Hank Sawtelle is a former engineer and patent attorney and a recent culinary-school graduate. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, daughter, KitchenAid stand mixer, and Vita-Prep blender.

How to save money in the kitchen

A little knife work goes a long way

By
October 24, 2008

One easy way to make your grocery dollar go farther is by doing some basic knife work in the kitchen. For example, why pay the store (or distributor) to cut up a chicken for you? The markup on chicken parts can be extreme.

On a recent trip, my local chain grocer was selling local, free-range whole fryers for $1.79 per pound (on sale). The same brand of boneless, skinless breasts were $7.99 per pound, and thighs and legs were $2.69 and $2.49 per pound. “Drumettes” (the big part of the wing) were $2.89 per pound.

I brought home a 4.72-pound bird ($8.45), cut it into parts, and weighed them (the results are summarized in a table below). Incredibly, the boneless, skinless breasts alone are worth more ($10.14) than the entire chicken at grocery-store prices!

As discussed in a recent Culinate article and Dinner Guest Blog post, there are plenty of worthy uses for the other parts of the chicken, which you are essentially getting for free when you cut up your own bird.

PartsWeight (Pounds)Price per PoundValue of Parts (if purchased separately)
Boneless skinless breasts1.27$7.99$10.14
Thighs0.77$2.99$2.30
Legs0.54$2.89$1.57
Drumettes0.25$2.89$0.72
Bones (for stock/soup)1.18
Skin (discarded)0.39
Giblets/juices (discarded)0.32
TOTALS4.72$14.73
Price paid – whole bird$8.45
Markup percent74 percent

What allows stores to charge these markups? Are they cashing in on their customers’ anxiety about cutting up the bird? It’s really not very hard; if you’re comfortable cooking a chicken, you can handle breaking one down, too.

All you need is a halfway-decent knife and a cutting board that you can wash thoroughly afterwards (I use a dishwasher-safe composite board for raw proteins). A stiff or flexible boning knife is ideal for the task, but a chef’s knife is fine if that’s all you have.

If you’re not crazy about handling raw poultry, cheap latex gloves are an easy fix and are quite common in professional kitchens.

There is more than one way to cut up a bird; this video demonstrates my preferred method. The most important trick is to slide the knife cleanly through the center of the joints rather than cutting through any bones.

With a little practice, you’ll be able to break down a bird in a couple of minutes, and you’ll never pay the grocery store to do it again. (Thanks to Kitchen Gardens Network for the video.)

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1. by Ricardo on Oct 24, 2008 at 11:11 AM PDT

Is a “dishwasher-safe composite board” the recommended cutting board for “raw proteins”? I typically prefer the “feel” of a wood cutting board (bamboo) but have always wondered about contamination.

Latex gloves are a great idea! thanx.

2. by Hank Sawtelle on Oct 24, 2008 at 11:31 AM PDT

Ricardo,

There is actually a ton of science and discussion on wood vs. plastic vs. composite surfaces and bacteria. I definitely prefer wood and use it most of the time as I think it’s best for my knives. I don’t cut up a lot of meat at home, but when I do I reach for my dishwasher-safe composite board, which is definitely a little harder, but the knife doesn’t really contact the board when I am breaking down a bird.

There are studies that indicate wood is actually safer, because the fibers “trap” the bacteria and they can’t be extracted (I am paraphrasing). Plastic and composite on the other hand don’t have that characteristic, and they can become difficult to clean thoroughly once they are heavily used.

So I’m not sure there is a definitive answer, but there is certainly scientific evidence to support a wood-only approach if that’s what you’re comfortable with.

Hank

3. by arbeck on Oct 24, 2008 at 11:40 AM PDT

And if you don’t want to do it yourself, ask the people at the meat counter. They’ll cut up the bird to spec if you ask them.

4. by anonymous on Oct 24, 2008 at 2:02 PM PDT

Not only is buying a whole chicken cost effective, It’s also a good idea. Why? Because often those chicken parts can be part of a less than healthy bird. By buing the chicken whole, you’re more likely to get one that wasn’t injured badly or diseased.

5. by chick from engineering on Oct 24, 2008 at 2:30 PM PDT

very cool analysis. thanks.

6. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Oct 24, 2008 at 7:46 PM PDT

At the risk of being a total knife nerd, the ideal tool for the task is one of these. I just got one, and wow, the chickens just cut themselves up when they see it coming.

7. by Carrie Floyd on Oct 24, 2008 at 8:02 PM PDT

you’re a cut-up yourself, mamster, with that last comment!

8. by batever on Oct 26, 2008 at 12:35 AM PDT

Nice article. You saved me some work, because I’ve been thinking of doing this analysis myself. I still might, because I wonder how it would turn out with supermarket-brand birds, the kind I usually buy.

As far as how people settle for that markup, I think the reason the stores can do those markups is people these days (a) like to pay for convenience and (b) don’t even have a scale in their kitchen so they would never think of analyzing how much cutting up their own bird would save them.

9. by arbeck on Oct 26, 2008 at 7:36 AM PDT

I’ve always wanted a honesuki. But there are only so many knives my wife will let me own!

I did something similar with a duck this weekend. For around $10 I bought a whole duck at a local Asian market. It was $1.99 a pound. Out of that I got two leg and thigh quarters for confit; two breasts for a roast; wings, feet, head and carcass for stock; neck skin for sausage casing; and about a cup of duck fat. A very good deal indeed!

10. by Spencer on Oct 28, 2008 at 12:49 PM PDT

What do you mean “Skin (discarded)”? That’s the best part, man.

