If turkey is so good, how come so many of us cook only one per year? When was the last time you ordered turkey in non-sandwich form at a restaurant? Yet it has winged its way into the center of a holiday tradition that sets most cooks up for a difficult time.
It’s understandable why. Few home cooks roast enough turkeys to feel truly comfortable with the process and a year is a long time to wait between attempts. Spending so much on a whole bird creates pressure to stick with recipes you are familiar with, rather than trying something new. But here is something that any cook can do to completely transform how they roast turkey, other than simply opting out: roast it in parts.
Roasting a broken down turkey in parts has distinct benefits over roasting a whole bird. When I say “in parts,” I mean breaking it down into legs, wings, and a bone-in breast, and roasting these on a large rimmed baking sheet. This method allows seasoning to reach previously inaccessible parts of the bird, putting salt in places it otherwise has a hard time reaching. It promotes deeper browning, enhanced fat rendering, and crispier skin, because the oven’s heat can hit more surface area, faster. That means cooking and resting times are greatly reduced.
Combining that technique with some turkey best-practices (using a dry rather than wet brine, starting in a hot oven then reducing the temperature, basting with a glaze rather than pan juices, resting the meat adequately before carving) produces roast turkey as it should be: juicy meat wrapped in burnished crisp skin. And the dark meat is a revelation here. Instead of being stuck under most of the turkey, steaming away as the top of the bird roasts, the legs are exposed to just as much heat as the breast is, pushing them past cooked-yet-still-bouncy into full tenderness.
If there is one fault with this approach, it is that presenting a bunch of turkey parts—however amazing they look—isn’t quite as dramatic as a whole bird. That is a visual you will just have to let go of. Because in return, literally everything about the turkey will be better. Best of all, whoever you serve it to will have a full year to talk about how great it was before they eat turkey again. Maybe some things are better kept for special occasions after all.
How to break down a whole turkey:
Place a 12–14 lb. turkey, breast side up, on a large cutting board and pat dry.
Grip a wing and pull it outward so you can see where it attaches to the body. Using a sharp boning or chef’s knife, cut through the joint to separate the wing from the breast. If you hit bone, you’re in the wrong spot; pull the wing out farther to help you get into the place where the joint meets the socket. Remove wing; repeat on the other side.