After roasting your Thanksgiving turkey to golden brown perfection, there's only one step that stands between you and a delicious feast: carving the bird. For many of us, it's a daunting task — after all, it's something we typically only do once a year! That's why we asked two professional butchers for their best advice on how to cut a turkey including the appropriate rest time that keeps the juices within the meat. Whether you're cooking a whole or "spatchcocked" (butterflied) turkey, these tips ensure you'll serve tasty pieces of white and dark meat to guests with finesse.
Why you need to rest a turkey before carving
Once a roasted turkey reaches an internal temperature of 165°F, it's ready to come out of the oven — but hold off on carving just yet! It's key to let it rest before slicing. This lets the turkey firm up a bit so it's easier to cut, but it allows the juices to reabsorb into the meat so you get the most succulent results.
“The time it takes to set may vary a bit depending on the size of the turkey, but it is definitely an important step to ensuring all the great flavors and juices don’t run out once you start carving,” says Jason Savard, head butcher at Walden Local Meat. He says the average bird needs to rest at least 30 minutes. Worried the turkey will get too cold as it sits? Try Savard's tip: Simply rest the turkey covered in the roasting dish — aluminum foil will do the trick. This allows the bird to stay warm as its juices are being resorbed into the meat. Once rested, transfer the turkey to a large cutting board and keep tools like a sharp chef's knife and tongs handy for carving.
What type of knife is best for carving a turkey
A carving knife is the top pick for cutting into a turkey — it features a long, narrow blade that's thin, meaning it's a bit flexible and is able to work easily around bones. Pair it with a carving fork, which helps keep the bird in place while you slice.
How to cut a whole turkey
To showcase your holiday main, Tony Sudak, professional chef and butcher at Walden, shares his detailed process for how to cut a whole roasted turkey.
1. Position the turkey
Position the turkey on the cutting board so the drumsticks are facing your stomach. Start at the legs first, and using a sharp knife, gently cut along just the skin where there's a gap between the breast and upper part of the thigh. Opening this area will cause some liquid to escape — but that’s okay. This will expose where the leg and thigh connect to the rest of the bird. Gently grab the leg and thigh, and pull down toward the board. You should hear a pop sound. That's the joint popping free.
2. Remove the legs and thighs
Exposing the joint will show you where to line your knife up and cut along in order to remove the leg and thigh. To split this into its separate pieces, gently probe the leg with your finger to find the joint that connects the leg and thigh together. Once you've found the spot, remove your finger, then come down with your knife to split it. Lay those pieces on a serving platter and repeat with the other leg. You may have to rotate the bird facing you to get to the other side. (Note: You can slice the thigh meat into smaller pieces by cutting against the grain, which means perpendicular to the muscle fibers.)
3. Take out the wishbone
Starting with the turkey breasts facing you, there should be a wishbone still in the bird. Take your finger, and right above where the base of the neck is, feel around for it. Once you have a good handle on the wishbone, gently take the tip of your knife and carve around it to remove it (and maybe break it with a loved one, for good luck!).
4. Separate the wings from the breast
Now, put the turkey back into its original position and remove the wings from the breasts. There are three parts to the poultry wings: the wing tip, flats and drums. The drums are what’s connected directly to the breast, and that’s where your knife comes in. Right where they connect is another joint: take the tip of your knife and separate the wing from the breast. Break the wing into its three pieces at the joints and reserve the wing tip for turkey stock. Plate the flat and drum and repeat this step with the other side.
6. Slice the breast meat
Place your finger right where you removed the wishbone and find the middle of the breast bone. It runs from the top of the breast to the legs. Once located, remove your finger. Starting on the left, place your knife slightly to the left of the breast bone: slice from the wishbone area until you reach the bottom of the breast. You should have a bit of an opening to work with now. Starting from the top again, gently put your knife where the slice starts and ride along the ribs, separating more of the meat from the carcass. The turkey's tenderloin is just below the breast, so use the tip of your knife for most of the breast removal process. Repeat this step until the entire breast is cleanly removed from the carcass. Thinly slice the breast meat against the grain and arrange it on the serving tray. Repeat with the other side and you’re done carving.
For a visual tutorial showing how to cut a turkey, check out the video from the America's Test Kitchen YouTube channel below. (Enjoy those leftover slices the next day by reading our story on how to reheat turkey so it's as tender as the moment you carved it!)
How to cut a spatchcocked turkey
Spatchcocking is another method of preparing turkey that involves removing the backbone before roasting. This allows the bird to sit flat on the roasting dish so it cooks quicker and more evenly, plus it develops a nicely bronzed exterior. Although you'll be following some of the steps used for carving a whole bird, this video from Serious Eats demonstrates how slicing a spatchcocked turkey is more straightforward. (Click through to learn more about how to spatchcock a turkey.)
For more tips on creating a moist roasted turkey, check out the stories below:
Click through for more Thanksgiving tips, recipes and other stories.