11. by arbeck on Oct 28, 2008 at 1:16 PM PDT

I thought that was weird too. At least render the fat out of it.

12. by batever on Oct 28, 2008 at 1:20 PM PDT

@spencer (What do you mean “Skin (discarded)”? That’s the best part, man.)

how do you cook the skin?

i tend to just use it in stock.

btw, i just sectioned a chicken yesterday. I didn’t have a honetsuki knife, but I did have a cheap 50s era Ecko paring knife that I recently sharpened on my Shun waterstone.

It acquitted itself admirably!

13. by arbeck on Oct 28, 2008 at 2:23 PM PDT

Chop the poultry skin into manageable pieces. put it into a small pot with a cup or so of water. Turn the heat to low. All the fat will render out, and the water will boil off. Soon you are left with the skin cooking in the fat. When the skin is golden brown take it out and eat it!

14. by anonymous on Oct 28, 2008 at 5:34 PM PDT

In re wooden cutting boards: Based on the advice of a friend, I sprinkle kosher salt on the wet board after washing in order to sterilize it.

15. by Hank Sawtelle on Oct 28, 2008 at 7:54 PM PDT

@Spencer: to clarify, I removed the skin from the breasts to do a direct comparison with the grocery store “boneless skinless” commodity parts. I left the skin on the legs, thighs, and drumettes. I removed excess skin from the carcass because it’s not helpful in stock. (I just end up skimming the rendered fat)

@batever: as long as it’s sharp almost any knife should work. I’m at my dad’s house this week and I broke down a bird using 4 dull knives and it was brutal.

@anonymous: I’ve never heard of salt being used as a sterilizer in the kitchen (as opposed to a post-sterilization preservative).

16. by arbeck on Oct 28, 2008 at 8:30 PM PDT

Kosher Salt and lemon juice/vinegar will kill most every bad thing living on a cutting board. But what I like to do is spray the board down with vinegar, and then spray it down with hydrogen peroxide. A nice oxidation reaction that will kill anything.

17. by batever on Oct 29, 2008 at 10:54 AM PDT

@arbeck: Ok, I’m gonna try cooking the skin like that. Thanks for responding to my question.

@ fat skimming: I save the fat in a jar for roasting potatoes with! Some people do this with the fat left over from roasting, which is much more flavorful than stock fat due to the other factors in it.

18. by Richard Yarnell on Oct 29, 2008 at 1:54 PM PDT

Why on earth would you discard the skin (use it to flavor the stock you’re going to make with the bones) or the giblets? Skim the excess fat and put it by for making soap. There’s going to be fat to skim anyway. Nothing wrong with poultry “chitlins” either.

If you’re doing it one chicken at a time, put a bag or two in the freezer to which you can add stock bones, skin, etc. and a second for those nuggets that make terrific breakfast treats or whole meals when you’ve accumulated enough of them. Nothing like chicken heart and livers. The gizzard is pretty good too though it takes a lot longer to cook than either the liver (but a moment) or the heart (but a moment longer than the liver).

ry

19. by Hank Sawtelle on Oct 29, 2008 at 5:09 PM PDT

I don’t like excess skin/fat in my stock, but there are plenty of other uses for schmaltz as discussed. At the restaurant I worked at they grind up chicken skin, fry it until crisp, and use it as a garnish.

20. by Gastronerd on Nov 2, 2008 at 12:53 PM PST

I like to roast my my whole chicken then throw the picked over carcass into my pressure cooker. Two one hour cycles mkes a stock so rich and golden you can’t stand yourself... and thick with the natural gelatin from the bones. Sigh. I wish I was having some tonight.

21. by batever on Nov 2, 2008 at 1:42 PM PST

Yes, I use a pressure cooker too.

The last time, I did an experiment. I had made stock using only the chicken back, neck and internals.

Then, when the stock was done, and poured into containers, I took the chicken back and the small bones and put them in my blender and broke them down (no problem for an average blender after those small bones (not leg and wing bones) have been pressure cooked.

(
As a rule of thumb, if you see any cartilage on the ends of the bones after making stock, you can still go aways in getting value from it. The cartilage will dissolve into the broth after a whil. And breaking the bones allows greater extraction of marrow)

I added some stock and water back in and set it on again for an hour.

I poured the slurry into a wire strainer and strained out all the broth. After being refrigerated it was the creamiest stuff I’ve ever seen.

And my cat loved the leftover chicken slurry.

22. by anonymous on Nov 13, 2008 at 9:25 AM PST

At the prices you quote, your suggestion makes sense.. BUT.. your prices make the difference.

At Sam’s Club, I bought boneless skinless chicken Breasts at $1.79/lb. Whole FRYERS (less expensive than baking) cost about $1 a pound and baking chickens more... but there is a greater ratio to meat / waste.

Drumsticks, thighs, wings, backs, etc have a lot of waste/lb.

In my case.. I have found buying breasts (either boneless/skinless or with bone, etc) a much better deal than whole fryers.. whole baking chickens are competitive, but you have to weigh the good meat/waste when you consider the prices..

23. by arbeck on Nov 13, 2008 at 10:20 AM PST

First of all, if you are wasting any part of a chicken, you are simply doing it wrong. Bones and trimmings should be going in your stock pot.

Second of all, I’d be awfully worried about where by $1.79/lb chicken breast was coming from. To get it that cheap, they’re obviously going to be cutting corners on cage space and feed.

Third, how many pounds of breast do you have to buy to get that price? I know from experience at Costco, that I have to buy 5+ lbs to get that price on the breasts. While chicken breasts freeze OK in a home freezer, they do lose quite a bit of quality, and when the quality isn’t that good to begin with, you can simply forget about it.

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