Gracefully carve your Thanksgiving turkey

Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
A tray of delicious, beautifully carved turkey meat.

By Amy McConnell Schaarsmith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There are a few moments in life that can be as intensely stressful as they are fun. Singing karaoke in front of friends comes to mind. So does giving a speech on your wedding day, with your entire family assembled before you.

Third in line might just be standing at the head of the dinner table, knife in hand, poised to carve the Thanksgiving turkey. Everyone is watching and waiting for smoothly sliced pieces of turkey to begin piling up on the serving plate, as you demonstrate surgeon-like skill in publicly dismembering a large, awkward bird with grace and finesse.


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How to carve a turkey

But even if you are a relative novice to the fine art of carving, it takes just a little knowledge and some basic skills to successfully do your Thanksgiving duties, according to the Omni William Penn Hotel's executive chef Jacky Francois, who demonstrated for us how to carve a turkey properly-- and not while hiding in the privacy of your kitchen, either. If you have never or rarely carved before and feel shy about making your debut with the big bird, consider practicing on a more manageable roast chicken a few days in advance.

Before roasting, don't forget to check the neck cavity as well as the body cavity for separate packages of wrapped giblets -- lots of people do forget to check, and it can make a mess if left in the bird. Also, don't feel as if you need to truss, or sew up the body cavity of the turkey, even if it is stuffed. If unstuffed, simply tie the turkey's legs together with a little cotton kitchen twine. If stuffed, place a slice of bread just inside the opening before you tie the legs together, which will keep the stuffing in place as it cooks.

To carve properly, Chef Francois said, you need a cooked turkey, its juices drained from the cavity and the bird allowed to rest for 20 to 30 minutes after roasting, placed on a (preferably wooden) carving board. You also need a long-tined fork (a carving fork with an easily grippable handle is best), a carving knife (with a blade about 10 inches long) and a serving platter. And a hungry audience, of course.

First, it helps to know a little about the structure of the turkey (or chicken or duck or goose, depending). Focus attention on the breastbone that extends front and center down the length of the turkey. You'll find a thick, meaty breast on both sides of the breastbone, which is where the nicest slices of meat will come from. (They also happen to be the slices that dry out first, so it's better to eat them at dinner, if possible, and save more of the dark meat for leftovers.) The breast meat slopes down and away from the breastbone and along the ribs, and usually holds together in one solid chunk as it's sliced.

To reach the breast meat, it's easiest to first get the legs and wings out of the way -- although doing so can destabilize the bird when you get to carving the breast, according to Chef Francois, giving it a tendency to flop back and forth unless firmly secured with a carving fork, so some people (although not I) prefer just to wrangle the still-attached legs aside and carve the breast meat first.

To remove the leg, first cut off the kitchen twine or remove the producer's pre-inserted metal clamp fastening the legs together. Then slide the carving knife between the leg and the breast, cutting through the skin. Using the carving fork against the inside of the leg, pull the leg away from the breast until you feel the thigh bone begin to separate from the body of the turkey.

Insert the tip of the knife into the thigh's deepest point of attachment with the body, and make a strong cut at the joint to separate it. Don't worry too much if you don't hit the exact joint, and cut through some cartilage -- it will stay attached to the bone, and your guests will neither know nor care.

Placing the leg flat on the carving board next to the turkey, use the carving fork to steady the leg and cut the leg from the thigh at the joint. Leave the leg whole, if desired, and cut slices from the thigh meat, arranging on the serving platter with the whole leg.

Now the wing. Again using the tip of the knife, insert at the wing's point of attachment with the body of the turkey, and cut through the joint. Place flat on the carving board and cut off wing tip at the third joint. Place remainder of the whole wing on plate.

Repeat with leg and wing on the other side, if desired.

The breast can now be carved in two different ways. One way is to insert the carving fork into the breast next to and perpendicular to the breast bone to secure the turkey. Then find the bottom edge of the breast meat near the back of the turkey, and use the carving knife to make a cut parallel to the cutting board to free the back of the breast from the ribs.

Then, keeping the carving fork anchored in the breast meat, carve off slices of breast meat from the outside of the breast toward the breastbone, cutting down and perpendicular to the cutting board.

As you near the end of each cut, remove the carving fork from its steadying spot in the breast meat and use it against the outside of the slice to "catch" the slice between the knife and the fork and transfer it -- gracefully, of course, with no messy flipping motion -- to the serving platter. Then reinsert the fork near the breastbone to secure the bird, and carve off another slice.

Continue slicing along the curve of the breast bone and layering onto the platter, then repeat on the other side, if you like.

Alternately, you can again use the carving fork to secure the breast meat and cut the back of the breast meat from the ribs. Then use the fork to pull the breast meat away from the breastbone and slide the carving fork down along the ribs to separate the entire breast from the turkey. Place the whole breast on the carving board and, using the carving fork to secure it, carve slices across the grain of the meat, beginning with the thin end of the breast at the front and working toward the thicker end of the breast at the back.

When finished, remove the turkey carcass and cutting board to the kitchen, and reserve for stock or soup. There you have it -- a perfectly, publicly carved turkey for your guests. Now, wasn't that easier than karaoke?

Food editor Amy McConnell Schaarsmith can be reached at or 412-263-1760.


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