How to De-construct and Then Re-assemble a Thanksgiving Turkey
I call this technique for cooking turkey “De-constructed Turkey” and adapted it from Julia Child’s The Way to Cook where she calls it “The Re-assembled Roast Turkey”. Last year was my first attempt cooking a turkey this way and it was such a success my wife asked me to give it another try this year.
One advantage of roasting a de-constructed turkey is time. It takes much less time to cook the bird this way – almost half. But I think a bigger advantage is controlling the internal temperatures so you don’t overcook the breast meat while bringing the legs and thighs up to the correct temperature.
A 20 lb. fully constructed traditional turkey takes about 5 hours to roast where a 20 lb. de-constructed turkey takes about 2 ¾ hours for the breast and 2 hours for the legs-thighs.
It’s also interesting to note there is not much difference in cooking times for a smaller 14 pound turkey compared with a 20 pound bird when de-constructed. As Julia says, “Timing is more dependent on the thickness of the meat than its total weight.”
My second favorite advantage of de-constructing the Thanksgiving bird is it allows you to bone the thighs and fill them with stuffing. When you slice the thighs at the table you get a ring of dark meat stuffed with dressing. It is so amazingly delicious (and pretty) that we purchased two extra legs and thighs this year for stuffing.
You may be concerned a de-constructed turkey isn’t going to look as good as the one in the Norman Rockwell classic Thanksgiving painting and it isn’t but if “re-assembled” like Julia Child recommends, it will be close. I don’t know about you but in our house the turkey is typically sliced in the kitchen, put on trays and served at the table or banquet style so the artistry of reconstruction isn’t a factor.
I can tell you from experience it’s good to have a meat cleaver and meat pounder (rubber hammer) on hand to remove the backbone. You’ll also want to have a sharp boning knife to remove the thighbone although you might get away with a sharp paring knife.
Remove the Backbone – With the help of a meat cleaver and rubber hammer, remove the backbone by cutting on both sides until it comes free. Reserve for making stock for gravy.
Remove the Leg and Thigh – Using a sharp boning knife, carefully remove the leg-thigh from the body. The thighbone attaches to the backbone and should have been separated when you removed from the turkey.
Remove the Thighbone – This is the trickiest part of the whole procedure and that’s only because I don’t do that much butchering at home. The goal is to remove the thighbone so you can stuff it with dressing and tie it so when it is done cooking it looks like a whole leg. You have to be careful not to separate the thigh meat from the leg.
Using a boning knife or paring knife, cut and scrape along the thighbone from where it was attached to the backbone up to the bottom of the leg bone to expose the ball joint. The meat should carefully be scraped from the bone on all sides. When you get to the ball joint, cut through it but not the meat. Free the thigh bone and reserve for turkey stock.
Truss the Thigh – Still attached to the leg but now without a thighbone, the thigh is ready for seasoning and stuffing. After stuffing the thighs, use wooden or metal skewers and butcher’s twine to close the thigh as shown in the photo.
Coat with some olive oil, season with salt and pepper and the leg-thighs are ready to roast on a rack inside a roasting pan. The rack is to keep them from burning and sticking to the pan.
Truss & Mound the Breast
Remove the wishbone from the neck cavity with a sharp boning knife. Use a skewer to pin the neck skin to the back. Truss the wings with a skewer and some butchers twine as shown in the photo. Coat with some olive oil, season with salt and pepper and get ready to mound the stuffing before roasting.
If you want to cook your turkey with stuffing, this is an easy way to do it. Mound a heap of dressing onto a roasting pan. Place the turkey breast down onto the mount of stuffing. In The Way To Cook, Julia uses a sheet of aluminum foil to put the stuffing on and then rolls it up to make a little bed for the turkey to sit on. We didn’t do this last year but will give it a try this year.
Roast the Breast and Leg-Thigh
The roasting times for the breast and the leg-thigh are different so that’s why they are in separate roasting pans. Preheat the oven to 325°F. When ready, roast the breast and leg-thighs as you normally would including basting the meat every 20 minutes.
How long you roast the turkey pieces depends on the size of the turkey and what is your ideal final internal temperature. It’s important to let the turkey rest for at least 20 – 30 minutes after you take it out of the oven and before you start carving. The internal temperature continues to go up during this time so make sure you take this into account.
It’s important to use an instant thermometer to determine when the meat reaches your ideal temperature minus allowance for resting. Going just by turkey weight and time is a recipe for a dry bird, and relying on one of those plastic “pop-up” devices some turkeys include is guaranteed failure.
If you want to present a whole bird at the table, you can plate the breast with the stuffing on a serving tray, remove the skewers and string and place the leg-thighs neatly where they belong. It will look great.
We slice the turkey in the kitchen and bring the slices out on plates. As you can see from the photo, the sliced stuffed thighs make an incredible presentation and are a huge hit with my family.
This is a great way to prepare, cook and serve turkey. It offers you a great way to control the temperature of the dark and light meat, shorten the cooking time, and stuff the thighs.