How to Spatchcok a Chicken (or other poultry)

How to Spatchcok a Chicken (or other poultry)

“Spatchcock” is a strange-sounding word. What’s it mean? Well, it’s a term for preparing a whole chicken or other poultry.  To spatchcock a bird is to remove its backbone and press it flat.  This makes it much easier to ensure even cooking using dry heat methods such a grilling or the Cinder Grill.  This procedure is also known as “butterflying” the bird. A little knowledge and knife work is all you need to do this.  Then you can cook luscious recipes such as Chef John Cirtchley’s Whole Roast Chicken and Whole Roast Duck. You can also transform the bird into evenly sized parts. It all starts here. 

Here are the tools you’ll need:

  • Poultry scissors aren’t required but they’re very helpful
  • A flexible boning knife
  • A heavier chef’s knife
  • A cutting board to work on
  • A nonskid liner to go under the cutting board
  • A tray to receive the chicken
  • A bowl to receive useful scraps
  • Paper towels
  • Gloves, if desired

A Brief Discussion of Anatomy

The basic plan of this project is to remove the bird’s backbone and then to flatten it out.  After that it can be easily divided into bone-in parts.  If you’ve never done this before, it can be helpful to locate the bones and joints before you start cutting. Dry the chicken off, put on your gloves if desired, and lay it breast side down on your work surface. Starting at the wings, press down firmly enough to feel the bones beneath the flesh. Take note of how the backbone attaches to the wings, the ribs, and the thigh joints. These are the connections you will sever.

Position Your Chicken

If you haven’t already, pat your chicken dry and position it breast down on the cutting board, with the wings away from you and the legs towards you.  Taking your boning knife or kitchen shears in your dominant hand, grasp the triangular tail gland with the other. Carefully start to cut between the spine and the thigh, curving your knife to keep it against bone and thus retain the maximum amount of meat. 

Once you’ve separated the spine from the thigh, you will need to switch out for a heavier chef’s knife if you’re using a boning knife.  You can continue onwards with kitchen shears. Continue to tug the tail to maintain tension, which helps you cut towards the bones. Separate the ribs from the spine -- you’ll probably cut through some ribs here. That’s okay. Keep going up around the wing and through the join there, and one side of the chicken will be free.  You can now repeat this procedure on the other side.

From Spatchcock to Parts

Before proceeding, gently feel the rib ends for any sharp or ragged edges. Trim those off with the kitchen shears or the chef’s knife. 

Now, to finish flattening the chicken, look at the keel bone (aka sternum) in the center of the breast. Score it with your knife, then put your hands on it, one atop the other, and press down with the heel of your hand until it cracks beneath your pressure. Your chicken is now spatchcocked, nice and flat, ready to be seasoned, marinated, and cooked.

To divide the chicken into parts the legs should be easy to cut away -- only skin holds them to the rest of the bird. Use the heavy chef’s knife to cut through the keel bone along the crack started by your previous score. This gives you two bone-in breasts with wings attached.

To remove the wings, finish cutting through the joint where you separated the wings from the backbone.  And to separate the thigh from the drumstick, feel the joint between them, insert your knife tip in that join, and cut through it. 

Culinary Riches

Now you have a chicken’s spine, full of bones, connective tissue, and flavor. Also, depending on your recipe you may not want to include the wings or the drumsticks. However, do not discard these culinary treasures! You can fill a bag in the freezer every time you spatchcock a chicken, and when the bag is full make homemade chicken stock. Also, you can add one or two of these to commercial chicken stock and simmer for an hour to greatly improve it. 

Now that you know how to spatchcock a chicken you can do this with any bird you can handle, from Cornish hens to turkeys and beyond. The flattened bird will cook beautifully on any method you choose, and is especially suited to your Cinder Grill!


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