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What does it mean to spatchcock a chicken?

Is it the same thing as butterflying a chicken?

How do you do it?

And who decided to call it “spatchcocking” anyway? Sounds kind of dirty…

I asked myself all of these questions too when I first came across the term spatchcock in an old cookbook recipe for grilled chicken. Naturally I had to look up the definition immediately.

Much to my mischievous curiosity’s chagrin, the term is strictly used in the context of cooking.

What It Means to Spatchcock a Chicken

According to Merriam Webster, a spatchcock is “a fowl split and grilled usually immediately after being killed and dressed.” So used as a verb, to spatchcock, means to split a chicken in half and grill it.

Straightforward and pertinent enough. No inappropriate anatomical references whatsoever. Darn.

Rumor has it the term dates back to 18th century Ireland and is actually an abbreviation for “dispatch the cock.” In this case cock being yet another abbreviation for “cockerel” or male chicken. As someone who has raised her fair share of male chickens (roosters), I can fully appreciate the sentiment.

Like all chickens, the roosters start out as adorable fluff covered baby chicks. They make sweet chirping sounds and eat politely right out of your hand. I mean just look at these cuties we raised a few years ago. The chick nearest the waterer and the black one with the big yellow spot on its head are both baby roos.

Cute, right?

Well one one day the fluff gives way to fancy feathers and they transform into territorial monsters that attack your children and draw blood. (True story. We don’t keep roosters anymore.) In those moments, “spatchcocking” makes a lot more sense.

For the record I do not condone animal cruelty or enjoy “dispatching” livestock but I accept that humane culling is a reality of homestead life.

And for those you upset by seeing a picture of baby chicks in the context of grilling a chicken – um, where do you think chicken comes from?

Anyway, moving on.

How to Spatchcock a Chicken

Thanks to Merriam Webster we know spatchocking a chicken means to split it in half and grill it. Now let’s talk about how to actually do that.

Step 1 – find a mean rooster.


Sort of.

But seriously, spatchocking a chicken is a simple, three step process.

1. Prepare the chicken (assuming you bought a whole chicken ready to cook from the store).

Remove any neck parts and giblets from the cavity and give the whole bird a good rinse if you’re the kind of person who washes your chicken. Pat the chicken dry and place it on a cutting board or covered surface, breast side down.

2. Remove the spine by cutting along either side with kitchen shears.

I like to start with the tail side but either way works. I’m right handed so I cut to the right of the spine. The trick here is to have sharp kitchen shears (these should do it) and a strong grip. Cut all the way through, then spin the chicken 180 degrees and repeat on the second side of the spine.

Spatchcocking a Chicken
Spatchcocking a Chicken First Cut
Spatchcocking a Chicken Removing the Spine
Spatchcock Chicken Spine

Don’t throw out the spine! Chicken backs are one of the best parts to use to make chicken stock. Save it in a plastic Ziploc bag or container in your refrigerator for up to two days until you’re ready to use it.

3. Break the breastbone and flatten the chicken.

Time to give your chicken CPR. Flip the chicken over so the cut side is facing down and the breasts are up. Place two hands on the center of the chicken and press down firmly. Once the breast bone breaks the chicken will lay flat.

Spatchcock Chicken Breast Bone
Spatchcock Chicken Lays Flat

That’s it! You’re now ready to grill your chicken. Technically speaking the chicken will only be “spatchcocked” once you grill it. Raw or cooked any other way and your chicken is technically “butterflied.” Referring back to our trusty Merriam Webster dictionary, to butterfly something means to “split almost entirely and spread apart.”

So all spatchcocked chickens are butterflied but not all butterflied chickens are spatchocked. Good to know.

A Note on Cleaning and Germs

Raw chicken may contain a variety of bacteria, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, that can make you seriously sick if consumed or exposed to an open wound. (Dry cracked hands in wintry New England, anyone?)

Counterintuitively, this is why many experts now recommend not washing your chicken before cooking it. Washing the chicken may cause you to splash the germs around your kitchen accidentally while simply cooking the chicken supposedly kills all of the bacteria.

I still wash my chicken before I cook it – mostly because I never fully recovered after reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in high school.

Anytime I’m working with raw meat I’m always careful to wash my hands with soap and water before touching anything else in the kitchen. When I’m done prepping the meat I disinfect all the surfaces it came in contact with with soap and water on a sponge or clean cloth. In the rest of the house I use Clorox wipes but they’re harsh on granite countertops and contain chemicals you wouldn’t want getting into your food.

Lots of people find the thought of handling raw chicken scary or disgusting but with simple precautions like washing your hands and cleaning surfaces it’s really no big deal.

For those of you still anxious about germs and bacteria, there’s a growing body of research that organic chicken contains less antibiotic-resistant bacteria meaning doctors will be better able to help you in a worst case scenario. If you’re really nervous about germing up your kitchen, buy organic.

When and Why to Spatchcock a Chicken

Now we know what spatchcocking is and how to do it, let’s talk about about why and when you should.

You should spatchcock a chicken when…

You’re in a hurry – A spatchcocked chicken cooks up to 25% faster than an intact whole chicken. Less time cooking means more time for everything else.

You don’t like dry meat – With the breasts level with the thighs while cooking, the former are less likely to dry out.

You love crispy chicken skin – Spatchcocking the chicken exposes more area of the chicken skin to indirect heat and air which makes for more crispy skin.

You want to make soup – Like I mentioned before, chicken spines are great for making homemade chicken stocks.

You’re grilling – Spatchcocked chicken grills more evenly than a whole intact chicken due to a more level cooking surface. If you’re grilling, spatchcocking is the way to go.

When Shouldn’t You Spatchcock?

Let’s be honest, spatchcocked chickens look a little… odd. I mean, what does this look like to you?

Don’t answer that.

There’s nothing more charming than a whole roast bird on a serving platter. If you’re planning on displaying the whole chicken on a table then you’re better off not spatchcocking, it just won’t look right. If you plan on slicing it up before serving then by all means, spatchcock away.

Ready to give it a try? This whole grilled chicken recipe featuring mint and wood sorrel calls for a spatchcocked bird. If I can do it, you can do it. Bon appétit!

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