How to Cook a Turkey in Parts


Overhead view of a platter with the meat from a turkey that was roasted in parts

[Photographs: Liz Clayman, unless otherwise noted]

If you’ve ever spent any time putting the things you create on the internet, you’re sure to have learned that you can never please everyone. This is true of roasting turkeys as well. I’ve witnessed family members complain about even the most beautiful, perfectly roasted turkey. The skin was deeply browned and crisp, the white meat juicy, the dark meat fully cooked through, and yet afterward someone whispers, “That turkey was a little underdone, wasn’t it?”

The thing with poultry like turkeys and chickens is that cooking them whole always involves at least a minor trade-off. The dark meat is best when well-done, and the white meat is not—and there’s really no way to get each to its ideal temperature in the same amount of time. Yes, there are techniques that can help a lot, like spatchcocking the bird, but in the end, you’re always executing a balancing act that leaves some part of the bird at least slightly shy of its ideal.

There is another way, though, and that’s to cook the bird in parts. The only downside is that breaking down the turkey and cooking the components means you don’t get the grand centerpiece of a whole roasted bird on the table. But I’m not convinced that’s nearly as much of a problem as it’s made out to be.

I mean, just look at that platter of meat up above, nicely carved and reassembled for the table. Is that such a visual letdown? One could argue that sawing away at a whole bird in front of guests is a less appealing sight—given how rarely most Americans cook and eat whole turkey, few people are practiced enough at carving one to do so gracefully.

If you do decide to cook your turkey in parts, you have some options, including the many recipes on Serious Eats focused on either the legs, breast, or wings of the bird. So let’s break it down. (Break down the topic, that is—you can break down your own turkey at home, or ask a butcher to do it for you.)

Once you split a turkey into its component parts, you can cook those parts in a handful of ways. The breast is lean and prone to overcooking, so it’s much better suited to roasting or sous vide cooking than longer cooking methods, like braising. The legs, on the other hand, can handle extended exposure to heat. They, too, can be roasted (but for longer than the breast to get them perfectly well-done), or they can be braised, since, unlike the breast, they do so well with long cooking.

Sous vide, we’ve found, doesn’t lead to good enough results with turkey leg meat to warrant the time and effort—roasting the legs is far easier, and tastes just as good.

How to Break Down a Raw Turkey

Step-by-Step Instructions

Cooking a turkey in parts first requires that you cut it into parts.* This is as easy as breaking down a chicken, and pretty much exactly the same process, except that a turkey is larger. How you do it, though, depends on the cooking method you’ve chosen.

*Of course you can also buy only the butchered parts you need, or ask a butcher to break down a whole turkey for you.

The legs come off the turkey the same way no matter what: Cut through the skin on the top side of the bird that stretches between the legs and the breast, working the knife down into the natural gap between the leg and the body of the turkey.

Photo collage showing process of removing legs from a whole uncooked raw

Pop the joint where the thigh connects to the body, then continue cutting to fully remove each leg.

What you do with the rest of the turkey will vary with the cooking method. If you’re roasting the breast on the bone, as our recipe for roasted turkey in parts calls for, you have to cut the breastbone, with all its meat, from the back.

Photo collage showing the process of cutting a bone-in turkey breast off the back and wings

Using a large, hefty chef’s knife or a cleaver, this is relatively easy to do. The hardest part is when you get to where the wings meet the body, since the bones are thicker there. The trick is to find a path through the joints, instead of trying to cut through the bone itself, though a cleaver can do it with brute force if you don’t feel like using finesse.

If you’re cooking the turkey breast sous vide, you’ll need to remove the breast meat from the bone. If you’re using our recipe for sous vide turkey breast, you’ll first want to remove the skin covering the breast, since the recipe will have you crisp it in the oven and use it as a garnish.

Process of removing turkey skin from the breast in one whole piece

After that, cut out the wishbone, which runs along the breast where it hugs the neck.

Removing the wishbone makes it easier to slice off the meat in one large piece, since it otherwise gets in the way of the knife. (Really, you should remove the wishbone in all cases, since it’s just as much in the way when you’re carving any fully cooked bird, whether it was roasted whole, spatchcocked, or in parts.)

