Thanksgiving

How to Carve a Turkey, According to Knife Experts

Say goodbye to shredded meat and detached skin pieces.

July 20, 2021
Photo by Rocky Luten

You've roasted the bird, it's absolutely perfect, and now all your guests are waiting for you to carve it. How to carve a turkey—the right way—depends entirely on whom you ask. But one thing's for sure: There's a subtle art and science to it, and unless you're Alton Brown on Turkey Day, then this guide might be useful to peruse before you tackle the beast.


I have a recurring nightmare every year around this time about carving a turkey for Thanksgiving. It starts out as more of a fantasy: My friends and family are gathered around an elegant, sophisticated living room, sipping some sort of festive cocktail and nibbling on perfect two-bite gougères I was organized and technically skilled enough to whip up with no drama.

"It's almost time to eat!" I call out from the kitchen, where I'm stationed in a tasteful outfit and matching linen apron, spooning fluffy mashed potatoes into an appealing pile that guests will henceforth call "mashed potato cloud-mountain," and transferring extra-crispy Brussels sprouts over to a beautiful white ceramic serving platter. (My hair looks perfect, if you were wondering.)

"Just have to carve the turkey, then we're all set!" I shout—except it's really more of a gentle, confident announcement than a shout. And then, I turn to the cutting board. Here's where things take a turn: My gorgeous, glistening roast turkey is as rested as can be, its delicious juices collected in the deep trivets of my favorite cutting board. I pick up my knife and get started carving the Thanksgiving turkey, step by step. I cut through the skin side of the turkey breast meat. I remove the wings, pull the legs apart, and remove the drumstick from the thigh.

At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. Before I know it, I've ruined everything. The meat ends up in dry, shreddy piles. The skin's frayed and nowhere near its corresponding meat pieces. The drumsticks look like something the Flintstones' pet dinosaur took for a spin, mouth-wise. And before I can do anything to fix it—urgent herb garnish??—I awake, speechless.

This is no way to live. This year, I decided to put an end to the madness, and learn once and for all how to carve a Thanksgiving turkey. To aid me in this pursuit, I called in the masters: specifically, professionally trained chefs Jacqueline Blanchard and Brandt Cox, who are the knife experts behind Coutelier. Here are their top tips:

1. Give it a rest.

Just like you after you've prepared the entire Thanksgiving meal, your bird needs a quick nap.

"Before cutting into the turkey, you must allow the meat to rest," says Cox. "For at least 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the bird. This resting allows for the internal juices of the turkey to redistribute. If you don’t give the bird time to rest, the juices will run out of the meat and the meat will appear to be dry." There’s no need to wrap the turkey in aluminum foil, either. Doing so will create a miniature oven that may cause the meat to overcook. After spending nearly 3 hours in the oven, the turkey will stay plenty warm throughout the meat, even after you’ve carved it.

In addition to maximizing juiciness, this step serves as insurance that you won't burn your hands during the carving process.

2. Have a blueprint.

Ready to carve a turkey? First things first: Know your objective. You want to end up with eight main pieces initially, before you get into creating smaller slices. There are two turkey breasts, two thighs, two legs or drumsticks, and two wings. No matter what size turkey you have or how many guests you are feeding, these are the cuts you’re looking to make. Of course, the size of each piece will vary based on the size of the Thanksgiving turkey.

3. Follow the order of operations.

When you’re beginning to carve a turkey, the first thing you want to do is to break it down into those eight main pieces, starting with the legs, according to Cox and Blanchard. "Removing the legs and joints should be the first step in carving your turkey," they say. "Also, when removing the thigh and leg from the bird, don’t forget about the oysters!"

Once you've carved the legs from the turkey's body, you can cut through the joint to separate the drumsticks from the thighs between them. Then, break down your bird into the remaining pieces in any order: Slice off the wings, cut between the breasts to split them, remove the breasts, and then carve the meat from the carcass to separate the two breasts.

"After the turkey is broken down into eight pieces, I usually leave the wings and the drumsticks whole with the bone still in," he says. Then, he recommends slicing the turkey breasts, and removing the bones from the thighs and slicing those as well. "You can also simply pull apart the thigh meat, but I find that nice consistent slices make for a more beautiful presentation. Slices are also easier for people to grab and put onto their plate."

We should add that these steps are for carving a traditional roast turkey. Want to learn how to carve a spatchcock turkey? Here is our go-to recipe. This is a method that calls for removing the backbone of the bird and flattening it, which cuts the cook time nearly in half.

4. The Nitty-Gritty of Carving: Tools.

Even if you know the proper steps to carving a turkey, it’s just as important to have the proper tools. So what is the best knife to use for carving a Thanksgiving turkey? According to Cox, the best knife for the initial carving is one where the blade is thicker near the handle, then slowly thins out to the top. "The thicker and more durable heel allows for easy removal of the leg from the thigh as well as other places where bone contact is more prevalent as well as gives the overall blade a lot of stability during use," he says. Meanwhile, the thinner tip allows for carvers to clean off skin, fat, or small bones, as well as to get a thin slice when dividing up the breasts and thighs. "The Honesuki is the Japanese shaped blade specifically for boning poultry," he says.

For slicing meat, and especially roast turkey, a good rule of thumb is the thinner the blade, the better. "Thinner blades perform better and cut better, but can be more fragile," says Cox. "A super thin and super sharp blade does less damage to cooked meat, and damages less cellular structure in vegetables. Thinner blades will also help keep the cooked meat together instead of it 'shredding' while being sliced."

What are your top tips for carving a turkey? Let us know in the comments!
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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

6 Comments

Karl W. July 20, 2021
Reposted on July 20, 2021 because ... Thanksgiving is four months away? Will Food52 be posting Christmas recipes in August?
 
Jason R. November 26, 2019
Leaving the wings on until last is easier, it helps keep the bird stabilized while you cut the breast.
 
SandraH November 4, 2019
I rest the turkey for an hour or even more by first moving it to another, smaller roasting pan, covering it with foil, then wrapping a couple of clean tea towels over the bird, tucking the edges under the pan. It stays nice and warm and juicy cozy. Then I can tackle making the gravy, putting the stuffing and any veg/casserole in the oven to bake or finish up, and look after whatever is on the stove top. The turkey is still very warm when I unwrap it to carve and I like leaving the drumsticks whole too, while slicing the breasts, thigh meat and pulling meat off the wings. But before I place the turkey slices/pieces on the platter, I spoon a small amount of warm gravy on the platter and then place the sliced pieces and drumsticks on top.
We celebrate Thanksgiving in October so have already enjoyed our big dinner (and the turkey soup) but wish our American neighbours a very happy Thanksgiving later this month!
 
jamesOliver October 31, 2019
very helpfull recipie , its a unique dish for me, i will try soon
 
AntoniaJames October 30, 2019
First item in the order of operations takes place before the bird goes into the oven: remove the wishbone. It makes carving so much easier.

I find it curious how infrequently this tip is mentioned. ;o)

 
Eric K. October 31, 2019
Whoa, that's an amazing tip. Thank you so much, Antonia.