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Cooking a beautiful turkey is easy. Learning how not to massacre it with your carving knife is a more difficult ordeal.
Last Thanksgiving, Americans cooked and consumed over 46 million turkeys. Unfortunately, very few of them are ever carved in a stress- and mess-free manner that doesn’t waste most of the precious meat on your carefully prepared bird.
So we asked chef Adam Gabriel of Baltimore’s Heritage Smokehouse to show us, step-by-step, the best way to carve a Thanksgiving turkey. Sharpen your knife and get to work.
Step 1: Rest the turkey
First, allow your turkey to rest uncovered for 30-60 minutes before carving. This is a crucial step that will ensure your turkey stays moist, preventing juices from running all over your cutting board.
Place your cooked turkey, breast side up, on a large cutting board and with the legs closest to you and the wings furthest from you. As you work, it may be necessary to turn and adjust your bird on your cutting board to allow for making easier cuts.
Step 2: Steady the bird
Pick up a sharpened knife with your dominant hand. To steady your turkey, use your non-dominant hand (or you may use a carving fork if you wish) while you begin to carve.
Step 3: Begin removing the legs
Begin removing the legs from the turkey. Use your free hand or a carving fork to pull one leg away from the body. Make a cut in the skin between the leg and the breast, running your knife all the way to the hip joint.
Step 4: Remove the leg from the joint
Set your knife down and pop the leg joint out of its socket. Once you can observe the joint where the hip was connected, insert the tip of your knife to continue loosening the joint, then pull the rest of the thigh/leg away from the body. Repeat steps 3-4 for the other thigh and leg.
Step 5: Separate the leg from the thigh
To separate the leg from the thigh, find the joint where the leg meets the thigh and cut straight through with your knife. If you find the precise spot, this cut will offer little resistance and should cut cleanly. Place the legs on a serving platter.
Step 6 (Optional): Debone the thigh
If you wish to remove the bones from the thighs, place a thigh on your cutting board, skin side down. Make a cut on either side of the visible thigh bone, running the length of the bone. Then turn your knife flat and insert the tip of your knife underneath the bone at the center, cutting away from you to free the bone. Pull the bone to remove.
Step 7: Portion the leg meat
To portion the leg, flip the boned-out thigh over so the skin is facing up, and slice it perpendicular to the direction the bone was facing. Layer the sliced meat on your serving platter.
Step 8: Remove wings
To remove the wings, use the tip of your knife to find the ball joint where the wing meets the breast, and cut through to separate. Repeat for the opposite side.
Step 9: Split the breast down the middle
To remove the breast meat, use your knife to make a slice directly down the center between the two breasts. You will find that the breast bone or “keel bone” runs directly center down the breast, so your first cut only needs to be deep enough to expose the top of this bone.
Step 10: Remove the left breast
Continue with the breast meat facing up. Start with the left turkey breast by positioning your knife just to the left of the breast bone and towards the top of the breast. Slice in a downward motion while your opposite hand pulls the breast meat away from the bone as you make your cut. Keep the blade of your knife as close to the rib cage as possible, following the natural curve of the rib cage. Follow all the way through to the cutting board. Remove the breast.
Step 11: Remove the right breast
Now that you have the left breast removed, rotate your turkey 180 degrees so the remaining breast is positioned once again on the left. You will need to steady the bird with your opposite hand. You should now see the breast bone as it runs down the center. Place your knife just to the left of the breast bone and slice in a downward motion while pulling the breast meat away with your opposite hand as you cut. Continue to follow the natural curve of the rib cage and follow through with your knife to the cutting board to remove the breast meat.
Step 12 (Option A): Portion the breast meat
To portion the breast meat: Slice the breast meat against the grain in a straight downward motion, taking care to cut cleanly through the skin.
Step 12 (Option B): Portion the breast meat on the bias
If you wish to cut the breast meat on a bias, simply turn your knife 45 degrees and proceed to slice away from you in a diagonal downward motion.
Step 13: Plate the carved turkey
Once the breast meat is sliced, turn your knife flat, and insert the length of your knife under the sliced meat. Use your opposite hand to steady the meat as you carefully transfer it to your serving platter with the wings, thighs and legs.
To keep your carved turkey warm: If your oven is still warm, you may wish to briefly place your platter of perfectly carved turkey pieces back in the oven to warm. Cover with foil and put it in the oven for one or two minutes maximum. Remember, you’re just trying to put a little heat back on your bird, not cook it further! Remove from the oven. Discard foil and serve.
Note for small crowds: If you’re only serving a couple people and feel that half of a turkey would suffice, it’s best to carve half of the turkey now and save the rest on the carcass for cutting later. The quality of the meat will be much better later on if it’s left on the bird.
Heritage Smokehouse is currently offering a Thanksgiving carry-out menu if you’re not up for making your own turkey.