Looking to spatchcock a turkey? Is this your first time or looking for a little refresher? Spatchcocking a turkey isn’t as hard as it seems. With the right tools, it’s actually downright easy. Follow this guide to spatchcock any bird, turkey or chicken.
What is Spatchcock?
Spatchcock. Besides being one of the top 10 favorite words in my vocabulary, it is also in my top 10 favorite ways to prepare chickens and turkeys. Spatchcocking, also known as butterflying, is where you remove the spine from a chicken or turkey, and then break the breastbone. When complete, the bird will lay flat with the legs splayed out.
Removing the spine however is the hardest part of the whole process. The spine of a turkey is quite large, and obviously smaller still for a chicken. In order to cut out the spine, it will require us cut along the spine on both sides. To do this, we will need some heavy duty shears like these. If you try to spatchcock without a good set of poultry shears, you are likely to injure yourself. Please don’t.
Besides being just cool looking, most people have never heard of it or know how to spatchcock a turkey. Spatchcocking has benefits…
The most pronounced benefit of this method is cook speed. If Steinbrenner ruined baseball, then Norman Rockwell ruined Thanksgiving. It’s true, the ideal temperature for breast meat is 160 degrees F and 175 degrees F for dark meat. So how does putting the whole bird in the oven support this temperature differential? It doesn’t, but we can certainly minimize it by ensuring the breasts cook FASTER.
Breast meat is very lean meat; with little collagen and fat to break down, the low and slow method is the best way to dry it out. When we place a whole turkey in the oven, heat is only cooking the breasts from one side, the top side. The cavity of the bird and back are not allowing direct heat. This means the outside of the breasts are done much much much sooner than the inside, all but ensuring dry breast meat.
When you spatchcock the turkey, it allows heat to be applied to both sides of the breast, cooking it like a steak. Because it is thicker than the dark meat areas, by the time the internal of the breast hits 160 F, the dark meat will just be around 175 F or a little more. Don’t worry, the dark meat is fattier and can handle the temperature. The breast meat is your primary concern. (It’s like cooking a whole packer brisket… the Flat will tell you when it’s done, not the Point)
A traditional Thanksgiving turkey involves a gravy pan, a raised rack, and then this giant bird on top. This means that the rack is on the lowest of an oven, and the top of the turkey is near the top.
A spatchcocked turkey lays flat, and doesn’t need a gravy pan (although if you have the space, it is well worth it to catch the drippings). This means you can heat up other things in the oven or smoker.
How to Spatchcock
We’ll need to start with some general bird maintenance and clean it out. This will mean first taking that pop-up plastic nonsense and throwing that right in the trash. Your turkey very well could be ~180 degrees F in the breast before that thing pops up, or maybe even grossly under cooked. You would have no idea; that’s why you have a reliable digital thermometer.
Second, remove any of the trussing ties around the legs to begin removing the “stuff” they put inside the bird. There are two ways into this bird, from the top head area, and the bottom butt area. Stuff is packed in both, and since we are going to save the stuff for gravy or stock, here is a pro tip: Roll your gallon bag top back for easy use and to avoid getting the guts in the tracks…
Typically, on the top end you’ll find a parchment paper bag that contains the gizzard, liver, and heart. On the back end you’ll find the neck and maybe something else. With a good set of poultry shears, you’ll want to trim the areas where you have excess skin (I also use a super sharp boning knife like this one), and cut the wingtips from the wings at the joint. You should now have a bird that is empty on the inside, doesn’t have any dangling pieces of skin, and the wingtips are cut off.
Remove the Spine
For the next steps, we will cut out the spine with the poultry shears. This will require us to cut along each side of the spine, through the cartilage and ribs. Start by turning the bird breast side down and identify the spine and your cut lines, as shown below.
Begin cutting on either side of the spine. If you find it difficult to cut through the ribs, try two hands squeezing the shears, and move another quarter inch away from the spine. Also, be careful of the cut ribs, they will be sharp. After the first cut is made, your bird should look like below.
Begin the second cut on the other side of the spine. Starting the second cut should look like below.
After the second cut, the spine should be easily removed. I will typically cut the spine into thirds and save later for stock or gravy. Don’t worry, the shears can do it.
Flatten the Turkey
Once the spine is removed, flip the bird over. Using a little bit of force, spread the rib cage open such that pressing down on the center of the breasts will cause the ribs to splay outward. Then, with your body weight, press firmly on the center of the breast, like CPR. You should hear an audible crack (the breast bone breaking), and the bird will lay flat. Keep pushing as required, this step tends to intimidate the most.
You will notice that the thigh joints have separated from the main carcass. At this point, there is no reason to move the turkey or flip it again.
Congratulations! You just spatchcocked a turkey!
Looking to smoke the turkey? Check out my ultimate smoked turkey guide! This could be your masterpiece: