8-Cut Chicken: The Classic Fried-Chicken Cut

Fried chicken should be eaten off the bone.  Following is the classic way to break down a whole chicken into boney pieces that can be dredged and deep-fried.  Traditionally there is a lot of cutting through the bones, which is fun but can leave little shards in the meat.  I’ve cleaned up the method somewhat by separating at the joints where possible.  Even so, I wouldn’t cut this way if I were feeding small children.

We start by removing the legs at the hip.  Bend the leg backwards to expose the joint, then cut with a knife.

Removing the leg

The leg, removed

To separate the thigh and drumstick, bend the knee against it’s will until it snaps, then cut through the joint.  These are the first two pieces of our final eight.

The drumstick and thigh, separated

The same process is repeated on the other side of the bird so that we have two drumsticks and two thighs.

Now the interesting part.  We’re going to cut out the spine of this bird, which is way easier than it sounds.  A heavy knife will easily break through the several adjoining ribs.  Flip the chicken over so that you are looking at its back.

The back of the bird

Make a cut down one side of the spine, all the way down the chicken, from the shoulder to the tail.

Cutting along one side of the spine

Repeat the cut on the other side of the backbone and remove the spine.

Removing the spine

Next is another through-the-bone cut.  Looking into the bird, at the very centre we can see the keel bone, or sternum.  We’re going to bust through that to divide the chicken in two.

The keel bone, or sternumWith the keel bone split, we have two quarter chickens

Finally we cut through the breasts, dividing each into two, roughly equal pieces.  You need to chop through the rib and shoulder bones beneath the flesh.

White quarter chickens

Dividing the breasts

 

Our 8-cut chicken: eight pieces with lots of bones, all of roughly equivalent size.

8-cut chicken!

 

Lamb Cutting: Front

Having removed the scrag when breaking the lamb into primals, the components remaining on the lamb front are the shoulder, the breast, and the shank.

I love having ground lamb in my kitchen, so usually I bone out on entire lamb shoulder just to run it through the meat grinder.  The other half is broken in a bone-in shoulder roast, a boneless breast ideal for stuffing and rolling, and a shank, one of the world’s supreme braising cuts.

Here is half of the lamb front, with the fell still attached.

Lamb front, with fell

We remove the fell to expose the fat cap.

Lamb front, fell removed

Here is the inside of the front, showing the backbone on the top, the first six ribs, and the breastbone on the bottom.

Opposite side of the front

Use a handsaw to separate the front into the shoulder (top) and the breast-foreshank (bottom).  The cut is made roughly parallel to, and a few inches below, the backbone.  The bone-in shoulder make a fantastic roast.

Dividing the front into the shoulder (top) and the breast-foreshank (bottom)

There is a natural seam between the foreshank and breast.  Follow that seam with your knife, and the two are easily separated.

Removing the foreshank from the breast

The breast portion can have the sternum and ribs removed in one piece.

Removing the breast bones from the breast meat

Lamb Cutting: Loin and Flank

The loin primal is divided into two sections.  The forward part, from the thoracic section of the spine, contains ribs, and is usually trimmed to make rack of lamb.  The back part, from the lumbar section, contains no ribs, and is usually broken into lamb chops.

 

Dividing the Loin Primal into the Rib and Loin Subprimals

This is the whole loin primal, with the fell still attached.

The whole lamb loin

Here is the underside of the loin primal.  You can see the rib section on the left, and the loin subprimal on the right.

The underside of the whole lamb loin

We divide the two by cutting after the last rib bone, then cleaving through the backbone.

Separating the loin primal into the rack and loin subprimal

 

How to make a Frenched Rack of Lamb

Frenched lamb rack is simply a lamb rack with the long rib bones exhaustively cleaned.  This an extremely popular cut in fine restaurants because of the showy presentation.

First, if it’s still attached, remove the fell from the rack.

Yanking the fell from the lamb rack

Next we remove the layer of meat and fat that is covering the rib bones.  We landmark this cut by looking at the cross-section of the rack and locating the central, round group of muscles.

Cross-sectional view of a lamb rack

We cut away all the meat and fat from the rib bones above the central round muscles.

Cutting away the fat cap to expose the ribs on a lamb rack

Now cut away all the meat and fat from between the ribs bones.

Cutting the meat out from between the ribs on a lamb rack

To get the ribs super-clean, we use butcher’s twine.  Tie a three foot length of twine to something very solid and sturdy, either a heavy table or cabinetry.  Wrap the twine around the base of one of the bones, pull it tight, then slide it over the bone and off the end.  It will pull meat and fat and connective tissue with it and leave the bone cleaner than it ever would get by scraping with a knife.  Repeat for all the bones.

