Julia Child’s Deconstructed Turkey

When cooking chicken lately, I have been cooking and enjoying dark meat for its deeper flavor and more forgiving texture. Yet, one weakness of my usual turkey recipes is getting the breast to correctly cook (to 160-degrees) without sacrificing the dark meat. I rarely time the flip correctly. So when I saw this episode on America’s Test Kitchen last month, I was amazed and happy to see how it showcased the dark meat. By separating the turkey into three major pieces, some of the most fundamental Thanksgiving issues are solved. (1) Getting the dark meat cooked properly without overcooking the white meat. (2) getting real turkey drippings into the stuffing. As a bonus, this method cooks the turkey in about half the time, freeing up my oven to cook rolls, pies, and gravy the rest of the day. There are a few issues (discussed below), but overall this technique provides a delicious turkey. It was the best dark meat I’ve ever eaten. Chris Kimball agrees, saying “this is now my new, absolute favorite.” 4-1/2 stars. I hope you all had a delicious Thanksgiving.

Most beautiful dark meat ever

Most beautiful dark meat ever

Start the day/evening before, taking care of most of the prep work. Cut the turkey into three major parts, (1) breast/wings, then (2) cut off each leg/thigh quarter. I misread the instructions and started to cut off just the leg; not the entire leg quarter (i.e. including the thigh), but realized my mistake before I did any damage beyond the skin. The recipe only brines the breast/wings. It salts/seasons the leg quarters separately.

What makes this recipe truly unique is removing the thighbones, then trussing the thighs up using skewers and string. This step makes the dark meat the absolute best part of the entire evening. I was hesitant to break the tradition of roasting a whole turkey, but with my guests arriving just before dinner this year, it was a great opportunity to give this recipe a try. Mostly because Chris Kimball says it is based upon Julia Child’s recipe.

Issues / Comments:

  1. Cutting off leg quarters, not just legs. As I mentioned above, I almost cut off just the legs in step 2. The recipe calls for me to remove the “leg quarter”.
  2. Because the wings overhanged my 12″ skillet, the juices dripped down to the oven floor and filled the house with smoke. My solution is that I recommend putting a foil-lined baking sheet below the skillet to catch the juices. If it starts to smoke you can just swap it out for new foil. Fortunately, my guests had not yet arrived.
  3. I was surprised that it took me a full hour to deconstruct and prepare the turkey, most of the time was separating the leg quarters. The back was pretty easy to remove using kitchen shears.
  4. The recipe calls for a 12-to-15-pound turkey. I bought a 19-pounder because of the number of guests, but my turkey took double the time to cook than stated in the recipe. In the end, we ate an hour late, but only because I cut the resting time down (more than I should have).
  5. While Chris Kimball tries to have the white and dark meat ready at the same time, it was not the case. The dark meat took longer, but that gave the breast an extra 10-to-15 minutes to rest. The beautiful thing about this recipe is that I was able to remove the white meat while the dark meat came up to temperature.

Rating: 4-1/2 star.
Cost: $19.  ($10 of which was by 19-lb turkey)
How much work? Medium/High.
How big of a mess?  Low.
Start time 1 PM. Dinner time 6 PM.

The original Cook’s Illustrated recipe is here.  The recipe as I cooked it for this Thanksgiving is as follows:

The Eventing Before Thanksgiving:
12-to-15-pound turkey
1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
Salt and pepper
Wooden skewers
1-1/2 pounds hearty white sandwich bread (e.g. Arnold’s or Pepperidge Farms)

  1. Remove the neck and giblets and set aside in a large Dutch oven, which will be used along with back and thigh bones to make the gravy.
  2. Put turkey breast-side-up on a cutting board. Tuck the wing back just to get it out-of-the-way. Remove the thighs/legs by cutting through the skin around the quarters where it attaches to breast. Cut away the top of the meat until your knife reaches the hip bone. Bend the entire leg quarter back so that the bone pops out of the hip socket, then you can continue to cut the meat away and remove entire quarter.
  3. To take out the thigh bone, use the tip of your knife to cut along the length of the thigh. Cut around the tip of the bone and work your knife underneath the bone to expose the joint between thigh and leg. Cut through the cartilage and remove thighbone; adding bones to your pot for the gravy. Repeat to remove the second leg quarter.
  4. Rub interior of each thigh with ½ teaspoon sage, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper.
  5. Poke 2 or 3 skewers through skin/meat to close up the thigh where your removed the thigh bone. Wrap some kitchen twine around the wooden skewers to tightly close the thigh into a nice, round piece of boneless meat. Set on a large plate, cover, and refrigerate for 6 to 12 hours until ready to cook.
  6. Trim away and discard any excess skin from around the neck.
  7. To remove the back bone from the breast, flip the turkey over breast-side-down. Use kitchen shears to cut through ribs (following vertical line of fat where breast meets back) until you can’t cut anymore. You’ve reach the bone near the wing joint. Repeat on other side of backbone.
  8. Use a little force to bend the back-section away from the breast, and the shoulder joint should pop out of the socket. Cut between the bonds to separate the back from the breast, and add the back to the pot for making gravy.
  9. Dissolve 3/4-cup salt into 6 quarts of cold water in a large container (I used a large stock pot). Submerge in brine, cover and refrigerate for 6 to 12 hours until ready to cook.
  10. Cut bread into 1/2-inch cubes (including the crust). Spread on-top 2 rimmed baking sheets and bake at 300-degrees from 25 to 30 minutes until it becomes dry and lightly browned. Stir a few times during baking and empty into the largest bowl you own.

