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Whether you’ve decided to roast, grill, smoke or fry your turkey, the final step can make or break your presentation.  Even the most beautiful bird, with a crisp and golden skin, can end up looking like a pile of hacked-up meat on the plate if you don’t carve it properly.  A well-carved turkey, on the other hand, allows guests to fully appreciate the quality of your cooking.

On Wednesday evening, I had the pleasure of attending the second class in Jason Tesauro’s “Modern Gentleman” series at the Morrison House.  Titled “Birds & Brews,” the evening was dedicated to two subjects: craft beers and turkey dinners.  While the Dogfish Head beers that Devin Arloski shared with us were delicious, the real education of the evening was a freezer-to-plate walk-through of how to brine, cook and serve a traditional Thanksgiving turkey by Chef Dennis Marron.

With Chef Marron’s guidance, even a first-time carver can quickly dispatch a holiday bird.  And if you think you’re the only one who doesn’t know how to do it…think again.  It was a matter of moments between Marron’s honing his knife-edge and all of us gathering tightly around him to make sure we didn’t miss a step.

A chef’s step-by-step guide to carving – and the recipe for his turkey brine – after the jump.

So how do you actually carve a turkey to maximize the amount of succulent, tender turkey each guest can enjoy?

1. According to Chef Marron, it all starts with space and equipment.  Give yourself room to break things down and set them aside.  A side table next to where you’re carving (or at least a shallow baking pan on some clean counter space) is essential to make sure each cut is made quickly and cleanly.  You’ll need a sharp knife – which should be honed every time you use it to keep the line of the blade intact.  Tongs or some other method for grabbing the slices of meat as they’re carved are a big help, as well.

2. Once you’ve established a base of operations, it’s time to let the bird breathe.  If you’ve trussed it for more even cooking (and you should), you’ll want to be sure to remove any evidence of the twine used to keep everything compact.  Realistically, though, the twine is likely to have dried out and (in some cases) removed itself altogether by fraying and splitting in the heat of the oven.

3. Now you’re ready to make your first cut.  Take your sharpened knife and run it through skin and into the crevice between the leg and the torso of your beautifully well-cooked bird.  You’re not looking to remove anything at this point, but simply to release the tension on the legs and to allow them to stabilize the turkey while you’re carving.

4. For most of us amateur turkey surgeons, the real difficulty lies in our approach to the white meat.  We’ve all grown up with images in movies and cartoons of someone slicing directly into the side of a golden-brown turkey and lifting long, elegant slices onto the plates.  Turns out that’s not really the best way to cut into the turkey’s breast meat.

Instead, Chef Marron recommends you take a look at the turkey’s natural structure and tap into it.  Take your carving knife or boning knife and find the breastbone (right where you’d expect it to be).  Run your knife along the breastbone and then down along the ribs.  Then slice down along either side of the central cartilage to ensure that you remove each half of the turkey breast completely for further carving.  At this point you can either keep the wings attached to the breast or choose to break things down further and remove the wing from the breast first by cutting it at the first joint between them.

5. Now it’s time to revisit that first pair of cuts you made to stabliize the bird.  Locate the hip joints on either side of the turkey.  Go ahead and continue those cuts with a swift motion, separating the dark meat of the thighs and legs from the white meat portions of the carcass.  While you’re in there, don’t leave until you retrieve the sweet, tender “oysters” that hide out between the hip joint and the backbone.  They’re known as the chef’s reward, so do yourself a favor and claim them as you’re carving.

6. After the breasts, wings, thighs and legs are separated from the torso, you’re now ready to slice up the servings that will make your Thanksgiving dinner shine.   Cross-cut the breast meat – arrange it on your cutting board so that its longer side runs right to left.  Then use up and down slices to make sure you’re cutting through the various muscle fibers instead of parallel to them.  Your diners will thank you, as the slices you serve will be infinitely more tender than they would be if you cut with the grain instead of against it.  You can also use the knife to slice the meat of the thigh away from the bone, but in our families there’s always someone who wants a whole turkey leg for themselves…no need to prep it further.

That’s pretty much all it takes to cut up your holiday turkey.  But practice does make perfect, so you may want to take a few dry runs between now and Thursday to make sure you’ve got everything set.  You can even work with a larger chicken if you don’t have a turkey to practice on.

So…what about that recipe I promised?

If you’ve never brined poultry before, it serves a distinct purpose.  The cells of the meat suck up tremendous amounts of water and a blend of herbs and spices complement the inherently salty flavor.  During the cooking process, brined meats retain a signifcant portion of their moisture – you’ll find it’s really hard to overcook them.  A good brine can save overdone meats, as long as they are given the opportunity to rest for 15 minutes or so after cooking and before serving.  Try it on a chicken and see what you think, but this is definitely a crowd pleaser:

Turkey Brine
Recipe from Chef Dennis Marron (the Grille at Morrison House)

Ingredients:

3 Tbsp fennel
2 Tbsp coriander
2 Tbsp whole allspice
2 Tbsp whole cloves
3 cinnamon sticks
4 dried Guajillo pepper
1 Tbsp black peppercorns
1 Tbsp white Peppercorns
4 bay leaves
2 sprigs of rosemary
1 bunch thyme
10 cloves, garlic
1 gallon water
6 cups of salt
3 cups sugar

1 gallon ice

Preparation:

Place water in a large pot, add all ingredients with the exception of ice and bring to a boil.  Remove from heat and allow to steep for 15 minutes.  Pour over ice and allow to cool completely.  This should be enough for one or two turkeys, depending on size.  Allow turkey to stay in brine for 12-24 hours. 

The most important thing is keeping the bird cold during that brine time.  And because turkeys are big birds that require big brining tubs, there’s a pretty good chance it won’t fit into your refrigerator.  Invest in some additional bags of ice and keep them tightly packed around the brining medium to make sure it stays cold and inhibits bacteria growth.  When we brined a turkey, we lined the inside of an Igloo cooler with a brining bag and used the insulation of the cooler (and two eight-pound bags of ice) to keep the bird cold.

As always, if you have any questions feel free to send them our way (capitalspice AT gmail DOT com) and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction.

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