and the kitchen shears make it fast and easy to accomplish.

Step 3: Cover the butterflied flattened chicken with plastic wrap and use a mallet to pound out the chicken breast meat to even thickness.

Step 4: Detach, but don’t remove, the chicken skin from the membrane to make room for compound butter.

Step 5: Scoop the compound butter on to a spoon and slide it under the breast skin. Using your fingers, remove the butter from the spoon and spread the butter evenly under your fingers’ breast skin.

How to Split Bone-in Chicken Breasts

Step 1: Place the chicken breasts skin side down on the cutting board and center your knife on the breastbone. Apply pressure to cut through and separate the breast into two halves.

Step 2: Using kitchen shears, trim away the rib section of each breast using the vertical line of fat from the end of the breast up to the wing socket as your guide. Removing the ribs allows the breasts to lay flat in a pot or a skillet for more even cooking.

Step 3: Using your kitchen shears or your chef’s knife, trim away any visible fat from the chicken breasts before cooking so that your pan does not turn greasy.

How to Make Chicken Breast Cutlet Fillets

Step 1: Remove the thin strip of meat attached to the breast, called the tenderloin because it is likely to come off during cooking anyway.

Tip: I find that it is easier to fillet chicken breasts cooler, so I recommend placing your chicken breasts on a plate into the freezer for about 15 minutes to firm up.

Step 2: Lay the chicken breast on a cutting board smooth side up. Rest your hand on top of the chicken and use a chef’s knife to cut the chicken horizontally. You will find that each cutlet will be about 1/2 inch thick.

Step 3: Place the cutlets, smooth side down, on a large sheet of plastic wrap. Cover the chicken with the second piece of plastic wrap and gently pound it with a mallet until the cutlets are of even thickness.

Because chicken breasts are thicker on one end than the other, pounding the chicken to an even thickness helps to ensure even cooking.

Know When Chicken Finished Cooking

For Thigh Meat

Insert your thermometer into the area between the drumstick and breast, making sure not to hit the bone. Thigh meat is considered done at 175 degrees.

For Breast Meat

Hold your thermometer parallel to the chicken and insert it from the neck end. Breast meat is considered done at 165 degrees.

For Chicken Parts

Lift each piece of chicken using a pair of kitchen tongs and insert your thermometer into the thickest portion of each piece. White meat should register at least 165 degrees, while dark meat should register at least 175 degrees for the mean to be considered done.

How Do You Carve a Chicken?

For Roasted Chicken:

Step 1: Cut through the skin between the leg and the breast using a chef’s knife. Pull the leg quarter away from the chicken’s body while cutting, separating the joint by pressing the leg out to the side and pushing up on the joint.

Using your kitchen shears, carefully cut through the joint to remove the leg quarter. Once finished, repeat this process on the other side of the chicken.

Step 2: Turn the leg quarter skin side down and cut through the joint connecting the drumstick to the thigh.

Step 3: Cut down one side of the breastbone and make sure to pull the meat away from the breastbone as you cut. Follow the bone’s curved shape to release the meat, again using your free hand to pull the meat away from the bone. Finally, remove the wings by cutting through the wing joints.

Step 4: Slice the breast crosswise on an angle (also called “on the bias”)

For Butterflied Chicken:

Step 1: Place the chicken skin-side down on your cutting board. Using kitchen shears, cut through the breastbone. The chicken was already flattened, and the breastbone was broken during the prep process, so this should be easy.

Step 2: Now that the breastbone has been split, only the skin is holding the chicken pieces together. Use your kitchen shears to remove each leg quarter and separate each leg and thigh from each breast and wing.

Step 3: To separate the thighs from the drumsticks, turn the meat skin side down and slice through the thin line of fat that runs between the thigh and the drumstick.

Step 4: Insert your chef’s knife into one side of the breastbone and follow the bone’s curved shape to release the breast meat from the breastbone.

Step 5: Using your chef’s knife, cut through the joint’s wing to remove the wings. This should leave you with a boneless, skinless chicken breast.

Step 6: Slice each breast crosswise on an angle; this should make for slices about 1/2 inch thick.

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John Siracusa

Cooking, for me, has always been an "art" infused with traditions. My career was inspired by Hell's Kitchen, the West Side of Manhattan, which boasts one of N.Y. City's best independent restaurant communities, along with Gordon Ramsay's no-nonsense approach towards always being your best.

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