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Breaking Down a Turkey vs Whole Bird?

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I did a practice run for thanksgiving over the weekend with a 13lb bird. I did it in much the same manner as I roast a chicken, which I do pretty much weekly with astounding results. Dry brined, spatchcocked, seasoned with herb butter under the skin, and cooked over indirect heat (although I did the turkey at 350, where I normally roast chickens around 400-450). Once the thickest part of the breast hit 145 I opened up the dampers and let the temp soar to about 500 to crisp up the skin until I hit a breast temp of 150 for a minute or two, at which point I pulled the bird. 


The resulting turkey was a mixed bag. I oversmoked it, but that's easily remedied. The breasts were cooked to perfection, very tender and moist. The dark meat was overdone, which is a shame because that is the best part of the bird! 


Obviously the difficulty with poultry is the difference in temp between white and dark meat, and the fact that they both cook differently. The size of a turkey only exacerbates this. Would breaking down the bird before it goes on the grill be a viable solution to making sure it doesn't dry out? I figured if I monitor the temp of both dark and white meat I can pull each right when their temp is perfect, and that would also grant me a little more surface area for seasoning. I know it's not quite the typical presentation for a turkey but I'm going to be carving it before it gets to the table anyway, and I'd like as few variables as possible on the big day so I don't ruin dinner!





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Nice looking bird.  I've never tried this one but here's a article:


Julia Child’s Deconstructed Turkey


When cooking chicken lately, I have been cooking and enjoying dark meat for its deeper flavor and more forgiving texture. Yet, one weakness of my usual turkey recipes is getting the breast to correctly cook (to 160-degrees) without sacrificing the dark meat. I rarely time the flip correctly. So when I saw this episode on America’s Test Kitchen last month, I was amazed and happy to see how it showcased the dark meat. By separating the turkey into three major pieces, some of the most fundamental Thanksgiving issues are solved. (1) Getting the dark meat cooked properly without overcooking the white meat. (2) getting real turkey drippings into the stuffing. As a bonus, this method cooks the turkey in about half the time, freeing up my oven to cook rolls, pies, and gravy the rest of the day. There are a few issues (discussed below), but overall this technique provides a delicious turkey. It was the best dark meat I’ve ever eaten. Chris Kimball agrees, saying “this is now my new, absolute favorite.” 4-1/2 stars. I hope you all had a delicious Thanksgiving.


Most beautiful dark meat ever


Start the day/evening before, taking care of most of the prep work. Cut the turkey into three major parts, (1) breast/wings, then (2) cut off each leg/thigh quarter. I misread the instructions and started to cut off just the leg; not the entire leg quarter (i.e. including the thigh), but realized my mistake before I did any damage beyond the skin. The recipe only brines the breast/wings. It salts/seasons the leg quarters separately.


Season the thigh meat Separate into 3 major pieces Thigh bone almost removed

What makes this recipe truly unique is removing the thighbones, then trussing the thighs up using skewers and string. This step makes the dark meat the absolute best part of the entire evening. I was hesitant to break the tradition of roasting a whole turkey, but with my guests arriving just before dinner this year, it was a great opportunity to give this recipe a try. Mostly because Chris Kimball says it is based upon Julia Child’s recipe.


Issues / Comments:


1. Cutting off leg quarters, not just legs. As I mentioned above, I almost cut off just the legs in step 2. The recipe calls for me to remove the “leg quarter”.


2. Because the wings overhanged my 12″ skillet, the juices dripped down to the oven floor and filled the house with smoke. My solution is that I recommend putting a foil-lined baking sheet below the skillet to catch the juices. If it starts to smoke you can just swap it out for new foil. Fortunately, my guests had not yet arrived.


3. I was surprised that it took me a full hour to deconstruct and prepare the turkey, most of the time was separating the leg quarters. The back was pretty easy to remove using kitchen shears.


4. The recipe calls for a 12-to-15-pound turkey. I bought a 19-pounder because of the number of guests, but my turkey took double the time to cook than stated in the recipe. In the end, we ate an hour late, but only because I cut the resting time down (more than I should have).


5. While Chris Kimball tries to have the white and dark meat ready at the same time, it was not the case. The dark meat took longer, but that gave the breast an extra 10-to-15 minutes to rest. The beautiful thing about this recipe is that I was able to remove the white meat while the dark meat came up to temperature.

