Knowing how to carve a turkey is a skill most people don’t realize has one of the most influential impacts to a person’s eating experience. First impressions ALWAYS set expectations and believe it or not, taste.
What do you mean “sets expectations” and “taste”? Good question. I mean that the human brain is wired to believe something is good if it looks good. Or even sounds good.
The Brain Tricks Us
As noted in numerous wine studies, the brain believes that a wine tastes better with price. In a specific study done at the University of Bonn with some smart neuro-scientists;
Previous work from INSEAD Associate Professor of Marketing Hilke Plassmann’s research group did show that a higher price, for instance for chocolate or wine, increased the expectation that the product will also taste better and in turn affects taste processing regions in the brain.
Whoa! You mean, just by thinking it tastes better it does? But we should expect that, right? We go to an upscale restaurant and automatically believe it tastes better than the mom/pop authentic Italian joint with bright fluorescents and cafeteria like tables… when in reality I bet the authentic mom/pop is significantly closer to real Italian food at $7.99.
I don’t know if that is a fact, but I have been around the world to many different countries numerous times and have tasted cuisine from everywhere. I have found the small shops that are family owned are more authentic than any upscale joint. What you are paying for is the environment and ambiance… not the food.
Basics of Carving a Turkey
Where was that tangent going and what does it have to do with carving? It is saying that how you present the food to your guests will have a significant impact on how they perceive the taste, and after you just spent hours/days bringing that turkey to perfection, you don’t want to blow it by a horrible hack job!
Mistakes to Avoid When You Carve a Turkey
I’d like to start with what NOT to do:
– Carving the breast on the Turkey – Bringing the bird to the table and slicing the breast across the side is a big no no but the most common mistake. Typically made with an electric carver. It is the best way to ensure the turkey has the least amount of tenderness.
– Carving without resting – There is debate on whether or not this redistributes the juices (it doesn’t) or minimizes the juice loss (it doesn’t matter). Resting allows the temperature to rise to where you want it! Pulling it out of the oven at the temp you want to serve it is a good way to overcook it, and carving without resting is the best way to serve under cooked.
– Serving Thighs without slicing – Thighs are a mystery to a lot of people. Let me help you: It is a large piece of meat with a single bone. That’s it! You’ll see it in my carving instructions. Please cut this up into serve-able portions.
– Using a Fork – That long two pronged carving fork is useless. Typically a thin flexible piece of metal, this is not suitable to hold onto a turkey. Use your hand, and this will help keep the skin intact.
-Using a Dull Knife – I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Either get your favorite knife sharpened before the big day, or get a cheap one from the store just for today and then throw it away. A dull knife is the best way to ensure your skin rips off the breast and your meat ends up falling apart.
– Rush the Carve – Go slow, be patient, and make the cuts right!
Now, what you should pay attention to; To carve your turkey, the basics are uniformity, serving sized portions, visually appealing setup, and tenderness. Did you know you can increase/decrease the tenderness of the meat you are serving just by how you slice it?
If you walk away with anything here, it’s this! How you cut the meat affects it’s tenderness!
Cutting along the length of the Muscle Tissue
This technique will yield long stringy meat. Your teeth will have to work harder to break the meat along the length of the protein.
Think about the last time you made pulled pork. Pulling the grains away from each other is significantly easier than ripping them lengthwise. This is acceptable for pulled pork because the meat and collagen has made it very tender. This is not the same in a turkey (very lean) or serving a steak or other less cooked style of meat.
Cutting against the length of the Muscle Tissue
This technique will yield short grains. Like the pulled pork, your teeth will have an easier time pulling the grains apart from each other. This makes for a very tender chewing experience, regardless of the meat. This is the general rule for briskets too!
Uniformity and Serving Size
You ever experience being presented with large and small slices of meat? What about various thicknesses? This requires you to hunt for the slice or piece you want.
Ever seen a professional presentation? It exhibits all uniform sizes and each piece is generally a 1/4 – 1 serving size. When people take their portion they always take from the top. It’s a much more efficient serving method.
Cutting uniform slices takes practice and patience. But you should strive to have it as uniform as possible.
Visually Appealing Setup
This was how I did Thanksgiving 2019 and Thanksgiving 2020. I served directly on the large cutting board for 2019 because I had quite a crowd. In 2020, it was just my wife and I (Damn COVID).
Some things to help you with increasing the “wow” factor:
0. Plan the following ahead – Yes, this is point #0. Before you go shopping for the turkey meal, make an image in your head for what you want. You want herbs or fruit or props? Add it to the list. You want a new platter plate or a large cutting board? Go get it. The following points on this list will help you plan…
1. Type separation – White Meat and Dark Meat should not be mixed together. You want to give your guests an easy way to choose.
