Carving the holiday turkey is one of many cooking tasks that seem simple but can easily go awry. In fact, 36,000 people were treated for kitchen-related accidents in emergency rooms across the US last Thanksgiving. As you carry your beautifully cooked turkey from the kitchen to the table before an audience of hungry onlookers, pets, and relatives, the last thing you need is to feel anxious about the job at hand.
Follow these tips for a safe and stress-free carving experience, and your carving skill will go from the "Kids Table" to the "Badass Turkey Carvers Table" in no time.
First of all, you must let the turkey rest before carving for AT LEAST 15 minutes. This ensures that all the juices and deliciousness stay inside the turkey, instead of running across the cutting board. It will also make it significantly easier to handle if it is not piping hot. You'll be serving it with hot accompaniments and gravy, so letting the turkey cool off slightly will be just fine.
Using the right tool is as essential to turkey carving as any other job. Put away that strange electric lightsaber-carving knife you got in last year's Secret Santa. All you will need is a sharp knife and a fork to keep things stable. Your knife should be as thin as possible, with a little bit of flexibility to help it navigate around the bones.
Do this in the kitchen, not at the dinner table! Sure, it's impressive to bring the beautifully cooked whole bird out to the table to show your guests, but remember, you'll be cutting through bone—not to mention if you've dry-brined your turkey (and I hope you have!), it will be very juicy, and the liquid could quickly spill off the platter and onto the tablecloth. Trust me, your guests will thank you for keeping this behind the scenes.
There are three options for dealing with the wishbone. The easiest is to cut it out before cooking by following the seams of fat that run along the inside of the breast. Cut the wishbone through the joints where it meets the back of the ribcage, and use your fingers to pull and twist it loose. From here, you can toss it in your stockpot and remove it later once cooked for the traditional wishbone-breaking contest. Alternatively, you can remove it after cooking but before carving the breast, but this is trickier as the meat has contracted around it. The third option is to simply cut right through it as you split the breast along the sternum, then cut any bone fragments off of the boneless breast.
Finally, make the job easy on yourself by using the largest cutting board you have. Be sure you have kitchen towels handy, a platter to set the meat on, and most importantly, the "Courage of your convictions." Remember, make the bird work around you, don't work around the bird. Don't be afraid to reposition and turn it as necessary to work cleanly and unobstructed. If you're still nervous about carving, you can always practice on a chicken—the process is exactly the same. No need to stress.
Begin by removing the wings. Grab the drumette and pull outward, exposing the joint (the "armpit," if you will). Make a small cut through the inside of the joint, then pull the drumette back toward the head of the turkey until it pops out of the socket. Then, simply cut through the rest of the shoulder joint. To separate the wing into pieces, cut the wing flat off of the drumette by extending an imaginary line parallel to the drumette. The joint is not as diagonal as might be expected and is closer to a 90-degree angle. Don't be afraid to bend the wing back to expose the joint as you are cutting. Cut the wing tip off by cutting straight between the flat and the tip.
To carve the breast, first define the outer edge by making a small cut in the skin between the thigh and the breast on each side. Next, split the breast down the middle. The sternum runs the length of the crown, and your knife will make the call as to which side you carve first. If you've left the wishbone in, cut through it now (much simpler than attempting to carve around it). Angle the knife towards the breastbone, and working just with the tip of the blade, follow the contour of the ribcage until the breast is freed from the bones. Let the knife do the work—since the meat is fully cooked, it will separate from the bone with barely any pressure. Do the same to the other side. Trim out any wishbone fragments, and finally, slice the breast across the grain (lengthwise) into thick slices.
Next, turn your attention to the leg quarters. Since the breast has already been removed, you will be able to clearly see back down towards the hip joint. Pull the thigh back to clear a line of vision for yourself. Now this is where it gets exciting. Holding the turkey by the thigh, lift the turkey slightly off the cutting board and bend the leg backward towards the spine until you hear the hip joint dislocate. Do not be shy; you cannot possibly hurt the turkey at this point. Once this is done, you can simply cut through the hip joint, taking care to carve out the aptly named Oyster, which sits inside a little dip in the hip bone. The oysters are the two most delicious morsels on any bird, so don't leave them on the bone! Save them for yourself as a cook's treat. Angle your knife towards the backbone, and cut the leg quarters off.
To carve the leg quarters, follow a similar process as with the wings. But this time, the joint between the thigh and drumstick is every bit as diagonal as you might expect. If you look from the underside, you will see a seam of fat that runs between the two pieces; this is where the joint lies. Simply follow the seam straight through, bending the drumstick back to expose the joint as you do. Carve the meat off the center thigh bone, and serve the drumsticks whole.
Take any accumulated juices from the cavity and the cutting board and stir them into the gravy as it finishes cooking. This is full of delicious flavor, and you won't want to waste it. Save the bones and the wing tips for turkey stock, which you can then use to make wonderful leftover recipes like turkey soup, turkey pot pie, and more.