Time to revive the lost art of butchering a chicken

Fear not the whole chicken - it is easier to break down into parts than you think.
Fear not the whole chicken - it is easier to break down into parts than you think. PHOTO: DEB LINDSEY FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

THE UNITED STATES (WASHINGTON POST) - You could go your whole life without cutting up a whole raw chicken. But if it’s one of your favoured proteins – and America eats more chicken per person than any other nation on Earth – learning how to do so is a smack-your-forehead, no-brainer endeavour. It is even a little empowering.

We have gotten awfully used to the convenience of buying cut-up chicken parts, which found a place in retail markets more than five decades ago. Today, two-thirds of the chicken we consume has been dismantled by someone else, and we are paying dearly for the service. Some peg the parts’ rise to our penchant for lean breast meat, while others say it is because we shudder at the thought of carving up a pink, fleshy body.

“We are a white-meat, boneless-skinless country,” says Tom Super, senior vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council, a lobbying group with such serious intentions that it has relegated poultry recipes to its allied websites. His assessment is accurate and data- driven: We go for the wings and breasts. That means more of our dark-meat and other chicken parts are shipped abroad where they are prized, rightly so, for their flavour. One out of every five pounds of commercially raised meat chickens is exported. Sustainably savvy, but sad.

Nobody taught you. It seems intimidating. Well, you can call up one of dozens of how-to videos online, narrated by the precise language of Martha Stewart or the folksy patter of a Kraft Foods kitcheneer. Play a few in succession, and you will find the same technique, give or take an airline breast here and an order-of- business there. The moving hands use big chef’s knives or poultry shears. Step by step, one side and then the other. Still, we are not motivated. What will it take?

“We would love to know the same thing,” says Daniel Salatin. “The average American family could save thousands if they bought whole chickens and cut ‘em up themselves.” He is operations manager for Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia, where his family and famous firebrand farmer father, Joel Salatin, run a sustainable “clean meat” enterprise. They say they sell 8,000 to 12,000 pastured chickens a year, with an eight-piece package priced at $4.65 per pound – a buck more per pound than their whole birds. But Polyface’s boneless, skinless chicken breast halves cost $14 per pound. That price was calculated to offset any loss of sales on less-popular parts and to achieve the same revenue that the farm’s whole birds generated.

Still, breasts are their top seller. “We didn’t start cutting up birds until the early 2000s,” Salatin says. There was a kind of perfect storm, as he sees it: Older, thriftier generations were doing less cooking. Families decreased in size. People lost the art and had the money to have someone else do the cutting. Plus, they were told that lean chicken was a more healthful meat option than beef.

The almighty factor is, of course, convenience. But when that is compared with the combined benefits of menu versatility, stretching food dollars and the surprising ease of the divvying itself, though, DIY butchery deserves consideration. “A home cook with a family can make three meals from one whole chicken,” Salatin says. “But you’d have to know what you’re doing.”

Brian Patterson knows what he’s doing. He has broken down thousands of whole chickens. Start to finish, it takes him about two minutes, working at a smooth and steady pace. Washington-area cooks know him as the “Knife Skills Guy” at L’Academie de Cuisine, where the former restaurant chef taught culinary cuts on onions, carrots, tomatoes and mangoes in recreational classes at the school’s suburban Maryland locations. A whole chicken, typically a 2 1/2-pounder, was the piece de resistance.

When his instruction moved to the school’s professional culinary program, he found that his students had no more experience cutting up whole birds than the home cooks. Teaching them that skill has almost become a mission for him. The chef is all for removing some of the distance between people and processes of modern food: “It was a critter. You get to understand the structure, which is valuable for someone who’s carving a roasted bird as well,” Patterson says.

More of his pro-cutting logic: The bird stays fresher longer when it is whole. Super of the chicken council is not so sure about that, but he does say that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service set standards for, and began sampling, raw chicken parts for pathogens such as campylobacter and salmonella only in the past few years (as of February 2016); similar standards had been in place for whole birds since 1996.

If you eliminate the stress, They Will Cut. That is the takeaway lesson from my hands-on experience with newsroom colleagues. Over the past four months, sessions of five mostly millennial volunteers at a time spent an hour with me after work in the WaPo Food Lab – their own knives in hand, to help familiarise the process of breaking down a bird. We made sure their tools were sharp enough for the task and not too large, because when you know how to cut up a chicken into eight or 10 pieces, you do not need to hack through a single bone.