2. Staged Props – Adding some herbs or maybe mini pumpkins (Thanksgiving time) or maybe your favorite childhood action figure toy (always great conversation piece) will definitely spruce up your presentation.
3. Add other edibles – Consider adding snackable items around the perimeter of the plate. I’ve gotten a bag of salad, laid it down on a plate, and put my turkey presentation on a bed of greens with some apple slices and grape tomatoes. After everyone was finished and conversation continued, people were picking the fruit slices from the plate.
4. Keep it neat – You’ll find that during the plating/presenting there will be juices or bits… go ahead and clean that up with a paper towel. One of the defining features of a presentation is that it doesn’t look like someone just threw a bunch of stuff on a plate.
5. A good carve – Of course, a carved turkey must have consistent cuts and looks like it was cut with a lightsaber. Skin flopping around and meat bits/chunks missing from places is bad.
How to Carve A Turkey
The following steps outline the best and most tender way to carve a turkey.
Someone asking you to carve a turkey can be a daunting task; It’s a lot of responsibility! I recommend NOT carving at the table. The presentation can be much better and without the pressure to perform at the table. The secret to an excellent carve is patience and a very sharp knife. Do NOT try and rush it. If you are going to go through the effort to cook a turkey, at least we can ensure it won’t look like someone went at it with a chainsaw by the time it makes it to the table.
This bears repeating: the most common rookie mistake is a dull knife. You will be best served by going to Walmart and getting yourself a $12 dollar cheap knife that comes super sharp than you will trying to get your semi-sharp/dull drawer knives to work. So either get your knives sharpened prior to turkey day, or get yourself a cheap knife you can throw away later.
If you are not accustomed to carving a turkey, it may take some time. Don’t let it win, you got this. Afterwards, you could set the serving plate in the oven set at 180 degrees F for about 10 minutes to heat up your turkey if it gets cold.
Get the Meat from the Carcass
Okay, so lets start by removing the thighs and drum sticks. The thigh/drum stick removal is the same process regardless of whether or not it is spatchcocked or not. Begin by slowly slicing along the skin between the thigh and breast as indicated by the knife below. If you encounter resistance, slowly and lightly begin pulling the thigh away to expose the joint.
When you expose the joint where the thigh bone makes the connection with the body, place your knife into the joint and push down. You should feel slight resistance, but not much. IF you feel a lot of resistance, your knife is not in the joint. Repeat this process for the other side.
Arrange the turkey such that the breasts are facing you. Slowly cut down along one side of the breast bone, keeping a pressure towards the center of the bird. This will keep the knife along the breast bone.
Once your knife reaches the rib cage, a hard stop, begin to angle your knife blade away from the center breast bone, guiding your knife along the rib cage and lightly lifting the breast up. Go slow, you are carving not hacking! This may require many small strokes to accomplish. You will also have to take your knife along the front end to cut it off the wing joint. Your goal is to remove the breast in one piece. You will want to be very careful not to disturb the skin while removing the breast.
Repeat for the other side.
Similar to removing the thigh, you will notice a large bone going along the length of the remaining carcass that attaches to the wing. Find that joint and slice your knife through it. Repeat for both sides. You should now take the time to whittle any remaining pieces of meat from the carcass. That’s my favorite part, it’s meat that never quite makes it to the table…
So now, here are all the bits we are going to slice up and serve! Congrats on making it this far.
Separate the Thigh & Drumstick
Okay, back to the legs… with the skin side down on the cutting board, you should see the joint between the thigh and drumstick. There is a natural line that leads you to the joint. Go slow and separate the drumstick and thigh by inserting your knife through the joint, as shown. Place the drumsticks on your serving plate.
With the thigh skin side down on the cutting board, begin cutting out the thigh bone. The goal is to be able to do this and still leave a single piece of meat. Once the bone is removed, lay the thigh skin side up. Begin slicing and move to the serving plate.
Cut up the Breasts
To cut the breasts, you will want to slice against the grain as shown, and at an angle. It is your preference, but I like to make the slices about 1/2″ thick. Be very careful not to disturb the skin. One technique to carve a turkey breast is to press on the skin while your knife slices through it to prevent it from “crinkling”. Let your knife do the work; smooth even and light slicing is better than pushing your knife through or sawing. You can lift and transfer the whole sliced breast to the serving plate with a chef’s knife. I like to “scallop” the breast on the serving plate.
Final Serve and Presentation
Well there you have it! How to carve a turkey, and some solid recommendations on how to present it. Get creative!