Breaking down a turkey into individual parts is not only more affordable than buying the parts separately, but it’s a great method for roasting turkey. Roasting a whole turkey broken down into parts encourages even cooking and allows you to cook each piece to it’s ideal internal temperature. 

Why Break Down a Turkey

Breaking down a turkey into individual parts does three things. First, it makes for a much shorter cooking time. Second, it gives you control over how long each section of the turkey is cooked. When the breast meat is done, pull it out of the oven so the dark meat and cook to it’s ideal temperature. And three, it makes carving the turkey after roasting so much easier.

We love using this method of breaking down a turkey and roasting turkey parts for Thanksgiving. It requires less time, less space in the oven and you can guarantee each bite of meat—both white meat and dark meat—is cooked perfectly.

roasted turkey pieces on a sheet pan covered in vegetables

What You’ll Need

You don’t need much to break down a turkey at home, but there are a few essentials:

  • A very sharp knife. You can use a boning knife or a chefs knife—use whichever knife is sharpest in your kitchen.
  • Paper towels are a must. Not only will you use them to pat the turkey dry, but you can also use a paper towel as a grib for steadying the slippery bird while cutting.
  • A large plastic cutting board that you use only for cutting raw meat on. Do not cut raw meat on a wood cutting board—unless you use that board for only raw meat. Make sure it’s a large cutting board!
  • We recommend having an instant-read thermometer on hand for cooking. It’s essential for temping all parts of the turkey.

Prep the Bird

Make sure you are working with a raw and thawed bird. Do not attempt this if the bird is frozen or partially frozen. Allow for 1 day of thawing in the refrigerator for every 4 pounds of weight. This means a 12-pound turkey will take about 3 days to thaw fully in the refrigerator.

Remove the neck and the giblets from inside the turkey cavity. Reserve for making homemade stock. Neck can most often be reached through the top opening. Giblets will be in a small bag accessible from the back opening.

Pat turkey dry with paper towels—this will make it easier to handle the bride. 

Remove Wings

To remove the turkey wings, flex one of the wings forward and run a knife between the wing joint and breast. Make small sweeping cuts until wing releases. If you hit bone, stop and reposition the wing. Pull it out a bit farther so you can cut where the joint meets the socket.

Repeat with the second wing.

a set of hands breaking down a raw turkey with a chefs knife on a plastic cutting board

Remove Legs

Loosen legs by stretching them out.  Press the skin into the leg crease to ensure skin covers the breast. Cut alongside the leg to slice through the skin and expose the connection between the leg and the breast. 

Repeat with the second turkey leg. 

Bend legs backwards until the ball joint pops out of socket (you should hear some popping). Cut up along the backbone, through joint socket and release the legs from the body. 

Separate Thighs from Drumsticks

This is an optional step, but if you want all individual cuts, you’ll need to separate the thighs from the drumsticks. Slice into thighs and drumsticks by cutting through joints at top of drumsticks.

a set of hands breaking down a raw turkey with a chefs knife on a plastic cutting board

Remove Backbone

You can roast a breast with the backbone attached , but we like to remove it and use it for stocks. 

To remove the backbone, cut down the inside of the backbone until the knife hits the neck bone. Pull bakbone outward until the neck pops out of the joint. Cut around the joint to release the backbone (reserve for stock). 

Alternatively, you can use kitchen shears to cut down the sides of the rib cage.

Remove Turkey Breasts

Place turkey breast-side up; cut along both sides of the breastbone, then cut and pull breast meat away from the keel bone (the plastic-like piece of cartilage). Remove and discard keel bone (or reserve for stock).

At this point, you can remove the turkey tenderloin from the breast. You can identify it by the thin white tendon running through the piece of meat. We generally keep the tenderloin attached to the breast.

In either case, we recommend removing the tendon from the tenderloin. To do so, get a firm grip on the small white end of the tendon and run your knife down alongside both sides, scraping it away and out of the turkey meat.

