Roasting the Thanksgiving turkey is stressful enough, but one final step ramps up the holiday anxiety more than that bad cologne on your weird uncle: the carving. With a little understanding of turkey anatomy and an orderly plan to take it apart, we will make carving the turkey the highlight of your celebration.
Essential Tools for Carving a Turkey
A successful carve depends on two key items: the carving board and the carving knife. Thankfully, the lengthy time it takes to roast a turkey provides plenty of time to prepare.
First, the cutting board. Be sure the turkey fits on the board. I like a really large board; not only does it need to fit the turkey carcass itself, but all of the different pieces carved from it. The cutting board, like a lifeboat, fills up fast.
Depending on the type of cutting board you use and the countertop surface it’s placed on, the cutting board might suffer from every carver’s worst nightmare: movement. Nothing spells disaster more than slicing into a thick turkey breast only to have the cutting board scoot down the counter like it’s trying to make a run for it.
If your cutting board slips around, take a few sheets of paper towels, wet them under the kitchen faucet, and place them under the cutting board. The thin pieces of paper towel will provide enough friction to keep the board from moving.
Important as the cutting board is, the true workhorse is the carving knife. When selecting a knife consider these two points:
- The knife is sharp.
- The knife is at least 10 inches long.
A long, sharp knife means easy slicing and less work. A sharp knife effortlessly slices through crisp skin keeping it intact, while a long knife eliminates repeated sawing action, which makes the carving not only easy, but creates visually appealing slices.
The key is to let the knife do the work, which is easily accomplished with continuous downward pressure using the entire length of the knife. Starting at the heel, push down and pull the knife towards you not stopping until the tip works its way through the meat.
And in case you're wondering, I believe a serrated bread knife would work, although I have never officially tried it. I know it works on a tomato to avoid tearing skin and I think it would probably work well here, too!
Even if your knife runs a little short, no matter what, plan ahead and sharpen it. It’s important your Thanksgiving platter not only tastes good but look good too.
There is another knife to consider for the Thanksgiving turkey. It’s the one that plugs in, the electric knife. It might appear as though you are taking a chainsaw to a rose bush, but it gives my 82-year-old dad the confidence and strength to slice his Thanksgiving Turkey. There is no harm in that.
How to Carve a Turkey
I like to use my bare hand to help in carving. If the turkey is hot, consider using a latex or silicone glove to protect you from the heat.
For easier carving, move the turkey to a position where you can always use your dominant hand. As Norman Rockwell-esque as it might look to place the turkey on a platter and carve from one standing position without moving a thing, it’s not ideal. The juice from the turkey combined with working a large knife in a non-dominant hand is a recipe for disaster. Bring the turkey to the knife, not the knife to the turkey.
- 1 roasted, rested turkey
Prepare the turkey for carving:
After the turkey has been removed from the oven and rested anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, place the turkey in front of you on the cutting board, with the legs pointed towards you and the breast away. Remove any trussing you might have used.
Carve the leg and thigh:
Hold one of the turkey’s legs with your non-dominant hand. Take the knife with your other hand and then slice down between the thigh and the body. As the skin is sliced, lower the hand holding the leg to the cutting board to help expose the thigh joint. Slice through the meat until the joint is revealed and easily separated.
Rotate the turkey 180° and repeat with the other leg. Set aside.
Carve the breast:
There are two ways to carve the breast: either as individual slices taken while the meat is still attached to the carcass or slices from a removed breast. I prefer the latter, as the breast is easier to slice when removed.
Rotate the turkey again so the cavity faces you and the breast is facing away. Remove the first part of the breast by slicing down the left side of the keel bone, the triangular bone dividing the breasts. As you slice, carefully pierce the skin to keep it intact and follow the angle of the bone to remove the most amount of meat possible. Remember to use downward pressure smoothly using the entire length of the knife.
To aid in removal, you can make a horizontal cut at the bottom of the breast just above the wing.
Once the breast is entirely separated, set aside. Repeat on the other side of the breast.
Remove the wings:
With your non-dominant hand, grab one of the wings and hold it down. With your other hand, take your knife and slice down towards the joint where the wing meets the carcass. When the joint is exposed, cut away all the meat and separate it. Set aside.
Rotate the turkey 180° and repeat with the other wing.
Separate the legs from the thighs:
Separate the legs and thighs by visualizing the joint holding them together. It runs on an angle almost parallel to the leg. Slice down and separate.
Separate the thigh meat from the bone:
Place the thighs, skin side down, on the cutting board. With your knife, slice the meat away from the bone until the bone pulls free. Turn the thigh back over and cover with its skin.
Slice the breast:
Place the breast in front of you with its long edge running left to right. Being mindful not to tear or separate the skin from the meat, slice the breast into half-inch sections.
Separate the wings:
Spread open the wing at the first joint from where it was removed the turkey. Slice and separate.
Arrange on a platter and serve:
Arrange all the pieces on a platter, being sure to also remove any excess meat from the carcass, especially those tasty “oysters” on the bottom side of the turkey.
When arranging turkey on the platter, consider mirroring the placement of the cuts, so guests can reach their favorite type of meat no matter where they are sitting at the table.