Their reasons for wanting to learn were mainly - 1. Conquering poultry fears in a non-intimidating situation, 2. Augmenting their life skills, and 3. Saving on food costs. Heartening!

The anatomy of the bird, being symmetrical, gives folks an immediate opportunity to practice what they have just learned. Remove one wingette, then do it again on the other side. One leg quarter, then the other.

Treasures were uncovered along the way: Chefs and informed cooks know about the bird’s two “oysters” - those dime-size discs of dark meat that sit in pockets on the underside. They are a tasty treat and a test, in Patterson’s universe, of carving competence. The fact that the tenderloins were attached to the breast produced an “aha” moment every time. (“That’s where they come from?”) One buoyed participant figured the new skills would help with his Thanksgiving turkey carving, and he was right.

Each group noted how easy the task was, and the word “empowering” was mentioned more than once. Some knew the non-meaty parts are good for making stock and that the skin can be fried into crisp, sinful snacks. I bought chickens from different vendors and stores along the way, which prompted discussions about variations in skin colour and tone, size and presence of a giblets packet – the liver, heart and/or gizzard. (Large-scale processors tend to sell those off for other uses; small-scale farmers may sell them separately or upon customer request. But lately, none of those pieces are in high consumer demand.)

The subject of whether to rinse the chicken came up often. The Food and Drug Administration says no, as splashed water can spread bacteria. I understand the impulse to wash, because birds treated with a salt-solution for packing look like they are in need of a shower. But a few minutes of verticality over the garbage can, plus a pat-down with paper towels, will make them suitable for handling.

Poultry shears work, especially when you want to spatchcock, or butterfly, a whole bird by cutting through the backbone. Chicken on the bone cooks faster that way. For cutting chicken into parts, a six-inch knife with a thin, flexible blade is preferable. But ever since I watched the famous French chef Michel Roux break down a couple of chickens using my $5 serrated paring knife, I have followed suit.

You cut through skin to expose joints, which can be bent till they pop. You can cut close to that cartilage without brute force. You also cut along some thin lines of fat, as professionals do in seam butchery. Bones lend flavour, so leaving them in will improve the taste of most cut-up parts. But once you head down this road, you can see how the meat of a chicken thigh is easily teased away from the bone with short cutting strokes, attached marginally by cartilage at the top and bottom.

Americans eat an average of 91 pounds of chicken per person per year, according to the NCC’s Super. Even if we embraced the DIY bird breakdown, would we know what to do with all of it? Isn’t just buying the bits we eat more economical in the long run than creating waste?

Again, a little education can do wonders, and looking into the chicken habits of other cultures is a fine place to start.“As a Filipino of a certain age, I learned how to kill the chicken, bleed it and cut it up when I was growing up,” says Annie Cabayan Wilderman. As an assistant manager at Capitol Hill Poultry in Eastern Market, she sees people buying more parts than whole chickens, and she cringes at the thought of all those backs and necks going to waste: “There is no focus on how to mitigate it in this country.”

On a recent weekend afternoon, she showed me how the gizzard (a muscle from the chicken’s stomach) and other giblets can be cooked, separately, to eliminate impurities, and used as flavor and texture enhancers. Chicken feet were offered as well: “They are the tastiest! That’s why we don’t use bouillon cubes.” The giblets joined wing tips and other skin-on bony bits in a pot for a thorough saute. Then she added water, fresh ginger and a touch of seasoning blend known to Filipino cooks. Within an hour of furious bubbling, simple and inexpensive ingredients yielded an impressively chicken-y broth. Chayote, green papaya, baby bok choy and fresh pepper leaves completed the soup, which is called tinola in her native country.

In her take on the light-tasting Filipino stew, the meaty parts of the chicken got a similar saute treatment, a different seasoning blend and braise. She began by using a little salt and running water – no fan of the FDA no-rinse guideline – to get rid of what she calls some “gooey” membranes between skin and flesh. Wilderman cut each bone-in breast half crosswise into four or five pieces, stretching the number of servings and keeping the pieces close to the same size, which ensured their simultaneous doneness. Small potatoes cooked separately, frozen peas, fresh carrots and a last-minute addition of bell peppers lended colour and crunch.

And because boneless, skinless chicken breasts offer little flavor yet sell so well, she brought along the makings for marinated chunks to be skewered and then grill-basted with a mahogany-colored ginger-soy sauce. They could pass for dark meat any day.

Surely all that food, from one whole chicken, makes learning the art of poultry butchering all the more opportune.