Frenching a lamb rack with a length of butcher's twine

Below you can see how effectively the twine cleans the bones.

Here you can see how clean the twine gets the bones

Now we have to remove the chine, or backbone.  I find this the hardest part.  For a proper French lamb rack, we have to remove the backbone without removing the attached ribs that we just cleaned so diligently.  Despite what you’ve heard, this can be done without a saw.

Making small, exploratory cuts with your knife, follow the feather bones down to the chine as closely as you can, exposing the ridge where the ribs meet the chine.

The feather and chine bones on a lamb rack

Exposing the chine bone on a lamb rack

Now the idea is to pop the ends of the ribs out of the chine.  I use a cleaver, but I am not cleaving through any bones; I’m simply whacking the meeting point so that the ribs are dislodged from the backbone.  Once you’ve broken through the rib-chine adhesion, you should be able to separate the two with your boning knife.  I’ve you’ve broken through some of the ribs so that you have fractured ends, that’s fine.

Here’s the lamb rack with the chine bone removed:

Lamb rack and removed chine

 

Along the bottom of the meat-end of the rack there might be something that looks like a thick, yellowish rubberband.  On a beef this is called the backstrap.  There is probably a lamb-specific term for it, but I’m not sure.  This absolutely has to be removed, as it is primarily elastin, a connective tissue that doesn’t break down, no matter how much heat, moisture, and acid it is exposed to.  You may have inadvertently removed it when cutting out the chine bone.

The backstrap on a lamb rack: kind of looks like a yellow rubber band

Remove the rib membrane.  The ribs should still be attached to the meat along at least an inch of their length.  There is a membrane covering this section that can be removed.  This is just like removing the rib membrane on pork back ribs.

Finally all we need to do is trim back the fat cap.  This may or may not be necessary, depending on the lamb.  Ideally there will be a fat cap covering the entire section, no more than 1/8″ thick.

Here are the final French lamb racks:

French rack of lamb

 

Breaking the Loin Subprimal into Lamb Chops

The loin subprimal, the lumbar region of the backbone, is usually cut into lamb chops.   Lamb chops are analogous to the T-bone steaks on a side of beef.  In the picture at left, the round, white bone at the bottom of the chop is the chine bone, or backbone.  Extending up from this is a finger bone.  To the right of the finger bone is the lamb’s tenderloin, roughly one inch in diameter.  To the left is what would be the striploin on a beef.

As always when working with lamb, we start by removing the fell.

Next we want to separate the central loin muscles from the less desirable side meat.  We landmark the separation by looking at the cross-section of the loin, as seen below.

Cross-section of the loin subprimal

Remove the side meat, reserving it for trim.

Trimming the loin subprimal

Now we want to separate the loin into chops.  I cut so that each chop corresponds to one vertebra.  Since the feather bones and chine bones overlap somewhat, we’ll need to use a cleaver.

You can see the individual vertebrae clearly in the picture below.  I make a cut following the line between each vertebra all the way around the loin.

Chine bones, or vertebrae

Then a light cleave through the feather bone, and a heavier cleave to separate the vertebrae, and we have lamb chops.  You should get five or six chops from each loin.

Lamb chops

 

Boning the Lamb Flank

The lamb flank is a tough, fatty, skinny flap of meat.  It can be braised, but is usually ground.  All that is required to process the flank is to remove the ribs.

Lamb flank

Lamb flank with the sheet of ribs removed

Lamb Cutting: Leg

This post is about preparing a whole lamb leg for a classic roasted leg of lamb, or gigot.  This is the whole leg, straight from the animal.

A whole lamb leg

First remove the tail bone, which you can see running along the top of the leg primal.  On the forward end of the tailbone (to the left in the picture below) is the connection to the pelvis.  Since lambs are so young, you should be able to easily break this adhesion.

The exposed tailbone on a leg of lamb

The leg, tailbone removed:

Lamb leg, tailbone removed

Next remove the pelvis.  This is a complicated little bone.  Follow it as closely as you can, making small, exploratory cuts with a boning knife.

Now we can turn the leg over and remove the fell, which is a layer of skin that has dried during hanging.  The fell may want to pull some fat away with it.  Don’t let it.  We want a thin layer of fat on the leg to protect it in the oven.

Pulling the fell, a layer of skin, from the lamb leg

Trim away the sirloin and the adjacent pocket of fat.  The sirloin is a great cut, but with the tailbone and pelvis removed, it’s an exposed flap of meat that will cook much quicker than the rest of the leg.  The pocket of fat is obviously too fatty to be roasted, plus it contains some glands, which should always be removed from meat.

