Kitchen Basics: How To Properly Trim Chicken Breasts

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Chicken is something we all eat, and for many of us chicken breasts is an essential part of at least two or three meals of the week. Although you can find chicken breasts bone in, bone out, skin on, skin off, you still need to do a little bit of cleaning with those breast fillets. The general rule is to remove anything white, yellow, or bloody in order to have a perfectly clean piece. This posting will show you how to do that.

First, check out your breasts. The chicken, not your own thanks. From the store, you can find them sold as follows:
  • Whole: both breasts and tenderloin connected, bone removed, skin on or off
  • Separated: breast is cut in half including tenderloin giving you a fillet; bone in or out, skin on or off
  • Breast fillet: no tenderloin
  • Tenderloin: the small strip of meat found under the ribs of the breast
[1 whole breast, cut in half, with tenderloins, bone removed and skin off, sitting side by side]

Removing The Connective Tissue
Sometimes (ok, often) you'll find the breast comes with this thin, clear or lightly white skin on top of the breast. This is the connecting tissue between the meat and the skin, and often butchers forget or are too lazy to remove this. You will need to so that the chicken will cook properly, especially if you're planning to sear or braise as this tissue will not melt during cooking.

To remove it, simply slide your sharp boning knife under the skin strip and holding it with one hand and pulling gently upwards to create tension, slide your knife through the chicken right between the skin and the meat like this:

How To Remove Tenderloins
There are two parts to the chicken breast: the bulk of the breast which sits on top of the ribs and on either side of the breastbone, and the smaller thinner piece called the tenderloin which sits on the underside of the breast, near the ribs. When you purchase bone out chicken breasts, they will come with or without this tenderloin piece. If they come without, then fine; if they come with, then it's a good idea to remove them before cooking because they are smaller and will cook faster than the rest of the breast. If you have kids, I particularly like removing them and making them separately for the kids "chicken finger" style, even if we're grilling because they are the perfect side and shape for them to pick up with their hands, cook faster and more evenly, and often can be served before the meal for them if they are starving.

To remove the tenderloins, simply locate the smaller piece on the main breast. You'll know it because it will literally hang off of the main, larger piece. Then take your knife, and just cut it off the main piece like this:

Notice how the tenderloins are smaller and skinnier compared to the main breast piece:

[left: main breast; center and right: 2 tenderloins]
You can finish cleaning up the tenderloins and cook them with the breast, then take them out about halfway through the cooking process because they will cook faster than the main breast, or save and use later for another dish.

Removing the Cartilage
The hardest part of cleaning up the larger breast piece is removing the tissue around where the cartilage met the bone. It's very tough, extremely unpleasant to eat, and often comes blood-tinged which will carry over into your cooking and turn that part of the meat bloody also (even though it's fully cooked). So although totally edible, for aesthetic and texture reasons, we like to remove it. 

To remove, pinch the top of the cartilage with your hand, then make an incision with your knife to pull up a larger piece. Take a good grab of it and gently pull away with the hand that's holding it away from the knife, as you cut following your hand that's pulling. This is creating resistance which will make it easier to cut.

Notice how I'm holding a good chunk of it -- it's ok if some meat comes off with it -- and I'm pulling downward with my left hand that's holding the cartilage piece while I'm following in a downward motion, sliding my knife after my left hand.

Another part of cartilage that is often found is this strip of gristle:

It's extremely tough and unpleasant, so remove it. Same technique at work here: pinch a piece of it, pull with one hand while sliding your knife under and following to remove it.

And here's an example of that bloody connective tissue I was talking about. Remove it the same way and discard.

Wash and Pat Dry
After trimming your chicken breasts, wash then under cold water and then pat dry with paper towels. They are now ready to be seasoned and cooked.


Kelly said...

Thanks for this post; very thorough and helpful.

Jodi Davis said...

I needed this. I always feel like I'm wasting a lot when I trim. Come to find out, I don't do too badly. :o)

Hannah Stein said...

This was so helpful! I taught myself how to cut a chicken breast but how to effectively remove these parts I was unsure of. Not many people share this because they think it's common sense... but this is super helpful! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

It would be wonderful if you could post a video! These instructions are great, however, I'm a visual learner. Thank you for writing your instructions and considering a video.