How to Spatchcock a Chicken or Turkey Like a Grill Master

It may sound intimidating, it may sound fancy — heck, it may even sound downright silly — but it’s time to put aside your preconceived notions about spatchcocking chicken and learn this hugely beneficial technique once and for all. We were clucky enough to enlist the help of Weber Grill Master Kelsey Heidkamp to explain the what, why, and how of spatchcocked chicken, which is a key element that takes her BBQ chicken pizza recipe to the next level. Though we’re focused on spatchcocking whole chicken today, this method works wonders on all types of poultry: spatchcocking a turkey, pheasant, quail, Cornish game hen, etc. features the same process as chicken (Don’t knock grilled hen until you’ve tried it!) It’s a Master Grillabilities® gift that keeps on giving, so pick a perch and follow along to see how it’s done.

Kelsey Heidkamp's spatchcocked chicken on the grill

What Is Spatchcocking?

Odds are you’ve come across a recipe that called for spatchcocked chicken and wondered, “Did I read that right?” Simply put, spatchcocking is the process of removing the backbone from a whole bird so it can be flattened for a faster, more even cook. You might also see this method referred to as “butterflying,” which truthfully makes the whole thing sound more graceful than it actually is. Either way, this technique is popular for roasting chicken and turkeys, but it’s just as useful for grilling or smoking, as Kelsey demonstrates in her smoked spatchcock chicken recipe. The next time you hear somebody snickering about spatchcocking, you can let them know it’s no laughing matter.

Why Spatchcock a Chicken?

Whether you purchase chicken wings whole or already sectioned is entirely up to personal preference. Whole wings are slightly cheaper but take a bit of time and effort to cut, while sectioned wings cost marginally more but save you the work of slicing. So, what do you value more: time or money? (We understand this question may be difficult for the “time equals money” crowd.) Rasheed buys whole wings then cuts them himself, but you might appreciate the convenience of skipping that step.

Kelsey Heidkamp's fully cooked spatchcocked chicken on the grill

Spatchcocked Chicken Cooks Quicker

Consider the time difference between cooking a ½” steak and a 1” steak. Just that ½” of thickness adds at least another minute of cooking on each side, and that’s with high heat. Apply that logic to a much taller, much larger whole chicken with plenty more meat to grill, and it’s clear to see why a spatchcocked bird cooks quicker than its unflattened brethren.

Depending on the size of the poultry and your temperature setting, it can take several hours to smoke a whole chicken that hasn’t been butterflied. Kelsey’s spatchcocked chicken, however, needed just 45 minutes to reach doneness at slightly higher-than-normal temperatures. “Butterflying this bird, opening it up like a book, is gonna help it cook quicker,” she says. “It’s really nice if you’re in a time pinch.” It’s hard to argue that point when 5–10 minutes of spatchcocking can save you a few hours on the smoker.

Spatchcocked Chicken Cooks More Evenly

In addition to a faster cook, you’ll also get a more even finish out of a butterflied chicken or turkey (or, as you’ll recall, Cornish game hen!). Kelsey notes that other methods of cooking whole poultry, like beer can chicken, can result in an unbalanced cook throughout the bird if not closely monitored. “Sometimes the thighs and the legs cook a little bit quicker because they’re at the bottom and closer to the heat,” she says, “whereas the breast is up top and protected a little by the backbone.” Spatchcocked chicken, on the other hand, lies flat instead of vertically while also creating more surface contact between the meat and the grill grates. The result: no more overcooked breasts and undercooked thighs that leave everyone unhappy.

Kelsey Heidkamp's fully cooked spatchcocked chicken on the grill

Spatchcocked Chicken Is Easier to Season

Have you ever tried to season a whole chicken, only to watch your spices roll down the sides and struggle to get in those hard-to-reach nooks and crannies? And how about sticking your hand inside the cavity? Not the most pleasant experience, truth be told. But that leads us to the next point in favor of butterflying whole chicken — you’ll have a much easier time applying seasoning to the entire exterior (including those stubborn skin folds) and have free access to the cavity. As a bonus, that well-seasoned skin will become crispier because it makes more contact with the cooking grates when it lies open and flat. Poultry done faster, evenly, and more flavorful… are you ready to learn how to spatchcock a chicken yet?

How to Spatchcock Whole Chicken

Now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for: we’re going to show you how to butterfly a whole chicken! All things considered, this a short process that centers around removing the bird’s spine and then popping the breastbone so it can lie flat on the grill or smoker. We side with Kelsey in strongly recommending a pair of poultry shears for the cutting portion; not only is running a knife down both sides of the backbone needlessly dangerous and difficult, but it’s also more time-consuming. Poultry shears are simply safer and, in Kelsey’s words, easier to maneuver. See the short list below to find what you need for a successful spatchcocking, and then get ready to cook whole chicken like never before.

