Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Oysters on a Chicken

Quartering a chicken was one of the things that we were told we might be evaluated on at our first exam earlier this week. There are a couple things that chefs always do when cutting up a chicken that I had never done at home, beginning with removing the wishbone. The first thing that anyone at the FCI does when starting to work on a whole chicken is remove the wishbone. You can feel the bone right at the front of the breast meat, forming the familiar wishbone "V" with the point of the V on the breast side of the chicken and the neck above the wide end of the V. To remove it, you feel where it is with your fingers, and then use just the tip of your paring knife to cut the breast meat away from the sides of the wishbone, holding the side of the knife right against the bone so that you don't take any meat out with it. Once the sides of the bone are freed from the meat, you can work your fingers behind both sides of the bone and break it right out. The bone is removed because carving the breast meat off the whole bird is much easier without having that bone in the way and getting the heel of your knife caught on it.

The other thing chefs do carefully when they cut up a chicken is make sure to get a bit of meat right at the end of the thigh bone where it joins the body called the "oyster." (If you have heard of "mountain oysters," have no fear, this is completely unrelated to that.) Chefs often say that the oysters are the best bits of meat in the chicken. I have yet to remember to pay attention as I eat the chicken to see if I can notice any difference: most of the chickens I've eaten since I learned about the oysters have been eaten in about 30 seconds, standing up with a plate in one hand and chunks of chicken held caveman-style in the other hand, with someone yelling at everyone to get working on the next thing or clean up the kitchen so we can go home.

To successfully get the oyster meat, you begin by marking the chicken so that once you begin to cut it up and lose its whole shape, you'll still be able to tell exactly where the oysters are. In the picture below, you can see the oysters as small bumps that I've marked with yellow arrows. They are toward the lower or rear part of the back (where the rear part of the back is toward the upper right in this picture). Using the line between the oysters (which is the line of the backbone), and another line right in front of the oysters (diagonally just below and to the left of the oysters in this picture) clearly visible as an indentation across the back perpendicular to the backbone, you can see an "X" on the back of the chicken, and the center of the X marks how far into the chicken you'll need to cut when removing the leg quarters to make sure you get the oysters. We mark that X by making two straight cuts through the skin of the chicken there before we begin to cut it up. (The chef in the Level 2 kitchen next door to us while we were in Level 1 was named Xavier, and he told his students to remember to make an "X for Xavier" in the back of the chicken.)

Location of the "oysters" near the "X" on the back.

Chef Marc has demonstrated many times for us how to take the leg quarters off and make sure to get the oysters. He makes it look very easy, like he simply takes his knife and nonchalantly slices off the entire leg quarter by effortlessly cutting all the way from the side of the chicken to the center of the X, then rounding the corner and cutting down toward the back, and off comes the whole leg and thigh with no resistance, just as though he carved off a chunk of butter with a warm knife. I tried over and over to do this, but I kept failing at it, and I couldn't figure out why. It was frustrating because every time Chef Marc did it, the whole thing seemed to come right off with no problem, but every time I did it, I ran into a bunch of bone and couldn't get all the way to the middle of the X. At last, with the help of our assistant instructor Chef Matthew, I learned that the oyster sits in a little cup of bone, and that you can't just slice it right off with the middle of your knife. In retrospect, I know now that Chef Marc was lifting his knife all the way up so that as he rounded that corner at the middle of the X, he was only using the tip of the knife to scoop that bit of meat out of the cup of bone and keep it attached to the skin of the thigh. But he did it so quickly and smoothly that I never noticed he was doing it -- you only need to lift your knife for about a half or three-quarters of an inch along each line of the X as you round the corner, so if you do it deftly it looks like part of a natural slicing motion that varies its depth randomly.

Here you can see the cup of bone that the oyster sits in.
It would be easier to see had I gotten the meat out more cleanly.
The cup and the other oyster are indicated by the arrows.

The oyster is probably called an "oyster" because loosening it with your knife is a lot like loosening the meat of an oyster from the half shell it sits in: you hold your knife horizontally against the shell or bone, and run the tip of your knife between the meat and the surface of the bone or shell to separate the meat from the shell. In the picture below, the oyster meat is sitting on top of the blade of my knife, and the point of the knife is resting on the far edge of the cup of bone, so that the knife cannot be angled down any more vertically than it is, because the bone is in the way. This is why you can't get the oyster by just slicing with your knife vertically right around the corner.

The oyster meat sitting on top of my knife.

When you get the leg quarter off, if you've gotten the oyster, it is clearly visible as a separate bit of meat at the end of the thigh bone and sticking out from it slightly on the side of the thigh away from the end of the leg.

The oyster meat on the removed leg quarter.

Another trick that chefs have that I've found works pretty well is to make a cut with a paring knife through the thigh meat along the thigh bone into the top of the drumstick meat. This allows heat to better penetrate the joint between the thigh and the leg, and as a result, you can cook your breast meat properly and the thigh and leg will also be done at the same time. Without that cut, the leg and thigh take longer to cook all the way through that joint. The cut also allows you to easily debone the thigh after cooking right before serving.


Anonymous said...

i have my final practical exam today at AI in Michigan, in which i have to debone a chicken. I noticed I have the same knife as you. The oysters always evade me as well, but this was helpful. Thanks :)

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