Hand-Selected Recipes and Stories Straight to Your Inbox

spatchcocked thanksgiving turkey

All Photos: Virginia Willis

Roast spatchcocked Thanksgiving turkey


The simplest, speediest Thanksgiving turkey is only a pair of kitchen shears away

Thanksgiving it is the one meal that is nearly immovable in terms of menu. I mix things up for Christmas, but in our family, as with many, turkey at Thanksgiving is a constant.

The side dishes are familiar, too. Each family member has that one dish that is their favorite and for some, it’s like the entire holiday is positively ruined if the sweet potato soufflé is garnished with something other than toasty brown marshmallows or the cornbread dressing is missing. I once topped a squash casserole with panko breadcrumbs and was nearly disinherited. Here's the deal: different dishes can be added, but nothing can be removed from the menu, especially the turkey.

Turkey, the centerpiece of this festive meal, can be tricky. I’ve brined, fried, roasted and smoked. I’ve draped boozy cheesecloth over the breast and slathered garlic herb butter under the skin. By the time the thighs are cooked, the breast meat is as dry as sawdust. Brining can help with dryness, but who has room in their overstuffed fridge for a gigantic tub of turkey bobbing in salt water at Thanksgiving? (I often brine in a cooler on the porch, but not everyone has access to a huge cooler or a porch.) I’ve served behemoth birds raised on factory farms, wild turkeys shot by a skilled hunter in the family, and more recently, heritage breed pastured poultry as the beast for our grand feast. I’ve tried nearly every technique imaginable to achieve juicy, tender, flavorful meat and deliciously salty, crispy skin.

I'm happy to say that, this year, my quest is over: I spatchcock it. Spatchcocking is the process of removing the backbone and opening the bird so that it is fairly flat — and it therefore cooks quicker and more evenly. It’s typically used with smaller birds such as chicken and Cornish hens, but it’s a great technique for turkey, too. Less time in the oven also opens up the space for other dishes. While the bird is resting, I can finish the green bean casserole or whip up a batch of buttermilk biscuits.

Traditionalists might complain that there’s no photo shoot moment, but any cook will tell you it’s far better to carve the turkey in the kitchen. Also, by removing the backbone, you are able to pump up the flavor of the stock, which results in better gravy. The breast is less likely to overcook and there’s a lot more crispy skin.

But you are going to have to overcome one hurdle: the spatchcocking itself. If you Google “spatchcocking turkey,” you will be rewarded with images of pristine white counter tops and a calm cook effortlessly removing the back bone like it’s as easy as snipping a sheet of tissue paper. This is simply not true.

Spatchcocking is perfect for smaller birds under 14 pounds. I’m not going to lie to you. Larger birds are too big and troublesome to spatchcock. The bones are too hard and it’s difficult to fit the flattened bird on a baking sheet. In full disclosure, I have a kitchen hacksaw that I use. (Julia Child supposedly once said every woman should have a blow torch; I say, add hacksaw to the list!) A hacksaw can be necessary with 15-pounders and up, but under 14, a good set of kitchen shears will do the trick.

Another word of advice is to not to spatchcock the turkey on a cutting board on the counter, but in your clean kitchen sink. I find that the counter top is often too high; the deeper, lower sink allows for greater arm extension. The bird is also contained and isn’t as likely to slip and slide. Once you season the bird and transfer it to the prepared baking sheet, it’s simply a matter of disinfecting the sink with hot soap and water.

Simple, speedy, and oh, did I mention more crispy skin? Give this technique a try on your turkey this year.

Spatchcocked Herb Roasted Turkey with Apple Cider Gravy
Note: By propping up the flattened bird on onions, no special rack or roasting pan is needed. With a rimmed baking sheet and a sturdy pair of scissors, you’re in business.

Serves: 10 to 12
Hands-on time: 1 1/2 hours
Total time: 2 1/2 hours

3 large onions, roughly chopped with skins reserved
12 sprigs fresh thyme
1 quart low-sodium homemade or store-bought chicken or turkey broth
1 whole (12- to 14-pound) turkey, neck and giblets reserved
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 1/2 cups apple cider
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
2 fresh bay leaves
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Scatter the onions and thyme sprigs across the bottom of the sheet pan.

In a large saucepan, combine the onion skins and broth. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat while you prepare the turkey.

To spatchcock the bird, place it in the sink, breast side down. Using poultry shears, cut lengthwise down both sides of the backbone from the neck to the tail. Remove the backbone and place it in the simmering stock along with the turkey neck that is usually inserted into the cavity of the bird. Continue to let the broth simmer.

Flip the bird over and press firmly with both hands to crack the breastbone and flatten the bird. Season the turkey liberally on all surfaces with salt and pepper and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Tuck the wing tips under the bottom of the bird and arrange the drumsticks so that they are not askew for the best presentation. Season the top of the turkey with the paprika.

Roast, rotating occasionally, until an instant read thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the breast registers 150 degrees and the thighs registers 165 degrees, about 80 minutes.

When the turkey is about halfway done, start the gravy. Strain the broth, discarding the bones and onion skins.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until flour is golden brown, about 3 minutes. While still whisking, add the strained broth in a thin, steady stream until it it all incorporated. Whisk in the apple cider and apple cider vinegar. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until reduced to about 4 cups, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, cover, and keep warm.

Transfer the cooked turkey to a cutting board set over a second rimmed baking sheet to catch the juices; cover the bird with foil and let rest for at least 20 minutes before carving.

Meanwhile, use a slotted spoon to remove the onions from the baking sheet, discarding any sprigs of thyme. Carefully pour any collected juices from out of the roasting pan through a fine-mesh strainer into a liquid measuring cup. Skim off excess fat and discard. Add the cooking juices and reserved roasted onions to the gravy. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

To carve the turkey, first separate the leg quarters from the main part of the carcass: locate the joint between the drumstick and the thigh; you should see white cartilage. Slice through this joint. (If you are on bone and having difficulty, your knife is in the wrong spot.) Serve the drumsticks whole and cut the dark meat from the thighs.

Remove the wings and cut at the joints into four pieces. Slice into the breast on one side of the breastbone with a sharp knife. Continue slicing, following the contour of the breastbone with the knife to remove as much meat as possible. As you continue to work, the breast meat should begin to pull away from the bone and you will have one large breast. Repeat with the other side. Place the breast on the cutting board and slice the breast meat on the bias into slices no thicker than 1/2 inch. Transfer the sliced meat, drumsticks and wings to a warm serving platter. Serve immediately with gravy on the side.

Read all of our Thanksgiving stories
Get more Thanksgiving recipe ideas

Video: Naretha Timberlake of the Atlanta Community Food Bank

Author image

Georgia-born, French-trained chef and food writer Virginia Willis has made cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, catered a bowling party for Jane Fonda, foraged for herbs in the Alps, and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Her legion of fans loves her knack for giving classic French cooking a down-home feel and re-imagining Southern recipes en Français. Virginia's newest cookbook, "Secrets of the Southern Table," is currently available for here. Her previous book, "Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome," received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. Learn more about Virginia and follow her culinary exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.