How to Cook a Turkey in Parts
If you’ve ever spent any time putting the things you create on the internet, you’re sure to have learned that you can never please everyone. This is true of roasting turkeys as well. I’ve seen people complain about even the most beautiful, perfectly roasted turkey. The skin can be deeply browned and crisp, the white meat juicy, the dark meat cooked through, and yet afterwards someone will inevitably whisper, “That turkey was a little underdone, wasn’t it?”
The thing with poultry like turkeys and chickens is that cooking them whole always means at least a minor trade-off. The dark meat is best when well-done, and the white meat is not, and there’s really no way to get each to its ideal temperature in the same amount of time. Yes, there are techniques that can help a lot, like spatchcocking the bird, but in the end, you’re always executing a balancing act that leaves some part of the bird at least slightly shy of its ideal.
There is another way, though, and that’s to cook the bird in parts. Breaking down the turkey and cooking the components means you don’t get the grand centerpiece of a whole roasted bird on the table. But I’m not convinced that’s nearly as much of a problem as it’s made out to be.
I mean, just look at that platter of meat up above, nicely carved and reassembled for the table. Is that such a visual letdown? One could argue that sawing away at a whole bird in front of guests is a less appealing sight—given how rarely most Americans cook and eat whole turkey, few people are practiced enough at carving one to do so gracefully.
If you do decide to cook your turkey in parts, you have some options. We already have several recipes on Serious Eats, all by Kenji, each designed to deal with either some or all of the butchered bird. What we don’t have is an overarching guide to those options. So I’m going to break it down for you here. (Break down the topic, that is—you can break down your own turkey at home, or ask a butcher to do it for you.)
Once you split a turkey into its component parts, you can handle those parts in a handful of ways. The breast is lean and prone to overcooking, so it’s much better suited to roasting or sous vide cooking than longer cooking methods, like braising. The legs, on the other hand, can handle more heat. They, too, can be roasted (but for longer than the breast to get them perfectly well-done), or they can be braised, since, unlike the breast, they do amazingly well with extended cooking.
Sous vide, we’ve found, doesn’t lead to good enough results with turkey leg meat to warrant the time and effort—roasting the legs is far easier, and tastes just as good.
How to Break Down a Raw Turkey
Cooking a turkey in parts first requires that you cut it into said parts. This is as easy as breaking down a chicken, and pretty much exactly the same process, except that a turkey is larger. How you do it, though, depends on the cooking method you’ve chosen.
The legs come off the turkey the same way no matter what: Cut through the skin on the top side of the bird that stretches between the legs and the breast, working the knife down into the natural gap between the leg and the body of the turkey.
Pop the joint where the thigh connects to the body, then continue cutting to fully remove each leg.
What you do with the rest of the turkey will vary with the cooking method. If you’re roasting the breast on the bone, as our recipe for roasted turkey in parts calls for, you have to cut the breastbone, with all its meat, from the back.
Using a large, hefty chef’s knife or a cleaver, this is relatively easy to do. The hardest part is when you get to where the wings meet the body, since the bones are thicker there. The trick is to find a path through the joints, instead of trying to cut through the bone itself, though a cleaver can do it with brute force if you don’t feel like using finesse.
If you’re cooking the turkey breast sous vide, you’ll need to remove the breast meat from the bone. If you’re using our recipe for sous vide turkey breast, you’ll first want to remove the skin covering the breast, since the recipe will have you crisp it in the oven and use it as a garnish.
After that, cut out the wishbone, which runs along the breast where it hugs the neck.
Removing the wishbone makes it easier to slice off the meat in one large piece, since it otherwise gets in the way of the knife. (Really, you should remove the wishbone in all cases, since it’s just as much in the way when you’re carving any fully cooked bird, whether it was roasted whole, spatchcocked, or in parts.)
The final step is to slice the meat off the breastbone. Just like when you’re carving a roasted bird, start with the knife adjacent to the keel, then slice downward until you meet the bone. Continue to work the knife along the bone, separating the meat from it as you go.