Rating: 4-1/2 star.

Cost: $19.  ($10 of which was by 19-lb turkey)

How much work? Medium/High.

How big of a mess?  Low.

Start time 1 PM. Dinner time 6 PM.


The original Cook’s Illustrated recipe is here.  The recipe as I cooked it for this Thanksgiving is as follows:


The Eventing Before Thanksgiving:

12-to-15-pound turkey

1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons minced fresh sage

Salt and pepper

Wooden skewers

1-1/2 pounds hearty white sandwich bread (e.g. Arnold’s or Pepperidge Farms)


1. Remove the neck and giblets and set aside in a large Dutch oven, which will be used along with back and thigh bones to make the gravy.


2. Put turkey breast-side-up on a cutting board. Tuck the wing back just to get it out-of-the-way. Remove the thighs/legs by cutting through the skin around the quarters where it attaches to breast. Cut away the top of the meat until your knife reaches the hip bone. Bend the entire leg quarter back so that the bone pops out of the hip socket, then you can continue to cut the meat away and remove entire quarter.


3. To take out the thigh bone, use the tip of your knife to cut along the length of the thigh. Cut around the tip of the bone and work your knife underneath the bone to expose the joint between thigh and leg. Cut through the cartilage and remove thighbone; adding bones to your pot for the gravy. Repeat to remove the second leg quarter.


4. Rub interior of each thigh with ½ teaspoon sage, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper.


5. Poke 2 or 3 skewers through skin/meat to close up the thigh where your removed the thigh bone. Wrap some kitchen twine around the wooden skewers to tightly close the thigh into a nice, round piece of boneless meat. Set on a large plate, cover, and refrigerate for 6 to 12 hours until ready to cook.


6. Trim away and discard any excess skin from around the neck.


7. To remove the back bone from the breast, flip the turkey over breast-side-down. Use kitchen shears to cut through ribs (following vertical line of fat where breast meets back) until you can’t cut anymore. You’ve reach the bone near the wing joint. Repeat on other side of backbone.


8. Use a little force to bend the back-section away from the breast, and the shoulder joint should pop out of the socket. Cut between the bonds to separate the back from the breast, and add the back to the pot for making gravy.


9. Dissolve 3/4-cup salt into 6 quarts of cold water in a large container (I used a large stock pot). Submerge in brine, cover and refrigerate for 6 to 12 hours until ready to cook.


10. Cut bread into 1/2-inch cubes (including the crust). Spread on-top 2 rimmed baking sheets and bake at 300-degrees from 25 to 30 minutes until it becomes dry and lightly browned. Stir a few times during baking and empty into the largest bowl you own.


Thanksgiving Day:

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons minced fresh sage

3 onions, chopped fine

6 celery ribs, minced

1 cup dried cranberries

4 large eggs, beaten


1. An hour before you are ready to start cooking turkey, begin baking the bones reserved gravy.


2. Pre-heat oven temperature to 425-degrees, and set two over racks to the lowest and second lowest positions.


3. Remove the breast from brine and pat dry using paper towels (leaving the leg quarters in refrigerator for now). Tuck the wings behind back.


4. Finely chop 3 onions.


5. Melt down butter in 12″ non-stick oven-safe skillet over medium heat.

Add onions and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they have softened and are just beginning to brown. Meanwhile, mince 2 tablespoons of fresh sage and 6 celery ribs.


6. Add minced celery and sage to skillet, plus 1-1/2 teaspoons pepper. Continue to cook for 3 to 5 minutes until celery is slightly softened. Empty vegetables into your large bowl with the bread cubes.


7. Use paper towels to wipe out skillet. Brush surface of breast with 2 teaspoons vegetable oil and set turkey breast with the skin-side-down into skillet. Roast at 425-degrees for 30 minutes. Place a foil-lined baking sheet on the rack below turkey to catch any drippings.


8. Meanwhile, add cranberries and beaten eggs to bread mixture and toss to combine (mixture will be dry). Empty stuffing to 16″x13″ roasting pan, then use a rubber spatula to form an even 12″x10″ rectangle. The turkey will be set on-top of stuffing to protect it and prevent it from burning.


