How to Debone a Chicken
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Knowing how to debone a chicken is a kitchen skill that will definitely come in handy.
No matter how you buy chicken—online or at the butcher shop, whole or in pieces—learning how to debone a chicken is a valuable skill. If you’re like me, you buy whole chickens and cut them at home, saving a ton of money (and getting to keep all those chicken bones to make stock!). But deboning chicken is useful even if you buy pre-cut pieces. Your recipe may call for boneless chicken thighs when all you have around is the bone-in variety, or you may fall in love with crispy skin-on chicken breasts (a cut you can usually only get if you remove the bone yourself at home). If you’re feeling really fancy, you can remove the bone from chicken quarters to make some fantastic stuffed chicken recipes.
While deboning a whole chicken is time-consuming and a bit challenging, removing the bone from chicken breasts, chicken thighs and chicken legs is easier than you’d think.
Tools You’ll Need
A sharp knife is critical for deboning chicken. Depending on the chicken piece you’re deboning, you may need a large knife (a butcher cleaver or sturdy chef knife) in addition to a small knife. A boning knife is best, but a paring knife works here, too.
You’ll need to set the chicken on a sturdy cutting board. I prefer using plastic cutting boards when preparing raw meat and poultry because you can pop them straight into the dishwasher after using them.
If your cutting board doesn’t stay in place, wet a thin kitchen towel and place it under the board to keep it from sliding.
How to Debone a Chicken
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If you want to debone a whole chicken, you’re probably preparing chicken galentine or chicken ballotine, elegant dishes that are made with a boned, stuffed chicken that’s poached in broth. You’ll also need to debone a whole chicken if you’re preparing a turducken, one of the most complicated Thanksgiving dishes of all time (a deboned chicken stuffed inside a deboned duck stuffed inside a deboned turkey).
Deboning a whole chicken is a little tricky. You have to be careful throughout this delicate process to remove the meat from the carcass while also leaving it in one piece. If it sounds way too complicated, ask your butcher to debone the chicken for you; they’re usually happy to do so.
Step 1: Remove the wishbone
To remove the wishbone, position the chicken breast-side up with the neck facing towards you. Feel around at the neck for the wishbone and make a small slit on either side, starting at the top and slicing until the knife reaches the shoulder. Repeat the process on the other side.
Using your fingers, carefully pull the wishbone up to remove it from the neck. I often use a paper towel to get a better grip on the slippery bone. It’s a delicate bone, so it may snap in half as you remove it. Take care to remove any bone fragments if that happens.
Step 2: Remove the wings at the second joint
We’ll leave the drumette portion of the wing attached to the carcass, but you’ll want to remove the flat and the wing tip. Use your fingers to locate the joint between the wing flat and the drumette. Slice through the joint. Turn the chicken and repeat the process on the other side.
Step 3: Cut the meat from the bone at the shoulder
With the chicken breast-side down, cut down the center of the backbone to expose the meat. Turn the chicken on its side and lift the wing. Use your finger to feel the joint that connects the wing at the shoulder. Cut through it with your knife, turn the chicken over and repeat the process on the second shoulder.
Position the chicken so it’s upright on the cutting board with the neck up. Holding the bird with one hand, pull the meat down away from one shoulder until you see the oyster. You shouldn’t need the knife here, as the meat is not connected by any bones until the hip. Repeat the process on the other side.
Step 4: Remove the breast meat
Now that the chicken is deboned at each shoulder, pull down the front of the chicken to remove the breast meat. Again, you shouldn’t need a knife here. The tenders will remain attached to the carcass, and you can go back and remove them later.
Step 5: Cut the meat from the bone at the hip
The only place the chicken is still attached to the carcass is at the hip. With the chicken on its side, make a small semi-circle around the oyster to cut around the joint. Put the knife down and grasp the chicken by its knee. Bend the knee and position the leg so it’s parallel to the spine. Then, pull it up and away from the body. You should hear a satisfying “crack” when the joint pops out of its socket. If you’re having trouble with this step, play around with the leg’s angle and try again.
Cut through the joint and give it a firm tug to pull the leg free from the body. You shouldn’t need to use your knife, but you can cut downwards along the backbone for assistance if you’re experiencing difficulties.
