Butterfly Vs. Spatchcock: What's The Difference?

When searching for poultry recipes, you may come across two terms that might be unfamiliar: butterfly and spatchcock. What do they mean, what is the difference between the two terms, and why is either a necessary step?

Unlike burgers and steaks, which have mostly uniform thicknesses, a chicken breast is thick on one side but thin on the other. When grilled as is, the breast cooks unevenly. By the time the thicker side is cooked to the correct temperature, the thinner side will be overcooked and dry. Meanwhile, trying to cook a whole chicken on a flat surface leaves one side scorched and the other side undercooked. 

Butterflying and spatchcocking are both common techniques to equalize the thickness of poultry meat to ensure even cooking. The technique lends itself to many applications, including grilling, sautéing, and roasting. The difference in what you call it lies in whether the bird is in pieces or whole.

Butterflying chicken breasts

Butterflying the breast is a great way to ensure even doneness on the grill, flat top, or any other cooking surface with the heat on only one side. By cutting the breast crosswise about three-quarters of the way through and opening it like a book, you get a more uniformly thick piece of meat that cooks evenly for juicy, delectable results.

To butterfly a chicken breast, first put it on a flat surface like a cutting board. Hold your palm on top of the breast, and make sure your fingers do not get in the way of the knife. Carefully, cut the breast at the halfway point on the thick side of the breast, knife parallel to the surface, stopping when your knife is about three-quarters of the way through. Once you can open the chicken breast like a book, you have successfully butterflied a chicken breast. To further even out the thickness, you can gently pound the breast meat by covering it with a piece of plastic wrap or wax paper and beating it with a rolling pin or meat tenderizer. By creating a flat, even piece of meat, butterflying is a great technique to use for stuffed poultry breasts and recipes such as chicken parmigiana.

Spatchcock a whole chicken

While butterflying is great for chicken breasts, spatchcocking is reserved for whole birds. Spatchcocking is a technique where the entire bird is flattened by removing the spine and pressing the rest down. Spatchcocking not only leaves you with a flattened bird that ensures even cooking, it is also a fantastic shortcut when you're short on time, as cooking a bird whole takes longer than a spatchcocked one. 

To spatchcock a bird, you need a pair of sharp kitchen shears. Place the whole bird breast side down on your prep surface. Start on either side of the spine, then use the shears to cut off the spine from the rest of the chicken. Repeat for the other side. Once the spine is fully removed, flip the bird upside down and press hard in the breast area to flatten it. To hold its flattened shape while cooking, you can run two skewers through the thighs and breasts in an X shape. This prevents the bird from curling back into itself while cooking. Aside from grilling, a spatchcocked bird is also great for the oven, perfect for a weeknight dinner together with some roasted potatoes and a green salad.