Photos showing how to remove the wishbone from an uncooked turkey breast

The final step is to slice the meat off the breastbone. Just like when you’re carving a roasted bird, start with the knife adjacent to the keel, then slice downward until you meet the bone. Continue to work the knife along the bone, separating the meat from it as you go.

With your bird butchered, you’re ready to get cooking with any of the following recipes.

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Roasted Turkey In Parts Recipes

Whole Roasted Turkey in Parts

Of all the approaches and combinations that are possible when cooking a turkey in parts, roasting them all is by far the easiest. Instead of fitting a whole or spatchcocked turkey into the oven, you simply shove all the parts in. Then, using an instant-read (or probe) thermometer, you pull each when it’s done. That’s about 150°F (66°C) for the breast and 170°F (77°C) for the legs.

A turkey roasted in parts (breast and legs separate)

It’s not too impressive of a sight going in and out of the oven, but once you’ve carved the bird—splitting the legs, cutting the breast meat from the bone and slicing it—you can arrange a platter that’s quite a looker.

There’s really no additional work here compared with cooking the bird whole; you’re just front-loading some of the carving work, and taking full control of the results in the process.

Whole Roasted Turkey in Parts Recipe »

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Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast and Stuffing

Roasting an entire turkey in parts can sometimes be too much food for a small crowd. In that case, you can stick with roasting either just the legs or the breast by following the instructions in the above recipe that pertain to the part in question.

If you’re going to roast the breast, though, you may want to focus on this recipe, which includes a whole roasted turkey crown (that’s fancy-speak for a bone-in turkey breast) as well as the stuffing, all cooked together in a baking dish. It kills two birds with one stone (or, in this case, part of one bird with a side), making for a far more efficient cooking process.

Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast and Stuffing Recipe »

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Roast Turkey Breast Ssam With Squash Ssamjang and Jujube Date Relish

Moving away from a more traditional approach to Thanksgiving, we also have a killer recipe for Korean-American roast turkey breast that’s served ssam-style, meaning the meat is eaten wrapped in assorted lettuce, chicory, and perilla leaves along with flavorful condiments. It’s part of our larger banchan Thanksgiving menu, which features an array of mains and sides that can be scaled up or down to your liking.

The breast itself is rubbed with cinnamon butter and doenjang (Korean soybean paste), then roasted until deeply burnished along with tender jujubes (a member of the date family). After that, the roasting juices are pureed with the jujubes and some cider vinegar to create a relish reminiscent of a fruity-tart cranberry sauce. On the side, a custom-made ssamjang (Korean barbecue dipping sauce) given an autumnal spin with roasted butternut squash.

Roast Turkey Breast Ssam With Squash Ssamjang and Jujube Date Relish Recipe »

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Braised Turkey Parts

Red Wine–Braised Turkey Legs

With this red wine–braised turkey legs recipe, you lose the crisply roasted skin, but what you get in return is meat that’s silky and imbued with a deeply flavorful sauce. Admittedly, it isn’t gravy, but it holds its own in terms of deliciousness.

The process follows a classic French-style braise, first browning the legs in a pan, which builds a good base of Maillard-reaction-y flavor (sounds sexy, right?). Then you sauté aromatics, like onion, carrot, celery, and garlic, and add the wine and some chicken stock or turkey stock. The turkey legs get nestled into this, their skin peeking up from the inky broth to brown as the liquids reduce and the meat grows extra tender.

Turkey legs braising in red wine with aromatics (shots before and after they were in the oven)

When the legs are done, the final step is to strain the cooking liquid, then thicken it with a roux made from butter and flour. It’s not traditional for Thanksgiving, but it is elegant.

Red Wine–Braised Turkey Legs Recipe »

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Braised Turkey Jjim with Bacon, Shiitakes, and Chestnuts

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Inspired by galbi-jjim—a Korean soy sauce–based braise of beef short ribs, root vegetables, ginger, garlic, jujubes, mushrooms, and chestnuts—this turkey leg (and, optionally, wing) variation takes a Korean-American approach. The comforting autumnal flavors are deep and rich, thanks to the earthy-sweet flavors of both chestnuts and pine nuts, long-cooked radishes and carrots, shiitake mushrooms and smoky bacon. A can of root beer makes a surprise appearance, adding both a subtle sweetness to the braising liquids and a hint of its signature rooty sassafras and sarsaparilla flavor.