Thanksgiving Day:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
3 onions, chopped fine
6 celery ribs, minced
1 cup dried cranberries
4 large eggs, beaten

  1. An hour before you are ready to start cooking turkey, begin baking the bones reserved gravy.
  2. Pre-heat oven temperature to 425-degrees, and set two over racks to the lowest and second lowest positions.
  3. Remove the breast from brine and pat dry using paper towels (leaving the leg quarters in refrigerator for now). Tuck the wings behind back.
  4. Finely chop 3 onions.
  5. Melt down butter in 12″ non-stick oven-safe skillet over medium heat. Add onions and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they have softened and are just beginning to brown. Meanwhile, mince 2 tablespoons of fresh sage and 6 celery ribs.
  6. Add minced celery and sage to skillet, plus 1-1/2 teaspoons pepper. Continue to cook for 3 to 5 minutes until celery is slightly softened. Empty vegetables into your large bowl with the bread cubes.
  7. Use paper towels to wipe out skillet. Brush surface of breast with 2 teaspoons vegetable oil and set turkey breast with the skin-side-down into skillet. Roast at 425-degrees for 30 minutes. Place a foil-lined baking sheet on the rack below turkey to catch any drippings.
  8. Meanwhile, add cranberries and beaten eggs to bread mixture and toss to combine (mixture will be dry). Empty stuffing to 16″x13″ roasting pan, then use a rubber spatula to form an even 12″x10″ rectangle. The turkey will be set on-top of stuffing to protect it and prevent it from burning.
  9. Remove the breast from the oven and use paper towels to pat up the hot juices from the top of the breast. Use wads to paper towels to flip over and set over two-thirds of stuffing.
  10. Brush leg quarters with 1 teaspoon vegetable oil and arrange over the remaining stuffing. Lightly season lets and breasts with salt.
  11. Use your rubber spatula to tuck and exposed stuffing under the turkey, so that it is almost entire covered.
  12. Bake for 30 minutes at 425-degrees.
  13. Reduce oven to 350-degrees and continue cooking for between 40 minutes and 2 hours; until breast registers 160 to 165 degrees and  thighs registers 175 to 180 degrees.
  14. Empty onto a cutting board as each individual piece attains the proper temperature. Allow to rest for 30 minutes before carving. While turkey rests, use a spatula to stir stuffing and scrape up any browned bits. Evenly rearrange stuffing over the entire roasting pan and keep warm in the tured-off-oven.
  15. Before serving, adjust seasoning of the stuffing with salt and pepper to taste. Arrange the stuffing in center of large serving platter.
  16. Remove skewers and twine from leg quarters. Carve and serve.
The breast also roasted up wonderfully moist.

The breast also roasted up wonderfully moist.

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15 Responses to Julia Child’s Deconstructed Turkey

  1. Anonymous says:

    So glad you separated the dark from white meat. It is trouble but well worth it. I love your blog. Hang in there.

    • Yes, I like the idea of everyone seeing the whole turkey being carved up. It’s such a nice tradition. But these thighs were the best thing I ate all night!

    • shirl says:

      I HAD A LITTLE PROBLEM WITH THE WINGS HANGING OVER THE PAN ALSO, BUT I PUT FOIL JUST UNDER THE WINGS, TUCKED INTO THE PAN SOME. I KNEW IF I DIDN’T IT WOULD DRIP. MY TURKEY WAS 14 LBS. THE BREAST WAS SO JUICY AND TENDER. I DID TAKE THE BREAST OUT FIRST, BUT ONLY ABOUT 10 MIN. FOR THE LEG QUARTERS TO BE DONE. DELICIOUS.

  2. Tracey says:

    This year I used this recipe http://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/braised-turkey-legs for the legs and thighs. I dry-brined the breast with butter and herbs under the skin. I did not use the carrots in the braised legs recipe, and added the braising liquid to my turkey stock for the gravy, after it reduced. Best Thanksgiving turkey ever!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for posting this recipe. I took bits and pieces from several turkey recipe sites this year. I brined, rinsed then soaked in plain water for 20 minutes. I iced only the breast for 40 minutes before putting into a convection oven. I made Alton Browns foil triangle over breast after the initial high heat roasting. The breast registered 161 degrees and the thigh was 170. All meat was fully cooked and juicy. Only problem was, white meat was tasteless, dark meat…meh. And I did so many different things this year that I’m not sure which method failed! Maybe it was simply the free store bought turkey brand. Or the soaking in plain water. Or the convection oven cooking……

  4. Anonymous says:

    Exactly. The gravy saved it.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I used the same exact recipe this year. Best stuffing I have ever had!

  6. Don says:

    Can a chicken be done this Julia Child’s way? What cook times should be used?

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