Thanksgiving turkey tips and tricks: The best way to rest, carve and serve your bird

Katie Workman
Courtesy of National Turkey Federation
The Thanksgiving turkey is finished cooking. Now what? Here are some tips for how to rest and carve your turkey.

Whether you’re Googling “how to carve a turkey” or need a quick refresher, we have the simple steps you need to know to make carving turkey easy work.

Katie Workman, the creator behind The Mom 100, put together a guide to walk you through this important job. Her advice? Don’t be intimidated, don’t rush and take it one step at a time. 

This turkey tutorial, edited for clarity, comes courtesy of the National Turkey Federation. See more turkey recipes at www.eatturkey.org. 

How long to rest turkey before carving

When you're planning your cooking and serving time, remember to account for at least a half-hour, and up to one hour, for the turkey to rest after you remove it from the oven. 

Let it rest on the rack in the pan, or on a cutting board with a moat to catch the juices. Resting allows the turkey to re-absorb its juices before you slice it. Otherwise, those juices would run out on the cutting board, leaving you with dry turkey. Turkey breast in particular loses its moisture when sliced too quickly.

Don’t tent the turkey with foil as it rests, which can make the skin soggy. Letting the turkey sit uncovered preserves the crispness of the skin.

Where to carve the turkey 

We’ve all seen the Norman Rockwell-esque images of a whole turkey being presented at the table, carved right in front of the seated guests. If you're not in a hurry, you have a lot of turkey carving confidence and loving family and friends, go for it.  

Because it usually takes a lot of space, I prefer to carve in the kitchen. As the turkey is cut into smaller pieces, I usually move larger slices from the main cutting board to a smaller cutting board or platter, then return them to the larger cutting board for the final slicing after wiping down the board. After that, the turkey gets arranged on the clean serving platter with garnishes.  

All of this takes time and space and can be somewhat messy, so my advice is to take care of this in the kitchen while others carry other dishes to the table or the buffet.

Best knife for carving a turkey

You can either use a carving knife or a chef’s knife that's at least 8 inches long. Ten inches is preferable. Whatever knife you pick, the sharper the better and you'll also want one that isn’t too thin or too thick.  

I do not recommend a serrated knife, or an electric carving knife, which tends to shred the meat.

How to carve a turkey step-by-step

Make sure to tip the turkey in the roasting pan to pour out any juices that have accumulated in the cavity before slicing. Save those drippings for gravy or au jus. Remove any trussing strings or closures if you used them.

If you have ingredients stuffed into the bird, like herbs, onions, or citrus, remove and discard them. They've done their job.

Set up a carving station

Have these things on hand when carving:

  • Paper towels
  • Clean dishtowels
  • A large cutting board
  • A serving platter
  • An additional platter or cutting board to hold the pieces as you slice them from the turkey
  • A carving knife
  • A sturdy fork
Removing a turkey leg.

Step 1: Remove the legs.  

Remove the thigh and leg together. Place the turkey breast side up on a carving board with a moat to catch the juices. With your carving knife, cut through the skin between the leg and the body of the bird. Gently pull the leg outward to locate the joint where the thigh meets the body. Cut through the joint, separating the leg from the body. Remove the second leg in the same way. Place them to the side.

Removing the wings.

Step 2: Remove the wings.  

Remove the wings in the same way you removed the legs. If the wings are tucked behind the bird, untuck them. Using your knife, cut through the skin between a wing and the bird. Gently pull the wing outward, then cut through the joint separating the wing from the body. Remove the second wing. Place them on the serving platter.

Carving the breast

Step 3: Remove the breasts.

Make sure the turkey's on its back. Use a sturdy fork to secure the breast. Just above the thigh and wing joints, make a deep horizontal cut through the skin and the breast meat, toward the bone. 

Place your knife along the side of the breastbone on the same side as you made the horizontal cut, starting from the neck joint. Slice downwards, following the ribs of the bird. Try to get as much breast meat as possible in one piece, cutting along the breastbone and ribs until you slice through to the horizontal cut. You should be able to remove that side of the breast completely. Place the breast on the extra cutting board or platter, and repeat on the other side. Set aside the carcass for making stock if you'd like.

Step 4: Separate the thigh and the drumstick

Wipe down your cutting board. Return the turkey legs to the cutting board, skin side up. Separate the thighs from the drumsticks by slicing between them at the joint. Repeat with the other leg. Place the drumsticks on the serving platter.

Step 5: Slice the thighs

Cut the thigh meat from the bone, following the length of the bone. Try to get the meat off in a few large pieces. Slice those pieces crosswise into 1/3-inch slices. Transfer them to the serving platter, along with the drumsticks.

Step 6:  Slice the breasts

Place the breasts skin side up on the cutting board. Cut each breast crosswise into slices as thin or thick as you like them. Try to keep the slices stacked neatly together on the cutting board for the best presentation. Slide your knife or a spatula under the sliced breast, and transfer it to the serving platter, fanning out the slices. 

Step 7: Arrange the turkey on the platter

Rearrange the turkey if needed so that it looks fabulous, then add some garnishes if you'd like. Sprigs of fresh herbs are great: thyme, sage, rosemary or whatever you used to season your bird. You can also add some wedges of citrus, such as lemons, oranges, clementines or limes. Color is very helpful in making your gorgeous carved turkey look even more appealing.

Now that the job is complete, the next step is simple: enjoy your meal!