Carving a turkey for the first time can be intimidating! With loved ones and friends gathered around the table hungrily anticipating another excellent holiday meal, it feels like a lot can go wrong. Luckily, carving a turkey is not difficult and need not be overly complicated.
Like chicken, when carving a turkey, the bird has five main sections to consider: the breasts, wings, legs, and frame. The order in which these pieces are carved and removed from the turkey frame (the main body) can vary from person to person, but I like to follow these simple steps:
1. Rest and set:
- Once the desired internal temperature has been reached, remove the cooked turkey from the oven and place it and the cooking dish it's in on a flat surface.
- Next, cover the cooked bird and allow time to rest and set. The time it takes to set may vary a bit depending on the size of the turkey, usually 15-30 minutes), but it is an essential step to ensuring all the great flavors and juices don't run out once you start carving.
- After the proper amount of time has been given, the bird is well rested, and the juices have set, uncover the turkey and carefully transfer it to your chosen cutting surface with its back down and its breasts facing up. Next, find the turkey legs (at the narrow end of the breast). This section is known for its deep flavor and dark color, and due to its higher content of connective tissues, it can be challenging if under/overcooked. Turkey legs have two sections: the turkey thigh and drum stick.
- Begin to cut between the thigh and breasts with a gentle pull-back motion (be careful not to "saw" with your knife). As you do so, gently press the turkey leg down towards your cutting surface. This movement will expose the natural seam of connective tissue between the breast and thigh. Follow the seem downward toward the animal's lower back and hip joint. Take your time and use the tip of your knife to make small, exploratory cuts if needed. Once you cut down to the hip, place one hand under the hip joint and press upward until you feel the joint pop open.
- Next, identify the head of the femur (it will be a small round white bone poking out of the thigh just where you "popped" the joint) and run your knife between it and the hip to remove the thigh from the frame. Repeat this process on the other side.
- Once off the frame, turkey legs can be left whole or subdivided into thighs (the meat above the knee) and drumsticks (the meat below the knee). If you'd like to split this section into thighs and drumsticks, place each leg section on your cutting surface with the skin side facing downward and the exposed internal side of the leg facing up. Next, a seam of connective tissue and fat runs between the thigh and drumstick. Follow this seam with your knife and separate both sections. If you can't find this seam visually, I like to feel for it by running my finger up the drumstick until I find the notch on the knee. Once found, position your knife between the notch and thigh, and slice through with modest pressure.
- Turkey breasts are large sections of white meat that are often praised for their tenderness and juiciness. With the bird lying on its back and its legs already removed, it's time to tackle this section.
- Begin by finding the breast bone or keel, and gently run your knife down this ridge until you hit the rib cage. Once there, use the tip of your knife to make small exploratory cuts following the natural curve of the rib bones as you gently peel the breast away from the rib cage with your free hand.
- Start small and transition to longer and longer cutting motions as the breast meat peals off and more space to maneuver the knife is created. Be very gentle! Underneath each breast is the turkey tender, a delicious piece of meat you will want to enjoy! These tenders can usually be gently pulled off the underside of the breast once the breast has been removed from the rib cage.
- Finally, we get to the turkey wings! These are little sections of dark meat located at the top of the breast attached to the shoulder joint.
- Turkey wings can be removed first, rather than the legs, but I like to leave them one to help give the bird a larger base and stabilize the turkey while I carve it. To remove the wings, find the shoulder joint near the outer top edge of the beast (the broad end of the breast section).
- Once identified, carefully hold on to the wing, gently pulling it away from the main body. This will open the shoulder joint. Next, slice through the exposed joint with your blade using a smooth drawback motion. If the joint is stubborn and does not open easily, carefully rotate the joint as you pull the wing away from the main body and cut through the soft head of the humorous.
- The frame is the main body of the turkey and is made of the skeleton and all the meat that was not harvested during the carving phase.
- These tiny bits of meat remaining around and between the bones can be further by pulled out using your finger or a small fork. I like to start by removing the oyster's small sections of delicious dark meat located on and around the hip/pelvis on both sides of the frame connecting to the thigh. These small pieces are often extremely flavorful since they are so close to the bone and generally have high levels of gelatin, making for great leftovers!
- Furthermore, though it might not be pretty, the frame contains loads of great flavor and makes a delicious stock or broth. If you'd like to save the wishbone from the stock pot, it can be easily identified by looking for the bone near the top of the keel in the shape of an upside-down Y with each arm of the Y extending downward towards the shoulder joints.)
Remember, when carving a turkey, you've already done the hard part of prepping, cooking the bird, and setting the table!