Breaking the bird down before it hits the oven is this food writer’s secret for achieving perfectly succulent Thanksgiving turkey and flavorful stuffing year after year. 

By Stacey Ballis
October 29, 2019

Breaking the bird down before it hits the oven is this food writer’s secret for achieving perfectly succulent Thanksgiving turkey and flavorful stuffing year after year.

Photo: Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

As the keeper of Thanksgiving in my family for 28 years, and someone who has coached many a first-timer through their own hosting, I am here to say something that may shock everyone.

I do not cook my turkey whole.

This is not to say I do not cook a whole turkey, which I certainly do. I just deconstruct it first.

This means, which I know will surprise anyone who follows my Instagram, that there is never a photo of a giant mahogany bird worthy of Norman Rockwell to be trotted out and presented to the gathered people. The bird is fully sliced and portioned before it arrives on the buffet in all of its accessible glory.

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Why?

Because turkey? It’s a real b*tch. The modern bird has been bred for so much white meat that it cooks wildly unevenly. White meat is fully cooked and moist at a full fifteen to twenty degrees less than the dark meat, so by the time the dark meat is at temp, the breast meat is hammered. All of the tips and tricks for preventing this require the ungainly (and frankly, a little dangerous) procedure of flipping the bird around during cooking.

Ever picked up a medicine ball in the gym? Now imagine it covered in butter, with two legs and two wings sticking out, and scorching hot, and you have some idea of what goes into those recipes.

The other problem with the whole turkey is the stuffing issue. Stuffing is polarizing, especially in the food community. People who know what is what where food safety is concerned know that stuffing must get to 185 before being fully safe to eat. By this time, the whole bird that surrounds the stuffing is overcooked, and wildly dry because the stuffing has sucked up most of the juices. But that super-moist dressing stuffed inside the bird stuffing is simply more delicious than any pan of baked dressing that might be presented.

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Carving a whole turkey is also an exercise in futility if you are not Jacques Pepin or a trained butcher. Now you are taking that hot and greasy legged medicine ball and attempting to wrangle it on a cutting board that is filling with juice—with a knife (manual or electric), the handle of which is also getting plenty slick. You end up with uneven slices of breast, shreds of thigh meat, and that wonderful crisp burnished skin you worked so hard to achieve is sort of attached to some pieces, and for most portions missing altogether.

Enter, the deconstructed turkey. This is not my idea, nor a new one. I got it from Julia Child originally, likely based on an old French concept. But when I came across the method over a decade ago, it was a total gamechanger. Essentially you break the bird down into a breast crown (the whole breast with the wings attached, and two leg/thigh quarters. The back, having been removed, is saved for stock for the gravy. The thigh bones are removed, and then the thighs tied like mini roasts, so that you now have two boomerang looking things (the legs with a tube of tied thigh attached).These three turkey pieces are then roasted on top of a pile of stuffing. Being deconstructed means that the meat cooks more evenly, generally speaking, but also means that if the breast meat hits temp before the dark meat? You can take it out and let the dark meat keep going, and vice versa. One leg finished before the other? Out it comes. So every piece can be served at its optimal deliciousness. Have a lot of dark meat lovers in your family? Order a couple of extra leg/thigh quarters from your butcher and double up on the good stuff.

The stuffing, not being enclosed inside a bird, comes to a safe temp while still receiving all the awesome flavor and texture of in-the-bird stuffing. Carving is a delight, because the tied thigh now slices into perfect round slices of meat, the legs are still whole for those who love a drumstick, and the breast crown sits solidly on a cutting board where the meat can be removed in whole lobes and then sliced across, with every slice getting its bit of skin.

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The only thing to know is that there are no pan juices for gravy. Personally, I don’t care about this because I make my gravy well in advance, roasting the neck and backbone with an onion before making turkey stock and using that fond instead. No one has, as yet, complained, and I do not miss trying to whip up a decent gravy at the last minute while hoping the turkey doesn’t get cold.