Removing the sirloin flap and some of the fatty tissue from the groin

Finally we clean up the shank bone.  This is strictly for presentation purposes.  Save the trim for grinding.

The cleaned leg of lamb

 

At this point the leg contains only two bones: the leg bone (femur) and the shank.  If you wish, you can very easily removed them and divide the leg into boneless roasts.  As young lambs are so fatty, I always save lean trim from the hind leg to balance out my ground meat mixture.

 

Lamb Cutting: Breaking a Lamb into Primals

This is a whole lamb from Tangle Ridge Ranch.  Notice that, unlike pork and beef, the lamb has not been cut in two down the spine.  The carcass is easy to handle (typically 40-60 lbs, maybe a bit smaller for grass-finished varieties like Tangle Ridge).  It’s traditionally broken into four primals:

  • front,
  • leg,
  • loin, and
  • flank.

A whole lamb from Tangle Ridge Ranch

 

Removing the front.  The first primal to be removed is the front, which is separated from the rest of the animal by cutting between the sixth and seventh ribs.  You can count the ribs by putting your hand inside the cavity.  Slide a knife between the sixth and seventh ribs and cut all the way up to the backbone, and all the way down to the sternum, which the knife should easily break through.  Use a handsaw to cut through the backbone.

The front is separated by cutting between the sixth and seventh rib

The front, removed

 

Dividing the front.  Since I have my handsaw out, I usually divide the front into two halves along the spine right away.  First I remove the neck, which on sheep is called the scrag.

Lamb front, scrag removed

Then turn the front over to expose the sternum, or breast, of the lamb.  Use the handsaw to break through the cartilage and open up the chest cavity.

Sawing through the sternum

Saw along the centre of the backbone to divide the front in two.

The lamb front, divided in two
Removing the legs.  Next the legs are separated from the body.  They are usually removed so that the entire pelvis and adjacent sirloin are left on the legs.  There are two ways to landmark this cut.  You can feel along the outside of the hip to find where the pelvis ends, or you can look within the cavity and cut between the last and second last lumbar vertebrae.

The loin, flank, and legs, still attached
Cutting before the pelvis to separate the legs
The legs, separated from the loins and flanks

Dividing the legs.  Again, since I have the saw out, I separate the two legs.  Turn the legs over to expose the underside.  Saw through the lower end of the pelvis.

The underside of the hind legs of a lamb
Cutting through the bottom part of the pelvis

Now pull the legs apart and saw along the centre of the back bone.

The two lamb legs, separated

Dividing the saddle.  We are now left with the middle portion of the lamb, sometimes called the saddle.  At the top, on either side of the backbone, are the loins.  Below them, towards the belly, are the flanks.

The middle of the lamb, the loins and flanks

First we divide the saddle in two by turning it over and sawing along the centre of the backbone.  Be precise, as this is where the prime cuts, the rack and chops, will come from.

Turning the saddle over to expose the spine
The two loin-flanks, separated

Separating the loin and flank.  Now we can separate the flanks from the loins.  The separation point is determined by how long you want the bones on your rack of lamb to be.  I make a cut parallel to the backbone four to six inches down the ribs.  Break through the ribs with the hand saw, and finish the cut with your knife.

The loin-flank
The flank and loin, separated

That’s it, for now.  Our lamb has yielded the following:

  • the two halves of the front primal,
  • a scrag,
  • two hing legs,
  • two loins, and
  • two flanks.

Future posts will describe how to trim these into the familiar ready-to-cook cuts of lamb.

Intro to Meat Cutting at Home

A whole lamb from Tangle Ridge RanchWhy buy whole animals and cut them up at home?

It’s the cheapest way to get the highest quality, local meat into your kitchen.

It’s also a rewarding hobby, and if you’re sincerely interested in food and cooking, it’s the best way to learn the different cuts of meat, where they come from, and how they’re best prepared.

Buying whole animals is easy: find a producer that you trust, call them up, and they’ll most likely deliver the animal to your door.  This post is about how to process that animal once it’s at your house.  It covers basic safety principles, the equipment you’ll need, and some tips on managing time and space.

