Butchering a Turkey into Boneless Roasts

Prepare your turkey in advance for less stress on Thanksgiving Day.

Kevin and I drove to the farm yesterday afternoon to pick up the two turkeys we’d ordered ahead, figuring we’d want to eat turkey more than once this year. It was a fine late autumn day, dry and clear. Pete’s farm is on a residential street, houses filling in what must once have all been farmland. When we got out of the car, what was notable was how sweet the air was. You wouldn’t know he raises pigs and cattle as well as chickens and turkeys, or, except for all of the cars parked in front of his house and down the road,  that today had been a day for slaughtering.

In the yard, what looked like a bladeless guillotine stood, spattered with blood, and a few long turkey feathers lay before it. Chickens crossed and re-crossed the yard, evidently unconcerned. The turkeys were already packaged, bagged and then bagged again in red insulated bags, lined up on the barn floor. After a conversation about bird size, hens versus toms, and flavor, we picked two larger birds, around twelve pounds each. I asked about eggs and was able to buy some that were apologized for as being dirty. I guess I’ll have to wash them before I crack them.

We made room for it all in the fridge yesterday, and today after Kevin went to work and I’d walked the dog and had breakfast, I cleaned up the kitchen, sharpened my best knife, and took out a turkey to cut up. My plan was to take them both apart, make boneless roasts of the thighs and breasts, save one whole turkey’s worth of roasts in the fridge to brine before Thanksgiving, and freeze the others. Use the wings and bones for stock to make gravy and dressing for Thursday, and freeze the drumsticks to stew another day.

Butchering a turkey is much like butchering a chicken, something I do much more often. I follow the same order: take off the wings, then the legs, then deal with the breasts last.

Front left casserole dish contains two each of boneless breasts and thighs, and the drumsticks are in the bowl to the right. Behind them is turkey number two.

If this picture is too much for you, you probably don’t want to continue reading. These are the steps for butchering a turkey down to boneless roasts, wings, and drums.

How to butcher a turkey into boneless roasts, wings and drums:

1. Place the turkey on its breast. Use one hand to pull the wing away from the body, manipulating the wing until you can see where the joint of wing and shoulder is.

2. Slice into the middle of the webbing of skin toward the shoulder joint.

3. When you encounter the joint, look for the dull white cap on the end of the wing bone, then angle the knife between the wing bone and the turkey body, slicing through some cartilage and tendon. Finish slicing through the meat of the wing, angling back to include as little breast meat as possible in the wing portion you’re cutting.

4. Turn the turkey around and repeat the steps to remove the other wing. If you like, you can tip the wings so that you can keep the tips for stock and serve the wings. Manipulate the tip and prod it with your finger to find the joint. Slice through the skin to the joint, move the tissue around and slice it some more to find the joint if necessary, then slice between the bones.

5. Place the turkey on its back to remove the first leg. Use one hand to both pull the leg away from the body, and to brace against the turkey to hold it steady.

6. Make shallow cuts to split the taut skin, then widen and deepen the cut. There may be some foamy-looking connective tissue to cut through, but other than that it’s mostly skin and then a gap and then meat.

7. Widen the cut and push the leg farther away from the body.

8. Begin making the cut starting at the head-end of the body, holding the knife against the body as you cut through the skin and flesh at the top of the thigh. Cut as close to the body as possible to include as much meat as you can in what will be the boneless thigh roast.

9. Cut along the body, this time from the tail-end toward the thigh joint, again holding the blade close against the body to include as much meat as possible in the cut. When you reach the joint, look for the end of the thigh bone where it joins the body and angle the knife around the bone cap so that you only have to cut through tendon, not bone. As you cut through the rest of the skin and meat connecting the thigh to the back, keep the knife against the body to get as much meat as you can.

10. Prod the joint between thigh and drumstick to find the joint in the leg quarter.

11. Cut into the meat, then move the tissue around to find the ends of the bones, and slice between the bones to remove the drumstick from the leg quarter.

12. Slice down the center of the thigh.

13. Using the tip of the knife, trim the meat from the cartilage and connective tissue around one end of the thighbone.

14. Slice the meat away from the bone, rotating the thigh and pushing back the meat as you go, until the roast comes free of the bone. Trim away any remaining hard tissue on the thigh roast.

15. Repeat the steps to remove the other leg, separate the thigh from drumstick, and meat from the thighbone.

16. Grip the turkey firmly while making an incision just to one side of the breastbone where it protrudes.

17. Using the tip of the knife, and keeping the blade against the bone, widen the incision, only going about an inch deep to where the sternum joins the ribs, and following this concavity with the knife.

18. At the bottom or tail-end of the breast, free the tip of the breast meat from the bones by slicing along the ribcage, and holding the breast meat out of the way.

19. Holding the tip of breast meat at the bottom, continue working the knife along the ribs to part the meat from the bones. Always keep the knife close against the turkey’s bones, and take as much meat as possible for your boneless breast roast. Some of the edges of rib meat may come out a little ragged, but better to take as much as you can and trim it later if you’re so inclined. I will tie these roasts with string and no one will know the difference.

20. As you finish removing the breast, continue staying close to the ribs. Look for the shoulder joint and cut through the small muscles around it to free the larger breast and attached tenderloin from the turkey body.

21. Remove the other breast the same way, holding very firmly to the rack, as now that most of the meat is removed, the turkey will become unstable on its back.


Now that you have disassembled your turkey, you can bag the cuts and freeze or refrigerate them, depending on when you plan to use them. The racks and other bones, turkey neck and heart (but not the liver) can all be roasted in a 350-degree oven until deeply colored, then covered in water in a very large stock pot and simmered for stock. The roasts can be brined for a day before roasting, but do not over brine them or they will get mushy and too salty.

 

This was previously published on Justin Wants to Feed You.

Read more in Hands On and Food on The Good Life.

Images courtesy of the author

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About Justin Cascio

Justin Cascio is a writer, trans man, and biome. His most recent publication is a short memoir, "Heartbreak and Detox," available on Kindle.
You can follow him on Twitter, Google, and Facebook.

Comments

  1. Justin, you have done us all a tremendous service with these excellent, clear instructions. Thanks and Happy Thanksgiving.

  2. steve jaeger says:

    Try rubbing the turkey parts with a cure made from Kosher salt, pepper, a small amount of raw sugar and garlic and let them cure in a plastic bag for a day or two before you cook it. About 1 Tbsp per three pounds of meat. Your presentation is excellent, worthy of a demo lab at my alma mater.

    • Thanks so much, Steve! It’s a challenge to take photos with one hand while holding up a turkey with the other. I got lucky that day with a surplus of patience, and good natural lighting in my kitchen.
      I like your dry brine suggestion. I might do something like that this year instead of wet.

      • steve jaeger says:

        One of my first lessons at CIA was how to bone out a chicken without breaking the skin. It looked like a little set of chicken pajamas, haven’t tried it in years but I’m sure it could be done with a turkey, all you’d need is a REALLY sharp boning knife and a steady hand.

        • That takes some skill and confidence, I’m sure.

          A friend of mine invites me every year to watch while he prepares a variation on the turducken, which requires that you create a little poultry pajama set out of each bird, then nest them with stuffing filling the cracks. One year it had a pheasant in it so he called it a turphucken.

          I’d like to try it sometime, just to have done it. Most of my cooking tends toward the stew and drop cookie route—sloppy comfort food. Once I get going on a new skill, I do it constantly until I have got it. I made a lot of bread for a while, then soft drinks, ice cream… now we’re making candy. So help me I want to make my own aspic.

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