How to Make It

Dry Brined Turkey Over Stuffing

Adapted lightly from both Julia and America’s Test Kitchen

Serves 12-16 with leftovers

  • One 12- to 16-pound turkey, deconstructed as per notes below.
  • Kosher salt
  • Herbs and/or spices to flavor the salt
  • 1 large batch of your favorite stuffing recipe

1. Measure 1 tablespoon of salt into a bowl for every 5 pounds the turkey weighs (for a 15-pound turkey, you'd have 3 tablespoons). You can flavor the salt with herbs and spices if you like—try smoked paprika and orange zest, bay leaf and thyme, or rosemary and lemon zest. To season the salt, grind the spices together with the salt in a spice grinder, small food processor, or mortar and pestle. (Or sticking with plain salt is fine; however you want to roll.)

2. Season the deconstructed turkey pieces all over evenly with the seasoned salt.

3. Place the turkey in a 2 1/2-gallon sealable plastic bag, press out the air and seal tightly. (If you can't find a resealable bag this big, you can you can use a turkey oven bag, or a clean non-fragranced garbage bag, but be prepared for it to leak.) Place the turkey parts breast-side up in the refrigerator. Chill for 3 days, turning the breast over face down for the last day. Smoosh the salt around inside the bag once a day.

4. Remove the turkey from the bag. Place the turkey parts (breast-side up) on a rack over a baking tray and refrigerate UNCOVERED for at least 8 hours. This will dry out the skin which will help make it crispy. (Be careful for the raw turkey to not touch anything else in your fridge.) If you do not have this kind of fridge space, transfer the turkey to a clean bag and leave it unsealed.

5. On the day it is to be cooked, remove the turkey from the refrigerator and leave it at room temperature at least an hour, and up to ninety minutes.

6. Heat your oven to 425 degrees.

7. Brush the turkey breast with canola or grapeseed oil (I often use canola or grapeseed spray for even coverage.)Place the turkey breast skin side down in a preheated, oven-safe nonstick skillet and roast in the oven for 30 minutes.

8. Transfer your stuffing into a deep 16 by 13-inch roasting pan and pat it level into a rectangle that leaves about a 1 ½- to 2-inch border all around.

9. Remove the breast from oven and, using some wadded-up paper towels or grease proof oven mitts, flip the breast over and place it on top of the stuffing in the center. Arrange the leg quarters over remaining stuffing flanking the breast and brush or spray them with oil. Tuck any large chunks of exposed stuffing under the bird pieces so that most of the stuffing is covered by turkey. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook for 30 minutes.

10. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Continue to roast until the thickest part of breast registers 160 to 165 degrees and thickest part of thigh registers 175 to 180 degrees, 40 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes longer. Start checking the temperature after 30 minutes, and remove any piece that hits temperature as needed. Transfer the pieces to a cutting board with a well for juices, tent with foil, and let rest for 30-45 minutes. While turkey rests, stir the stuffing well, scraping up any browned bits. Redistribute stuffing evenly and loosely over the bottom of the roasting pan, return the pan to the oven, and turn off the oven.

11. Carve and serve.

Additional notes on the deconstructed turkey:

Ask your butcher to remove the breast in one large crown, essentially taking out the backbone, and removing the leg-thigh quarters. Ask them to debone just the thigh part of the leg quarters, leaving the legs attached. This will look like a leg with a boneless thigh skirt. I usually ask them to save the backbone, neckbone, and giblets for me to make stock and gravy.

When you remove the turkey parts from the brining bag to dry, take the leg/thigh quarters and roll the thigh portion up and tie each with 2-3 small lengths of kitchen twine so that the thigh is a tight roll, still attached to the leg. This will allow you to carve the thigh meat in perfect rounds after cooking. Then, you can place these two weird turkey boomerangs next to the breast to dry out in the fridge.

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