Repeat the process on the other side.
Step 6: Remove the leg bones
At this point, the chicken meat is entirely removed from the carcass (save the tenderloins, which you can remove by running your finger along the breastbone and pulling them out).
To remove the leg bones, cut around the end of the thighbone until you can grab it in one hand. Using the base of your knife, scrape down the bone until you reach the knee. Cut around the joint and start scraping again when you reach the drumstick end of the bone.
When you reach the bottom of the drumstick, use a meat cleaver to remove the bottom inch of the drumstick bone. The scraped bone inside will come free. If you don’t have a cleaver, you can use the back of your knife to break the bone, leaving the drumstick tip attached to the meat.
Step 7: Remove the wing bone
Our last step is to remove the wing bone from the shoulder. Cut all around the joint until you can push down on the meat. The bone should release easily.
How to Debone Chicken Breasts
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Most chicken breasts are sold as boneless, skinless chicken breasts, so the work is already done for you. If you want boneless, skin-on chicken breasts, though, you’ll need to purchase a split chicken breast and debone it at home.
Place the chicken breast skin-side down on the cutting board. Starting at the thickest part of the breast, run the tip of your knife down the bone where the breastbone meets the meat. You’ll need to make several passes from the thickest part of the breast down toward the thin end, using your free hand to pull the breastbone up as you cut.
When you reach the rib cage, angle the knife along the rib cage and pull the breastbone up firmly with your free hand until the breastbone releases. There may be a piece of the wishbone on the top end of the breast, which is easy to remove by pulling it out with your fingers.
How to Debone Chicken Thighs
If you bought chicken quarters (thighs with the legs attached), place the chicken skin-side down on the cutting board and locate the joint between the thigh and the drumstick. Slice through the joint to separate the two pieces.
Remove the skin from the thigh by pulling it off with your hands. Then, position the thigh with the formerly skin-side down to locate the bone that runs through the meat. Use the tip of your knife to cut through the meat on top of the bone. After cutting down the entire length of the bone, make small flicking motions around the bone using the knife’s tip to remove the excess meat.
When the bone is exposed, cut around one end of the bone until you can grab it with your fingers. Use a paper towel to hold the bone if it’s too slippery. Scrape down the bone using the base of your knife until you reach the second end. Cut around the bone until it comes out clean.
How to Debone Chicken Legs
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If your chicken leg is sold as a quarter (thighs with legs attached), you can remove the leg bone as one piece. Cut around the end of the thighbone until you can grab it in one hand. Use the base of your knife to scrape down the bone until you reach the knee. Cut around the joint and start scraping again when you reach the drumstick side of the bone. Scrape all the way down to the bottom of the drumstick.
(If you’re working with just the drumstick, use the tip of your knife to cut through the meat on top of the bone. Cut around the bone at the thick part of the drumstick to expose the end. Then, hold the bone and scrape down with the base of your knife until you reach the end.)
Use a meat cleaver to cut off the bottom inch of the drumstick bone. The scraped bone inside will come free. If you don’t have a cleaver, you can use the back of your knife to break the bone, leaving the drumstick tip attached to the meat.
Tips for Deboning Chicken
Know knife skills
Deboning chicken can seem a little intimidating, but it’s easier than you think with good knife skills. Start with a very sharp knife and always keep your non-cutting hand out of harm’s way. Raw chicken is slippery, so curling your fingers like a claw around your thumb will keep your digits safe.
Keep the work area clean
It’s super important to practice proper cleanliness when working with raw chicken to avoid contaminating other foods with Salmonella. Wash any knives and cutting boards you used, along with your hands, before moving on to any next steps. It’s a good idea to sanitize the counter before preparing any ready-to-eat food, too.
Save the bones
Anytime you’re breaking down chicken, be sure to save the bones to make homemade chicken stock. I keep chicken bones in a gallon freezer bag, adding to the frozen bag anytime I debone a chicken. When the bag is full, add them (frozen is fine!) to a large pot with water, chopped onion, celery, carrots, bay leaves, whole black peppercorns and herbs like parsley or thyme. In a few hours, you’ll have homemade stock that’s even better than the store-bought stuff.