Arrange turkey pieces, skin side up, on wire rack set inside sheet pan.

We’ve got a great roast turkey breast recipe if you’d prefer to roast a bone-in breast. We use this recipe when we’re just roasting just the turkey breast.

Test Kitchen Tips

  • If at any point (aside from the ribs when removing the backbone) you are hitting a bone, stop and readjust. Don’t try to cut through bone (unless you have a sharp cleaver and don’t care about finesse). There IS a way to get around the bones by cutting through the joints. Use your hands to get in there and feel around—you’ll eventually find a path forward.
  • Save any bits and bobs from the carcass (large and small) to make homemade turkey stock. We even use the neck. Once the stock is done, use it in gravy or leftover turkey soup. 

Roast Turkey In Parts

Once you’ve broken down your turkey into individual parts, give it the royal treatment! We like to use a dry brine for our Roast Turkey In Parts Recipe. It’s simple, un-fussy and doesn’t require the mess of a wet brine.

large gold platter filled with roasted turkey pieces and herbs

Roasted Orange-Glazed Turkey Breast 

Use a bone-in turkey breast to make our Orange and Rosemary Glazed Roast Turkey Breast. It’s an absolute stunner of a recipe and so dang moist thanks to a classic brine infused with orange.

sliced turkey breast on a large white oval set on a wooden table

FAQs

Is this the same process as breaking down a chicken?

It is! Everything will be a bit smaller on a chicken, but a bird is a bird. 

Do I have to separate the thigh from the rest of the leg?

You don’t have to, but a large part of breaking down a turkey is to promote even cooking. Keeping the thigh and the drumstick together won’t promote even-cooking and will likely take longer than the rest of the cuts. 

Watch How to Break Down a Turkey

How to Break Down a Turkey

Print Recipe
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 10 mins
Total Time 10 mins
Yield 8 -12
Category Cooking Tip
Cuisine American

Description

Learn how to break down a whole turkey into parts. You'll end up with two breasts, two drumsticks, two thighs and two wings.

Ingredients

  • 1 (12-14 pound) fresh turkey

Instructions

  • Remove neck and giblets from turkey cavity; reserve for stock. Pat turkey dry with paper towels.
  • Remove wings by flexing wing forward and running knife between the wing joint and breast. Make small sweeping cuts until wing releases.
  • Loosen legs then press skin into leg crease to ensure skin co vers breast. Cut alongside leg to slice through skin and expose connection between leg and breast. Repeat with second leg. Bend legs backwards. Cut up along backbone, through socket and releasing from body.
  • Separate thighs from drumsticks by cutting through joints at top of drumsticks.
  • Cut down inside of backbone until knife hits neck bone. Pull bakbone outward until neck pops out of joint. Cut around joint to release backbone (reserve for stock).
  • Place turkey breast-side up; cut along both sides of breastbone, then cut and pull breast meat away from the keel bone (the plastic-like piece of cartilage). Remove and discard keel bone (or reserve for stock).
  • Arrange turkey pieces, skin side up, on wire rack set inside sheet pan.

Notes

Raw turkey pieces can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days prior to cooking. 

Nutrition

Serving: 1/4 pound meatCalories: 190kcalProtein: 33gFat: 5.5gSaturated Fat: 2gCholesterol: 85mgSodium: 80mg
Keywords How to break down a turkey
Did you make this recipe?Leave a comment below and tag @ZestfulKitchen on Instagram and hashtag it #zestfulkitchen!
raw turkey pieces covered in salt and spices on a baking sheet

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About The Author

Lauren Grant is a professional culinary food scientist, food writer, recipe developer, and food photographer. Lauren is a previous magazine editor and test kitchen developer and has had work published in major national publications including Diabetic Living Magazine, Midwest Living Magazine, Cuisine at Home Magazine, EatingWell.com, AmericasTestKitchen.com, and more.

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