Home > Cooking school > Knives and Fire XVIII (Week 5)

Knives and Fire XVIII (Week 5)

Chicken Day

Today we took apart and cooked chickens.

Chickens are poultry – a domesticated bird bred for eating. Other examples of poultry are ducks, geese, turkeys, guinea and ratites. Ratites are flightless birds with small wings and large breastbones – ostrich, emu, rhea. They have red meat like beef but sweeter. They’re not kosher.

Chicken is the most popular poultry in the US, with turkeys in second place. They have light and dark meat (dark meat coming, as usual, from the more active parts, with more connective tissue and fat), relatively little and very accessible fat (no marbling), a neutral taste that takes on other flavors *and* they’re inexpensive. They’re also, for the most part, suitable to most cooking methods – they’re extremely versatile.

We did a costing exercise for chicken that showed that whole chickens that cost about $0.96/lb can end up, once they’re cut up and cleaned and so on, about $1.20/lb. Whole animals, of course, are the least expensive way to go, all things being equal. Except they’re not. The chef has to weigh as purchased cost vs. storage and labor and needs – why buy parts you don’t need? Inventory costs money; inventory you won’t use costs more.

We also discussed sizes of chickens, from tiny game hens weighed in ounces to capons and stewing hens that can top six pounds.

And then we put the books away and took out the cutting boards, the knives (chef’s knife, paring knife, boning knife, honing steel) and the gloves. And G dumped a whole chicken on our cutting boards. (I’d just finished sharpening my knives, too.)

First item: trussing. Admission – I’ve never trussed a chicken. Trussing makes the bird more compact and evenly shaped. It also protects the breast meat by covering it with the legs. This not only presents a better appearance, it also cooks more evenly, which makes a better product. So. How do you truss? Turn the bird onto the breast, the rear face you. Cut a long length of butcher’s twine. Put the twine under the wings, from front of bird to back, placing it as far back in the joint as possible. Put the wings close to the body and criscross the twine over them, pulling very tightly. Bring the twine down the back until you get to the legs. Flip the bird over, so that the twine is between the legs and the body, and the rear is still facing you. Cross the twine between the legs over the rear (still pulling tightly) and tie the ends of the legs together. Done. Well, it’s easier done than said.

I had the slight handicap of a chicken missing most of wing – and pretty much all of them were missing a wing tip. They were also extremely feathery birds. Kosher chickens tend to be feathery since they cannot be given the hot water bath that makes easier to mechanically pluck birds, but these birds had more than I’d ever seen. We cut, scraped with our boning knives, plucked with tweezers, and I discovered a paper towel helped, too. I still doubt I got it perfectly clean. (BTW, Canadian chickens are clean. They have to be – Canada will not allow the sale of feathery birds. The kosher distributors hire people to finish “flicking” their poultry.)

After we trussed our birds, two were put on to roast – chef rubbed them with oil with sage and garlic powder and black pepper. We then untrussed them. Chef demonstrated how to cut a whole bird in half by using the heel of the knife to chop through the backbone in one motion, and then used his fingers to remove the keel bone so he could just slice the chicken in half lengthwise. This was a 4lb bird, which means it was too big for half to be a serving. Half of that (bone-in) was about one pound uncooked and would be a serving. If one wants to serve a half chicken, one uses a two pound chicken.

Half chickens make a nice plating, with stuffing under the skin – this is neater and safer than stuffing the cavity.

But we were to divide the chickens the other way – the short way. We cut the skin connecting the legs to the breast. Then we broke the backbone in half with our thumbs (chef’s favorite butchering tools) and cut the skin that connected the two halfs. And there we had it – one piece with two legs and one piece of breast and wings. The leg halves were all collected, so we had only the light half the chicken on our boards.

We were shown how to remove the first joint of the wings (remember, no wingtips) – grasp wing and twist joint until it pops, and cut through. I only had to this once. Now we had top halves of chickens with humerus bones sticking out. We were to make a cut called a suprême, or an airline cut or a hotel cut – a half-breast with skin (or without skin), and no bones except the naked humerus. The humerus is naked because we french it – we scrape off all the meat and tendons. But first, we need to remove the breast from the frame.