9. Remove the breast from the oven and use paper towels to pat up the hot juices from the top of the breast. Use wads to paper towels to flip over and set over two-thirds of stuffing.


10. Brush leg quarters with 1 teaspoon vegetable oil and arrange over the remaining stuffing. Lightly season lets and breasts with salt.


11. Use your rubber spatula to tuck and exposed stuffing under the turkey, so that it is almost entire covered.


12. Bake for 30 minutes at 425-degrees.


13. Reduce oven to 350-degrees and continue cooking for between 40 minutes and 2 hours; until breast registers 160 to 165 degrees and  thighs registers 175 to 180 degrees.


14. Empty onto a cutting board as each individual piece attains the proper temperature. Allow to rest for 30 minutes before carving. While turkey rests, use a spatula to stir stuffing and scrape up any browned bits. Evenly rearrange stuffing over the entire roasting pan and keep warm in the tured-off-oven.


15. Before serving, adjust seasoning of the stuffing with salt and pepper to taste. Arrange the stuffing in center of large serving platter.


16. Remove skewers and twine from leg quarters. Carve and serve.



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21 minutes ago, TKOBBQ said:

Nice looking bird.  I've never tried this one but here's a article:


Julia Child’s Deconstructed Turkey


Hey thanks! This is really good info and at least makes me feel better about separating the dark & light meats prior to cooking. I'll experiment with this method or something similar with chickens leading up to turkey day and try to refine the process for Kamado cooking. Will naturally post results at the end of the ordeal for reference. 

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11 hours ago, яблоко said:

... The resulting turkey was a mixed bag. I oversmoked it...The dark meat was overdone,

Turkey can be done well many ways, but each has its idiosyncrasies. The fix in your process might be as simple as covering the dark meat in foil, so it sees less heat. 


I'm also curious about the "oversmoked" assessment, as I've rarely found turkey meat takes on much smoked flavor, while turkey skin is so strong it becomes inedible. Now, I do mine low-n-slow, which focuses on putting on smoke. You've smoke-roasted, which usually results in less smoke flavor and my spatchcocked chickens come out with crisper skin that way. Just haven't done whole birds for a long time... 


The 3-piece approach solves it another way, a way that's more reliable because you cook each piece to the right temperature. Rest time can vary without any damage; warm coolers are your friend!


Have fun,


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10 hours ago, fbov said:

Turkey can be done well many ways, but each has its idiosyncrasies. The fix in your process might be as simple as covering the dark meat in foil, so it sees less heat. 



Thanks for the advice Frank - I'll be experimenting with some whole-bird techniques over the winter (praying it's not *too* awful cold this year, I'm not a fan of winter despite living in such a cold climate), taking studious notes, and reporting back for posterity when the time is right. I'm definitely a detail-oriented cook so I always appreciate reading others' contributions to subjects like this.


10 hours ago, fbov said:

I'm also curious about the "oversmoked" assessment, as I've rarely found turkey meat takes on much smoked flavor, while turkey skin is so strong it becomes inedible.


This is what I had going on as well. I just got the skin so nice and crisp that it was disappointing to have it come out like that! I'll cut back the wood from 2 chunks to 1 (I was using pecan of the "home depot discount bag" variety). I was hoping 2 wouldn't be too many given that this turkey is three times the size of the chickens I do, but that was a mistake.


10 hours ago, fbov said:

Now, I do mine low-n-slow, which focuses on putting on smoke.


Slightly off-topic, but what has your experience been with low-n-slow on poultry overall? I hear a lot of mixed opinions on that. If I'm doing wings I'll stick to ~250 and they come out very good as long as one takes measures to prevent the skin going rubbery, but I'm wondering how the rest of the bird comes out?

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On 10/23/2018 at 7:52 AM, яблоко said:

Slightly off-topic, but what has your experience been with low-n-slow on poultry overall? ...

I've compared oven-roasted and smoked turkey, cooked same day, and outside of the dark corner bits, there's very little difference in taste as long as both are brined and cooked to the same internal temperature.  Huge difference in skin and those dark bits, not so much center-cut breast meat. YMMV


There are few bad ways to cook, as long as you don't overcook. 


Have fun,


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