 

Temperature and Food Safety

Meat needs to be kept cold as it’s processed.  Temperatures between 0°C and 4°C are considered safe.  Temperatures between 4°C and 60°C encourage bacterial growth, and meat that stays in this range for more than two hours is considered potentially unsafe, even if it’s later cooked.  This is simple enough for poultry or rabbits that can fit in the fridge, but how do you keep a large animal carcass cold during a process that might take a few hours?  Unless you have a walk-in cooler, the simplest solution is to kick it old school and cut meat outdoors in the chilly shoulder seasons, when the temperature is around 0°C.  You can set up shop in your garage or on your deck, and the meat will be able to sit for hours without warming up and entering the “temperature danger zone.”  If it’s too cold to be working with your hands outside for hours at a time, consider breaking the animal into smaller sections called primals outside, then taking them one at a time into the house to break them down further.  This way each primal is only spending maybe 30 to 45 minutes in warm temperatures.

Equipment

A handsaw, cleaver, French knife, boning knife, and steelBoning knife.  This is the workhorse knife of the meat-cutter.  It’s shorter and more slender than a typical chef’s knife, and is therefore easier to manoeuvre around bones and muscle groups.

Chef’s knife, aka French knife.  It’s helpful to have a long, stiff knife for making straight cuts through meat, such as when slicing a large roast into steaks.  Meat-cutters use an especially long, slightly medieval-looking knife called a scimitar, sometimes spelled cimeter.  I use a 10″ French knife.

Handsaw. Handsaws are used for cutting through bones.  While commercial North American butchers might break down an entire animal using just a bandsaw, the meat-cutting instructions on this site are actually designed to minimize the number of cuts made with a saw.  Sawing creates bothersome bonemeal, and sometimes bone fragments, which are certainly unwelcomed guests at the dinner table.  You can, strictly speaking, break down any animal using only a knife, but to get some classic cuts, like pork side ribs or bone-in sirloin steaks, you’ll need a saw.

While you can probably use a handsaw that you already have lying around your house, meat-cutting handsaws have a certain shape and density of teeth (measured in “teeth per inch,” or TPI) that make sawing through bone almost effortless.  As a safety precaution, the teeth are shaped so that the saw only cuts as you push it away from you, not when you pull it towards you.  They come in a variety of lengths.  I use a 25″ meat-cutting handsaw.  I mostly cut pork, and the 25″ saw lets me cut across the entire rib cage at once.  I’ve tried longer saws and I find them unwieldy, but that has more to do with my own upper body strength than anything else.  I would highly recommend buying one.  They’re available at butcher supply shops like Halford’s, or hunting outfitters like Cabelas, and typically cost about $100.

Cleaver.  Like the handsaw, this is not completely necessary.  While a cleaver can punch its way directly through bones, I never use them for that, because of the above-mentioned bone fragments.  I use a cleaver to break through tight joints and adhesions, like between the vertebrae.

Cleavers should be heavy in the hand but still easy to control.  I bought a Henckels cleaver from Hendrix for $40.

More Safety

You will cut yourself.  On a long enough timeline, every one cuts themself, even the pros.  There are products made to avoid the worst kinds of cuts, like chainmail gloves to be worn on the non-knife-wielding hand, but the surest prevention is using caution and common sense.  Never cut directly towards your hand or body.  Never have two meat-cutters working the same piece of meat.  Keep your knives impeccably, irreproachably sharp.  Oh, and have a simple first-aid kit with bandages nearby.

Plan Your Cut Specs

Despite what the proctors of my journeyman cook exam might say, there is no set, proper way to cut any animal.  There are many classical methods (notably French, British, American, and Austrian) but ultimately the correct way to cut meat is whatever way gets you the cuts that you want to cook or cure.  Will the pork shoulder be kept as large roasts to make pulled pork, or cut into blade steaks to be grilled?  Do you want to maximize the amount of belly you get from the pig, or do you want to leave long arcs of side meat on your pork chops?  Think about this before the animal arrives.

Prepare Curing-Rubs and Brines in Advance

Meat-cutting can make for long, tiresome days, so anything that speeds up the process is most welcome.  For instance.  On most of the pigs I cut, the tongue, hocks, and hind leg are brined to make ham.  Having that brine ready before I start cutting means that as soon as those pieces of meat come off the animal, I can throw them in the brine bucket and forget about them.  The belly almost always becomes bacon.  Having the cure mix ready, all I need to do is weigh the belly, scale the cure, rub the belly down, and put it in the fridge.  I also turn the oven or barbecue on, and as soon as I’ve collected all my stock bones, I throw them into the fire to roast.  These sound like small things, but when the day is long, and fridge and freezer space is at a premium, it helps to plan ahead.

Meat Storage

For me the only serious downside of buying whole animals and cutting them at home is that most of the meat has to be frozen.  Freezing is hard on meat.  As ice crystals grow, they puncture nearby cell walls, and when the meat thaws those cells leak fluid.  It’s a small but noticeable compromise on quality.