What You’ll Need Before Getting Started:

  • Disposable gloves
  • Cutting board
  • Poultry shears, heavy-duty kitchen shears, or (as a last resort) a very sharp knife

Prep the Chicken

Wearing a pair of disposable gloves for safety, start by removing the chicken from its packaging. Reach inside the bird’s cavity to remove its neck and giblets, which you can set aside for later use in a stock or gravy (hello, holiday food hack!). Though you might be in the habit of rinsing raw chicken before prepping, it’s an unnecessary practice — no disrespect to Julia Child — that can actually spread germs to clothes and work surfaces as the water splashes. It’s still smart to pat the chicken dry with paper towels to remove any moisture lingering on its surface, especially if you want crispy skin.

Kelsey Heidkamp's spatchcocked chicken on the grill
  • Kelsey Heidkamp cutting the spine out of the chicken
  • Cut out the Backbone

    Here’s where the actual spatchcocking process begins. Flip the chicken so its backbone faces upward, with the neck of the bird pointing toward you. Feel with your fingers to locate the poultry’s spine, then carefully use your shears (or knife, if you must) to cut down one side, starting from the neck and going to the tail. After carving all the way down one side, repeat on the other side and remove the backbone. You can immediately use it for a stock, freeze for later use, or discard. You may clip a bit of the chicken’s meat while you cut on either side, but that’s just the cost of doing business. The benefits of spatchcocked chicken far outweigh any lost strips of meat.

  • Kelsey Heidkamp cutting the spine out of the chicken
  • Kelsey Heidkamp cutting the breastbone of the chicken
  • Pop the Breastbone

    With the spine removed, you should now be able to look down and see the bird’s cavity. Grab both sides and open the chicken like a book, flattening it as best as you can for now. You’ll notice the far side of the bird opens much easier than the end nearest you, where the breastbone is still holding its shape. To fully butterfly the chicken, cut about 1” through the breastbone cartilage — again, this is a much easier task with poultry shears instead of a knife. Once you make the cut, press down on both sides of the breastone to further flatten. You may hear a pop when you push, which is exactly what you want.

    At this point, the chicken should be lying completely open and look as if you’ve divided it into halves that are still connected. You now have the option to clean up some of the internal cavity, using a paring knife to remove the ribcage and even the breastbone. Kelsey likes to leave the breastbone in because it “sweats” while it cooks, adding moisture to the breast meat that so often goes dry. Even if you’re not making the pizza from her spatchcock chicken recipe that uses mostly breast meat, it’s worth considering to ensure your dish remains juicy and delicious.

  • Kelsey Heidkamp cutting the breastbone of the chicken
  • Kelsey Heidkamp showing off the trimmed and tucked chicken
  • Trim & Tuck

    You’ve done the hard work, so now all that’s left to do is clean up your poultry for a better presentation and cook. Turn your attention to the far end of the chicken close to the legs, where there will probably be some excess fat and skin. Trim this with your shears or knife to prevent it from becoming a soggy mess on the smoker.

    With your chicken perfectly butterflied and trimmed, flip it over so the skin side faces up. Move the tip of each wing forward and tuck them under the breast — this makes for a cleaner-looking bird, plus it will stop the tips from burning. If you’re planning to make a stock with the backbone, consider removing the wing tips and tossing them into the pot as well when the time comes. For now, though? You deserve a high-five for spatchcocking that chicken!

  • Kelsey Heidkamp showing off the trimmed and tucked chicken

Seasoning a Whole Spatchcocked Chicken

As we noted above, seasoning a chicken is easier after it’s been butterflied, but that doesn’t mean you have to do much different than usual. Kelsey covered her spatchcocked chicken with a layer of olive oil to serve as a binder before sprinkling salt and pepper over the bird. She kept it simple for her BBQ chicken pizza dish because the homemade BBQ sauce and grilled veggies provide big flavor, but you can take the seasoning in any direction you’d like from there. The choice is yours!

Kelsey Heidkamp seasoning a spatchcocked chicken

Don’t Forget the Temperature Probe

While spatchcocking is all about flattening poultry, a whole bird is still a large piece of meat that needs to be probed so you can monitor its internal temperature throughout the cook. Remember, internal temperature is the only way to be certain that meat is fully cooked, and raw poultry definitely isn’t something you want to play with. Your BBQ thermometer should be inserted into the thickest part of the breast without touching bone or cartilage, both of which can throw off temperature readings. The USDA says poultry is safe to consume when it reaches 165°F internally, though Kelsey pulls her chicken at about 162°F to account for a few degrees of carryover cooking while the bird rests.

Cooking a Spatchcocked Chicken

You’ve made it to the end of our guide to spatchcocking chicken, so now’s the time to start practicing and seeing its effects for yourself! Keep in mind that this technique can be put to use for smoking, grilling, and roasting, so whip out the old recipe book and find a reason to show off your spatchcocking skills and butterflied bona fides. If you need some ideas, you can always turn to Kelsey’s BBQ chicken pizza recipe or this smoked BBQ chicken dish on the Weber Kettle.