We found the keel bone and sliced along one side of it until we got to the wishbone, which we cut around. Then we found the wing bone and popped it so we could slice the meat off with it, and did the same to the other side, leaving a fairly clean frame and preserving the tender (I sort of butchered one of my tenders.) Tenders are the strips of muscle attached to the breast that are often removed. All our tenders were collected. And then we cut around the remaining wing bone and scraped it clean, and, using the heel of the knife blade, cut the top off it. Now we each had two airline cuts. We then removed the skin and the wing bones – boneless skinless breast fillets, just like you buy in the store. (The bones were all saved for stock; the skin and fat for rendering.)

We trimmed them neatly, and that was that. Chef did demonstrate how to butterfly a fillet to make it thinner – just from side to side about 90% and open and pound flat. He also said his preferred method, which is to slice a breast on the diagonal as we did the veal, and make scallops. Makes a nicer presentation.

Then chef showed us how to bone out an entire bird while leaving the skin and meat behind. I can’t begin to describe it, but it was cool. He cut that in half to show how one would wrap the skin of the leg around a stuffing and roast it.

Then we got the back halves back. First we removed the legs from the remaining back bone. There’s a flap of connective tissue between each leg and the backbone. We moved this flap towards the back bone and slice down until we got to the joint,which we popped (using our hands) and then pulled so that the meat stayed with the leg – and sliced through the skin. We wanted to keep the oyster of meat with legs.

Now we had to bone out the legs. There’s a line of fat on the thigh, right over the bone. We were to follow that with our boning knives, pulling with our fingers until we freed the end of the bone, which we then scraped down. Then we went to the drumstick, and found a similar line, freeing the bone with first knives and fingers, cutting the skin at the end of the leg and pulling the end of the bone. We now had two bones connected to the leg meat and each other in the middle. Pinching and cutting, we freed the joint from the meat. We eventually had two pieces of dark meat with skin on one side. We trimmed off the larger tendons, and then removed the skin. And our chickens were done – lumps of light meat, strips of tenders, lumps of dark meat, skin and fat rendering, bones waiting to be used for stock.

(I loved all of it. I like butchering birds.)

Then we did some cooking. First, chef showed proper breading technique. Have three bowls – one of seasoned flour, one of seasoned beaten eggs and one of seasoned breadcrumbs, with a sheet pan on the end. Take your non-dominant hand (your wet hand) and pick up object to be breaded. Put in flour. Cover with flour and shake off with dominant (dry) hand. Drop in eggs. Pick up with wet hand. Drop in bread crumbs. Press the bread crumbs in with dry hand and place on tray, pressing down again to make sure it all adheres. This is an improvement over my previous method, which used my right hand exclusively, leaving the left (non-dominant) hand clean (I did some breading.)

What did we do with the breaded scallops and tenders? We deep fried them. We also made some drummettes (Chicken ulnas with the meat pushed up to a lollipop, which were breaded, deep fried and finished in the oven.) We also breaded and cooked some dark cutlets with barbecue sauce – very yummy. We then did the same techniques on the chicken scallops as we did on the veal. We also discussed how to hold these for later service or for Shabbat dinner – cook the chicken and keep warm instead of putting in the sauce. Keep the sauce warm. At service, pour the sauce over the meat.

In the middle of this, we took out the perfectly cooked roasted chicken and – oh, so good. Nothing as nice as roast chicken fresh out of the oven.

Yeah. Busy, fun day.

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  1. avram wiseman
    February 3, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    great blog post today. I love how you properly identified the name of each bone when describing the fabrication techniques!
    You do write so well you should get an award for best blog posting, you know like an Oscar or an Emmy. Perhaps this one should be called the DEBBIE.
    Keep up the great work.

  2. Judith Deutsch
    February 4, 2009 at 12:44 am

    Do you keep a tape-recorder hidden away in your pocket? It is so nice of you to post all these information. You have a photographic memory and great ability to describe each session in writing.
    Now, I can read about what happened during the days I had not been in school.Thanks for sharing.
    See you next Tuesday!


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