How to Properly Carve the Bird

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A large cooked turkey on a tableThe Turkey… It is the most important part of most Americans’ Thanksgiving meal. It is something the host or hostess of Thanksgiving celebrations often fret over. One question we often hear is, “how do I properly carve the bird?” To help you overcome this particular holiday meal anxiety, we’ve prepared a step by step guide to perfect turkey carving.

The first step, “Mise en Place”, – a phrase borrowed from the French meaning, “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. For turkey carving, 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. Well before the bird comes out of the oven make sure the knife is razor sharp, as there are few things 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.

Once the bird is done, allow it to “rest” for 45 minutes to an hour before carving. Next, get into carving position! Stand up and place the cooked bird with the legs are pointing away from you. Make sure that you have adequate space to carve your bird. Start by removing one leg. (Tip: remove the bird’s left leg first 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.

Once the leg is out of the way, the breast should be fully exposed and ready to carve. Many people prefer to leave the wings on because it helps to stabilize the bird while 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.

Now run your fingers along the breastbone. Once you are pretty sure you know where the bone is, cut along that line the length of the turkey. Cut straight down to, but not through, the bone. Making long strokes with your knife, cut 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. You continue down the length of the turkey until you reach the wing joint. At the joint you will make a deep cut to sever the breast from the turkey.

Once you have removed all the meat from the first side, rotate the turkey 180 degrees and repeat the entire process. This allows you to continue carving from the same side and with the same motion which may be 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.

Following this simple method will ensure your turkey will be carved to perfection! For more information on nutrition and holiday food safety, please contact Olivia Jones at or 252-232-2261. If you are interested in programs provided by N.C. Cooperative Extension visit our website at