I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the inherent differences between a restaurant chef and a home cook. What we make in restaurants versus what people feel comfortable making for a dinner party. How we approach ingredients differently. How we approach the process differently.
It seems to me that there are three primary differences that affect how a chef and a home cook approach food: experience, confidence, and workspace.
A restaurant chef works with food for at least 40 hours per week (and often way more than that). Time alone will take the daunt out of most food. In addition to the amount of time spent with food is the shear volume of that food. Searing 50 scallops a night makes that expensive protein approachable. It also teaches you how to read the ingredient. How to hear the color of the crust instead of flipping it every 30 seconds out of anxiety, which not only disallows even browning but risks tearing the flesh each time.
That understanding and comfort with the food simply makes a chef confident. Like buying a home, the first time seems insane and impossible and the second time a lot of work but not a right of passage in the same way.
Restaurant kitchens are cooked in; that's their purpose. Home kitchens less so. Clear the crap off the counter to give yourself space. Keep your knives sharp. Put a wet towel under a cutting board so it doesn’t slip around. Make the room do what it is supposed to, enable you to cook a meal. And make it so that you can actually clean it up afterwards.
Everyday chicken exemplifies these difference between restaurant and home. The ubiquitous meat that is the butt of many jokes, can induce anxiety in the under-experienced, seems unduly difficult to clean up, and taking the time to break down a bird rules out a 30-minute meal plan.
To alleviate that fear, under the guise of ease, the ‘chicken parts’ industry arose. Why buy a whole thing when you can just get the breasts, big and beautiful, and neatly lined up ready to go.
The reason is because you don’t know what the rest of the bird looked like. What happened with the legs? Maybe nothing. Maybe they are sitting right next to the breasts in their own Styrofoam boat. Maybe not. Once, when wondering about what comes of the birds that get caught in the conveyor belt while being shuttled onto the delivery truck, a chicken farmer said to me with a shrug, “Well, parts is parts.” The pick of the chick might actually be the pickins that are left. And that voice rings in my ears every time I pick up a tray of shrink-wrapped thighs.
But I also don’t always want to roast a whole thing. And I too want some cuts that are quick and easy to turn into dinner in a jiff. So cut up the bird. Below are step-by-step instructions to joint a chicken. A couple of bits of advice, given to me along the way: you should be comfortable, follow the fat line and 90% of butchery is done with your fingers.
Be comfortable. If you are reaching across the bird to cut something and your hand is at a weird angle, turn the bird instead of straining your wrist.
Follow the fat line. Lines of fat are the road markers of where the pieces want to come apart naturally. Follow those lines and you will be working with the ingredient as opposed to dulling your knife cutting through a bone instead of around it.
90% of butchery is fingers. Before you cut, feel the animal with your fingers. Do you feel where the joint is? Cut there. Use your fingers to apply gentle downward pressure as you pull the breast away from the bone. The breast will slide off and you won’t cut through those sharp ribs.
Set the chicken, breast side up on a stable cutting board. With a sharp knife, preferably a boning knife or very sharp paring knife, cut through the skin that connects the drumstick to the body. Most animals are built to be taken apart. There is only a thin layer of skin and fascia that connects the two joints. The fascia will tear away with the probe of a finger. Cut the other side as well.
With your palm on what would be the chicken’s knee, your middle finger on what would be the chicken’s butt press the leg away from the body until you feel the ball joint that is near your middle finger pop. It sounds gruesome, but it happens quite quickly and it will never think of anything else when in prone frog pose in yoga class again. Do it again to the other leg.
With the tip of the knife, cut around the oyster meat, what would be the chicken’s love handle if chickens were built like us. And then cut between the ball and the socket of the joint you just popped. Like I said, chickens want to come apart. You shouldn’t have to dull your knife to make it so.
Similarly, the joint between the drumstick and thigh is marked by a fat line giving you a road map to separate the two. Using the tip of your knife, cut through that line to separate the leg.
To remove the breasts, flip the chicken back over to its original position. The breastbone is the dividing line between. Cut just to one side of the breastbone and cut straight down until you reach the ribs, using your fingers to pull the breast meat away as you go. Continue cutting along the ribs until completely removed. Then go on to the other side. (I almost always start on the left side, but there’s no reason why.)
All you’ll have left on your cutting board is a chicken carcass with scary bat wings. Cut them off by cutting through the ball and socket joint in what would be the chicken’s armpit if it had arms instead of wings. Then cut off the little wing tips.
And you’re done. Two breasts, two thighs, two drumsticks, two wings and a body.
Wrap the pieces that you aren’t going to use in two layers of plastic wrap and then freeze for another dinner. I usually keep all the chicken parts in a plastic bag to keep a stray drumstick from getting lost in the back of the freezer.
And make stock with the bones. It tastes better than store-bought, is cheaper and makes use of the entire animal. You can freeze the bones too and let the quantity build up and then make one big batch of stock. Better yet, buy 3 whole chickens, joint them in succession gaining confidence each time and then make a big batch of stock and have enough parts in the freezer to feed you and yours for a good while.
Basic Chicken Stock
This ratio can be used to make any sort of stock. For a darker richer stock roast the bones first and roast them until they are pretty dark.
3 chickens backs, necks, wing tips, and/or feet
3 stalks celery
2 T peppercorns
- In a large stock pot place the bones and cover with cold water
- Bring to a boil, skimming off any scum or foam
- Add the vegetables, herbs and peppercorns
- Reduce to a simmer and cook for 4 hours or until the broth tastes meaty
- Strain through a fine mesh sieve and chill
Important Points to Remember
- Start with cold water, as it slowly comes to temperature more of the grossness will be pulled from the bones, making scum
- Skim that scum dillegently—these two points will yield clear broth
- The heartier the bones, the longer they will need to simmer
- Fish and Vegetable broths do not need to simmer more than 30 minutes—the longer they cook the muddier the flavor will be