With your bird butchered, you’re ready to get cooking with any of the following recipes.
Whole Roasted Turkey in Parts
Of all the approaches and combinations that are possible when cooking a turkey in parts, roasting them all is by far the easiest. Instead of fitting a whole or spatchcocked turkey into the oven, you simply shove all the parts in. Then, using an instant-read (or probe) thermometer, you pull each when it’s done. That’s about 150°F (66°C) for the breast and 170°F (77°C) for the legs.
It’s not too impressive of a sight going in and out of the oven, but once you’ve carved the bird—splitting the legs, cutting the breast meat from the bone and slicing it—you can arrange a platter that’s quite a looker.
There’s really no additional work here compared with cooking the bird whole; you’re just front-loading some of the carving work, and taking full control of the results in the process.
Braised Turkey Legs
If you want to get fancier, and have the time to add to an already-busy holiday workload, you could use a different approach for the legs, braising them instead of simply roasting them. With this recipe, what you get in return is meat that’s silky and imbued with a flavorful red wine–based sauce. Admittedly, it isn’t gravy, but it can hold its own in terms of deliciousness.
The first step for braised turkey legs is to brown the legs in a pan, which builds a good base of Maillard-reaction-y flavor (sounds sexy, right?).
Then you’ll sauté aromatics, like onion, carrot, celery, and garlic, and add the wine and some chicken stock or turkey stock. The turkey legs get nestled into this, their skin peeking up from the inky broth to brown as the liquids reduce and the meat grows extra tender.
When the legs are done, strain the cooking liquid, then thicken it with a roux made from butter and flour. It’s not traditional for Thanksgiving, but it is elegant.
Sous Vide Turkey Breast
If you’re feeling ambitious, you could say to heck with roasting any part of the bird. You could braise the legs and cook the breast…sous vide.
Why do it? Well, as you can see from the photo, it sure makes for some pretty presentation. But beyond that, it gives you ultimate control. There’s no risk of overcooking a turkey breast sous vide—it reaches its final temperature, in this case 145°F (63°C), and it stays there. All you have to do is slice it and serve it.
Well, okay, that’s not all you have to do. There’s some work involved, and it requires a small amount of skill.
First, you have to remove the skin from the turkey breast, ideally in one whole sheet. Then you have to cut off each half of the turkey breast from the bone, which I’ve described how to do above.
Once you’ve done that much, though, you have to arrange the turkey breasts into a cylinder by stacking them head to toe and tying them together with kitchen twine.
This isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it is doable, especially if you have a second person to help hold things together for the first few rings of twine. After that, the meat should get easier to handle, and won’t squirm and slide around too much.
That cylindrical shape is key to cutting perfectly round medallions later, but if for some reason it fails, the only thing that will be harmed is your picture-perfect presentation.
It’s worth noting that what’s pictured here is our most basic sous vide turkey breast recipe, but if you’re feeling even more ambitious, you can try our deep-fried sous vide turkey porchetta (turchetta). It’ll add some welcome Italian flair to the holiday table.
Don’t Forget to Make Your Gravy
One of the best things about cooking a turkey in parts is that it yields plenty of scrap pieces of turkey from the back for making a quick turkey stock. That stock can then be whisked up into gravy in no time, just by thickening it with a roux of butter and flour and seasoning it with salt, pepper, and a little umami bomb for even deeper flavor. (Soy sauce and fish sauce are two of many options.)
Even better, because you’ll have those scraps ready as soon as you’ve finished butchering your bird, you can make the gravy while the turkey cooks. No need to whip it up at the last minute with the drippings and fond from the turkey’s roasting pan after it comes out of the oven. (Though pouring off the fat, deglazing it, and stirring it into the already-made gravy sure won’t hurt.)
Will someone still complain? Maybe—people are crazy like that. But at least you’ll know you did everything right.
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