Cutting Edge

Before you tear up your turkey, bone up on your carving skills

November 19, 2005|By ROB KASPER

It can be a point of great tension within a family, a blood-letting experience, a mountain to climb. It is the carving of the Thanksgiving turkey.

We have seen it done badly. The airborne turkey leg that takes out the heirloom glass, staining the antique tablecloth. The paterfamilias armed with a vibrating electric knife - the equivalent of a throbbing chain saw - getting angrier and sloppier with each failed swipe. The steamed spouse, a grin frozen on her face, wishing her mate would let someone sober do the slicing. These are part of Thanksgiving lore.

Carving, the experts say, does not have to be that hard, or stressful. Masters of the sculpted bird - from Greg Hare of the Baltimore International College to Cook's Illustrated magazine to the late Julia Child - offer the same basic advice to the turkey-carving masses: Make sure your knife is sharp, your cutting board stable, and your bird well-rested.

And one more thing: Keep your act confined to the kitchen.

Despite the Norman Rockwell image of the grandfather in a three-piece suit presiding over the glowing bird as the family gathers around the dining room table, it makes more sense to carve in the kitchen. The lighting is better, the surfaces less slippery, the counter height more accommodating for carving. And, as Cook's Illustrated Web page (turkeyhelp.com) reminds us, when you are in the dining room "all sorts of highly breakable things are within inches of the turkey and your hands."

(Norman Rockwell wannabes could adopt the turkey "reveal" technique, presenting the turkey in its whole roasted glory to the dining masses for a few applause-filled moments, then whisking it back to the kitchen for deconstruction.)

Of all the advice given about the process of taking apart a turkey, the most important seems to be to let the bird rest after it comes out of the oven. Experts recommend letting the turkey sit for at least 30 minutes at room temperature for 15-pound birds, 10 minutes more for 20-plus pounders. You may cover the resting bird with foil.

A well-rested bird is not much of a leaker. Rather than spilling its juices on the cutting board, the juices in a well-rested bird stay within the meat, keeping it moist and cooking it evenly. Tests by Cook's Illustrated found that birds sliced too soon weighed 2 percent to 3 percent less than those allowed to rest before carving. In other words, besides making a mess, slicing too soon results in drier, less-flavorful meat.

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Another big reason the wise carver lets his bird rest is that it lessens the chances of getting burned. A bird that has been sitting in an oven for several hours is just too hot to handle right away. Even after sitting at room temperature for 30 minutes to 40 minutes, parts of the roasted bird can still make your fingers dance. Although some calloused carvers insist on proceeding bare-handed, donning a pair of thin, disposable gloves is not a bad idea.

Where the turkey is perched matters, too. The artful carver has his bird sitting on a large, stable cutting board. During a demonstration at the Baltimore International College the other day, Hare put his 17-pound bird on a 2-foot-wide acrylic cutting board. To make sure the board would not slip, he placed a layer of damp paper towels underneath it. Other carvers use a wooden cutting board, with cloth towels beneath to secure it.

As for the knife, Hare used a 10-inch chef's knife, the standard-issue cutting device. Because he is a chef, his knife was sharp. Home cooks would be well-advised to sharpen their carving knives before tackling a bird.

As for technique, the first step in properly carving a turkey is the same one football players use to tackle a powerful running back: Take away the legs.

In her 1999 cookbook, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, Child advocated chopping off the raw legs and thighs, stuffing them, cooking them separately, then reassembling the bird before taking it to the table. I have tried this leg-removal method, and it worked. But it required too much knife work too early in the morning to become part of my Thanksgiving routine.

A more conventional approach is the one demonstrated by Hare. Grabbing the leg bone and using it as a handle, you pull the turkey leg away from the body, find the thigh joint and cut off the leg. Set it aside and repeat with the other leg.

This exposes the breast, which may be a bad thing at Super Bowl halftimes, but is a good thing for turkey carvers.

The breast comes off in one large section. Some quick knife work makes this happen. Starting at the top of the bird, you work your knife down the breastbone, turning the blade of the knife slightly outward as you work. Some carvers make a horizontal cut at the bottom of the breast to free the meat. Others slice all the way down past the rib bone. The result is essentially the same: a large portion of breast meat.

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