There are two other risks in freezing meat, but with proper care they can be mitigated or avoided completely.  The first is freezer burn.  The atmosphere in fridges and freezers is actually very dry, so dry that frozen water on the surface of the meat can sublimate.  The tiny holes that are left behind scatter light, and therefore appears as brownish scars on the meat.  Protecting the meat from air is the surest way of preventing freezer burn, so all meat should be wrapped tightly in plastic bags.

A roll of butcher's paperThe second major risk, especially since we are storing so much meat for so long, is that the fat can turn rancid.  Whether in nuts, or oil, or meat, when fat oxidizes it takes on a peculiar smell that we describe as rancid.  It’s not harmful, but it’s unpleasant.  If you’re unsure what rancid fat smells like, go to the bulk section of a supermarket and stick your head in the bin of walnuts.  Chances are they’re rancid.  Exposure to light accelerates the oxidation of fats.  Our freezers are dark most of the time, but as a further precaution the meat should be wrapped in opaque material to protect it from light.  This is the chief function of butcher’s paper, which is a sturdy paper somewhere between printer paper and construction paper in weight.  Typically one side of the paper is waxed.  This side is meant to face the meat, and prevent meat purge from leaking out of the package.  I bought the roll of butcher’s paper shown above from Halford’s.  It cost $30 and will probably last for five years.

Once all your meat is cut and wrapped, you truly have a meat shop in your home, and every couple of days you get to pick through a selection and quality of meat that is unrivaled by any restaurant or butcher shop in town.

As far as freezer space goes, you can probably fit more meat into what you already have than you might think.  A quarter of a pig could easily fit into the small freezer over your fridge.  We have a chest freezer that is 32″ long and comfortably fits a quarter of beef, a side of pork, a whole lamb, and a miscellany of frozen fruit.

Thawing: More Safety

The absolute worst way to thaw meat is to let it sit on the counter.  It’s inefficient, and unsafe.  The outer surface of the meat, where any and all bacteria hang out, will stay in the temperature danger zone for several hours as the centre of the meat thaws.

The absolute best way to thaw meat is to remove the butcher’s paper, keep the plastic wrap on, and submerge the meat in very cold water.  The heat exchange between the meat and water is crazy efficient, and the meat thaws while never straying above 4°C.

Thawing meat by letting it sit in the fridge is safe, but inefficient.  Large roasts can take several days to completely defrost.

Conclusion

Now that you know the basics of cutting meat at home, you can start exploring the individual animal pages on Button Soup.  Pork, lamb, poultry, and rabbit all have step by step meat cutting instructions.  Some day soon I hope to have beef cutting posts, too.  Bison and large game animals like moose and elk have pretty much the same skeleton and musculature as a cow, and are usually cut in the same manner as beef.  Very small game animals like young deer can be divided like a lamb.

 

Resources

Books
  • Manual of Meat Cutting and Processing.  This is published by the Canadian Professional Meat Cutters Association, and is the text used by the culinary and meat-cutting school at NAIT.  It contains a lot of info that I will never use, like the guidelines on how industrially raised pork is graded, but it also has solid explanations of how to break up animals.
  • The Art of Beef Cutting by Kari Underly is a beautiful book of cut-by-cut photos.
  • Button Soup meat cutting posts also walk you through every cut for beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and rabbit
Equipment
  • Hendrix – restaurant supplier with a good selection of knives and cutting boards
  • Halford’s – for specialty items like meat-cutter’s handsaws, butcher paper, and almost anything else you can use to process meat

Cutting Rabbit

…a “break” from tradition…

Rabbits are not traditionally butchered by neatly separating the joints, as you would a chicken.  They are broken into forequarters (shoulder-foreleg), hindquarters (hip-hindleg), and a saddle (backbone, with surrounding loins, tenderloins, and belly) by cleaving right through the bones.  In a rustic preparation, all these parts, with bones, would be thrown into a stew.

Chefs often bitch about the tedium of cutting rabbit, “especially since there’s practically no meat on them.”  Their words.  Not mine.

The problem with cleaving is that you’re bound to splinter the bones.  I’ve bitten down on a fragment of rabbit bone in restaurants more than once.  Taking the time to properly butcher the rabbit by cutting through the joints and not breaking the bones minimizes the chances of choking someone.  It also shows that you care about your ingredients and take your job seriously.

Anyways…Below, from top left: hindlegs, suet, kidney, heart, liver, tenderloins, forelegs with shoulder attached, and finally loin with belly attached.

 

A fully separated rabbit carcass