Cheat sheet for carving a Thanksgiving turkey

1 of 7

Olivia Jones, a family and consumer sciences extension agent with NC Cooperative Extension at the Currituck County Center, demonstrates how to carve a turkey and offers ideas on what to do with leftovers, Wednesday, Nov. 9.


By Olivia Jones
Currituck Extension

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Turkey… It is the most important part of most American’s Thanksgiving meal. It is something the host or hostess of most thanksgiving celebrations often fret over.

“Did I buy the right size? How long does it take to thaw? How should I prepare the bird to be cooked? How do I actually get the meat off the bones? And what are we going to do with all those leftovers?” I know because one year, while I was still in college, I was thrust into the position of preparing the turkey for my family.

I bought the turkey early and looked over the thawing chart to make sure I left enough time for this all important step. I also read up on different ways to dress a turkey and how to make gravy.

On D-Day, I remembered to remove the insides, and then I dressed my turkey for its tropical vacation (the oven). It was all great until… the timer on the oven went off, and I realized someone was going to have to cut the meat off the bones of the turkey. “Me… Oh… No...Not me!” But sadly yes.

I had researched everything but this! I butchered that turkey, and it left me feeling like all my studying was for nothing because I did such a poor job of getting turkey off the bones for my family to eat.

I am sharing with you this embarrassing story from someone who studied foods in college to put you at ease. We all have anxiety about preparing the perfect Thanksgiving feast. So while you are lying awake at night twiddling your thumbs and scouring the internet for helpful pieces of advice, you can look at this article as your little cheat sheet.

Getting started

The first step, “Mise en Place,” which we borrowed from the French means “everything in its place” or “putting in place”. As a cooking term we use it to mean gather everything needed to complete the task at hand.. In our case you will need a knife, meat fork, cutting board and platter. I like a knife with a blade 8 to 10 inches long and a nice sturdy 6-inch meat fork. Before the bird comes out of the oven, make sure the knife is razor sharp as there is nothing more dangerous in the kitchen than a dull knife. There is an art to sharpening your knife so make sure to read the directions on your sharpening equipment.

Let the bird rest

Next, let’s review proper technique. Stand up. Position the cooked bird so the front is facing you and the legs are pointing away from you, make sure that you have adequate space to carve your bird. It is also important you let your bird rest for 45 minutes to an hour prior to cutting.

Remove the legs

Now you are ready. Start by removing a one leg. (Tip: Remove the bird’s left leg if you are right-handed.) Remove both the drumstick and thigh. Focus on separating the leg at the joint where it attaches to the body of the bird. You will need to pop the joint out. Once you cut through the skin and meat to the joint push down on the leg until you hear the pop.

Remove the wishbone

Once the leg is out of the way, the breast should be fully exposed and ready to carve. I leave the wings on because it helps to stabilize the bird while I am cutting. Another carving trick is to remove the wishbone. This upside down V-shaped bone should be apparent under the skin. The wishbone attaches at either end of the “V” near the wings so you will need to make a horizontal cut to expose the cavity of the bird a bit. Feel around for the top of the bone and once located pull it downwards and cut the attachments on either end. Getting the wishbone out of the way makes carving the breast easier but it is not essential. The wishbone can also be removed before cooking.

Begin Carving

Step 1 - Now run your fingers along the breastbone. Once you are pretty sure you know where the bone is you cut along that line the length of the turkey.

Step 2 - Cut straight down to, but not through, the bone. Now, making long strokes with your knife work your knife down either side of the rib cage. During this step I like to use my hands to feel how deep I really need to cut to fully expose the ribs.

Step 3 - You continue down the length of the turkey until you reach the wing joint. At the joint you will make a deep cut to server the breast from the turkey.

Step 4 - Once you have removed all the meat from the first side, rotate the turkey platter 180 degrees and repeat the entire process This keeps me carving from the same side and with the same motion, and I find it more comfortable. Once you have removed both breasts you can slice them on a cutting board to your preferred thickness. You can add your dark meat to the platter, cover with gravy and serve.

Now you can get up and peek in at that turkey taking up all the room in your refrigerator and say with confidence that you are prepared to handle that bird! For more Turkey related question please contact Olivia Jones at olivia_jones@ncsu.edu or 252-232-2261. For up to date turkey information follow the Currituck County Center NC Cooperative Extension on Facebook and/or twitter. If you are interested in programs provided by NC Cooperative Extension visit our website at http://currituck.ces.ncsu.edu/ .

Olivia Jones is family and consumer sciences extension agent with NC Cooperative Extension at the Currituck County Center,


If you spend so much time, energy and brain space on this turkey make sure your leftovers allow it to live up to its potential. Try this leftover recipes.

Turkey Tarragon Pita 

(Serves 4)


1/2 cup lemon yogurt (See Tip 1)

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon leaves, finely crushed (See Tip 2)

2 cups fully-cooked turkey breast, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (See Tip 3)

1/2 cup green grapes, sliced in half

4 mini (or 2 6-inch) whole-wheat pitas (See Tip 4)

4 pieces leaf lettuce (See Tip 5)


In medium bowl combine yogurt, mayonnaise and tarragon. Fold in turkey and grapes; cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour. Trim tops from mini pita pockets (or cut 6-inch pitas in half). Line inside of pitas with lettuce. Carefully fill pitas with turkey mixture.

Cook's Tips:

1. A possible use for any leftover lemon yogurt is to combine it with chopped apple, diced celery, raisins and chopped walnuts or any of your other favorite waldorf salad ingredients for a new twist on an old favorite recipe.

2. Most purchased, dried crushed tarragon leaves should be fine enough "as is" without further crushing.

3. Use white meat leftovers if you've prepared a whole turkey and not just the breast portion.

4. If you'd like to try this recipe, but don't have access to pita bread, you could serve the turkey mixture atop the lettuce on a plate with some of your leftover Thanksgiving rolls placed on the side.

5. If you don't have large pieces of leaf lettuce but do have pre-torn bagged lettuce, you can place this on the bottom half of your pita and then fill with the turkey mixture.

Source: University of Nabraska-Lincoln http://food.unl.edu/recipes-turningturkey-leftovers-planned-overs