Thickened with cornstarch, the braising liquid has a decidedly gravy-like character—one that we’d put up against a classic Thanksgiving gravy any day.

Braised Turkey Jjim with Bacon, Shiitakes, and Chestnuts Recipe »

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Smothered Turkey Wings

[Photograph: Jillian Atkinson]

Another low-and-slow option are these tender braised turkey wings. A staple on many a Southern American table at any time of year, they’re a particularly appealing option for the holiday table, whether your desire is to scale down for a smaller gathering, or scale up with a higher number of turkey options on your menu.

These wings are browned, then cooked in chicken or turkey stock that’s thickened with a medium-dark roux, for a richer, roastier flavor profile. Classic Thanksgiving flavorings round out the gravy, including plenty of onion, carrot, and celery, along with dried sage and garlic.

Smothered Turkey Wings Recipe »

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Sous Vide Turkey Recipes

Sous Vide Turkey Breast With Crispy Skin

If you’re feeling ambitious, you could say to heck with roasting any part of the bird. You could braise the legs and cook the breast…sous vide.

Why do it? Well, as you can see from the photo, it sure makes for some pretty presentation. But beyond that, it gives you ultimate control. There’s no risk of overcooking a turkey breast sous vide—it reaches its final temperature, in this case 145°F (63°C), and it stays there. All you have to do is slice it and serve it.

An immersion circulator set up to cook sous vide turkey breast

Well, okay, that’s not all you have to do. There’s some work involved, and it requires a small amount of skill.

First, you have to remove the skin from the turkey breast, ideally in one whole sheet. Then you have to cut off each half of the turkey breast from the bone, which I’ve described how to do above.

Once you’ve done that much, though, you have to arrange the turkey breasts into a cylinder by stacking them head to toe and tying them together with kitchen twine.

Photos showing how to tie together two boneless, skinless turkey-breast halves into a single, even shape

This isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it is doable, especially if you have a second person to help hold things together for the first few rings of twine. After that, the meat should get easier to handle, and won’t squirm and slide around too much.

That cylindrical shape is key to cutting perfectly round medallions later, but if for some reason it fails, the only thing that will be harmed is your picture-perfect presentation.

Photos showing a large piece of turkey skin being salted and then prepared to be cooked until golden and crispy

Meanwhile, the skin goes in the oven, sandwiched between layers of parchment paper and two baking sheets, until it’s browned and crackling-crisp.

Close up of a serving of sous vide turkey breast with crispy skin and gravy

Sous Vide Turkey Breast With Crispy Skin Recipe »

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Deep-Fried Sous Vide Turkey Porchetta (Turchetta)

[Video: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If you love perfectly cooked turkey breast and you’re feeling ambitious, look no further than our deep-fried sous vide turkey porchetta, a.k.a. “turchetta.” This recipe is a riff on our roasted turchetta (also a worthy option). Both recipes begin by butterflying the breast and pounding it flat before slashing the meat and rubbing it with a spice and herb mixture of pepper, chile flakes, fennel seeds, sage, and garlic. Wrapped up and tied with butcher’s twine, it makes a tidy cylindrical package that’s ready for a sous vide bath or stint in the oven. Finish it by deep-frying for a crisp, golden-brown skin or keep things simple by pan-roasting it instead. Either way, it’ll add some welcome Italian flair to the holiday table.

Deep-Fried Sous Vide Turkey Porchetta (Turchetta) Recipe »

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Don’t Forget to Make Your Gravy

The Best Turkey Gravy

One of the best things about cooking a turkey in parts is that it yields plenty of scrap pieces of turkey from the back for making a quick turkey stock. That stock can then be whisked up into gravy in no time, just by thickening it with a roux of butter and flour and seasoning it with salt, pepper, and a little umami bomb for even deeper flavor. (Soy sauce and fish sauce are two of many options.)

Even better, because you’ll have those scraps ready as soon as you’ve finished butchering your bird, you can make the gravy while the turkey cooks. No need to whip it up at the last minute with the drippings and fond from the turkey’s roasting pan after it comes out of the oven. (Though pouring off the fat, deglazing it, and stirring it into the already-made gravy sure won’t hurt.)

The Best Turkey Gravy Recipe »

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Will someone still complain? Maybe—people are crazy like that. But at least you’ll know you did everything right.

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