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Tender Meat in Half the Time: How to Spatchcock Your Turkey

A spatchcocked turkey on a grill.
Lauren Sakiyama

Did you know you can have a Thanksgiving turkey with perfectly tender meat and exceptionally crispy skin on the table in under two hours? It’s called spatchcocking, and we’ll explain how to do it!

Once upon a time, most Americans were determined an entire turkey would be the centerpiece of their holiday table. The thought of serving a turkey in pieces or without stuffing was a radical idea. However, things change or, at the very least, evolve.

Today, many cooks are more concerned with how something tastes rather than how it looks on the table. So, yes, this technique involves removing the turkey’s backbone, which means it won’t look quite like a traditional Thanksgiving turkey, nor will you be able to stuff it.

However, what you lose in looks and stuffing capability, you gain in tender meat, crispy skin, and time. We call that a Thanksgiving win!

How to Spatchcock or Butterfly a Turkey

The idea of performing minor surgery on a turkey carcass might sound terrifying, but it’s surprisingly easy. If you can reach into a turkey and pull out the giblets, you’re just as capable of removing the backbone.

Follow these steps:

  • Step 1: Invest in some very sharp, high-quality poultry shears. They aren’t that expensive, and they’ll save you a ton of frustration. You’ll also need an instant-read thermometer and a heavy, foil-lined baking sheet with a wire rack. If working with raw flesh gives you the heebie-jeebies, you’ll also want a pair of gloves.
A raw turkey on a cutting board next to a pair of poultry shears, thermometer, and rubber gloves
Lauren Sakiyama
  • Step 2: Grab a couple of onions, and three or four carrots and stalks of celery. Dice everything, and then place them on the foil-lined baking sheet. The wire rack goes on top of the vegetables, and then the turkey sits on the rack. The rack allows air to circulate around the turkey, which is essential to get the crispy skin and quick cook time. Meanwhile, the vegetables keep the turkey drippings from scorching and provide a little flavor. Good turkey drippings also make good gravy, so we’re all for the wire rack and diced vegetable setup. After your veggies are in place, preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, grab those gloves if you need them, and let’s cut the turkey!
Piles of diced onion, carrot, and celery on a cutting board.
Lauren Sakiyama
  • Step 3: Remove the backbone. This is the tricky part. Place the turkey breast-side down on a cutting board. With your poultry shears, start where the thigh meets the tail (as shown below) and cut along one side of the backbone. If the bird is slippery, use a towel to steady it.
A raw turkey on a cutting board next to its removed backbone.
Lauren Sakiyama

If you cut along the backbone, the shears should have no problem snapping through the ribs. However, your shears might have issues if you run into the thigh bone. If your shears get stuck, adjust them inward, toward the spine. If you move in just a few centimeters, you should clear the thigh bone. When you have one side free, repeat the process on the other.

Save the removed backbone for your gravy. Look over the incision and clean out any fat deposits or bone marrow protruding from the cut ribs. It’s easiest to do this with your fingers, but if you’re squeamish, the kitchen shears work, too.

Poultry shears mid-cut on a raw turkey, about one centimeter out from the backbone.
Lauren Sakiyama
  • Step 4: Flatten the bird. This is the fun part! Take your turkey in hand and flip it over. The breasts should be facing you, the wings flared out, and the legs inverted. In other words, it should look entirely inappropriate. Tuck the tips of the wings under the breasts, and then place your palm on top of the turkey breasts, right in the center. Press down hard. Bones should crack, and you end up with a breastbone that lies flat.
A raw spatchcocked turkey on a wire girl over a bed of diced veggies.
Lauren Sakiyama
  • Step 5: Roast, rest, serve. Now that the bird is flat, use two fingers to separate the turkey skin from the breast meat. Season the entire turkey, front and back, and under the skin with oil and seasonings, as desired. Place the turkey on top of the vegetables on the baking sheet. Roast for about one hour and twenty minutes for a 12- to 14-pound bird, or until your instant-read thermometer registers 180 degrees Fahrenheit when you stick it into the deepest part of the thigh.
A roasted turkey on a wire grill.
Lauren Sakiyama

Be sure you rotate the pan a few times during cooking and watch for any smoke. If you see or smell anything burning, it’s not the bird—it’s the vegetables underneath, so don’t fret. Just add up to one cup of water or stock to the baking sheet. When the turkey’s done, let it rest at least thirty minutes before you carve it.

What to Avoid When Spatchcocking

We suggest you use a smaller turkey for this method—anything up to 14 pounds works well. Beyond that, fitting the bird comfortably on a baking sheet can be a challenge.

When you think the turkey is ready, don’t rely on one temperature reading. Instant-read thermometers are great because you can quickly check the turkey’s temperature in a few places. It’s easy to hit a bone or push your thermometer’s tip all the way through, which gives you a very inaccurate reading. So, check a couple of times before you turn off that oven!

See? That wasn’t so hard. And now, you have a perfectly cooked turkey that was ready in half the time. What will you do with all those extra oven hours? Fresh-baked rolls, perhaps? Maybe a new, more involved dessert? The choice is yours!

But we know one thing: you’ll be glad you decided to butterfly your turkey this year, and so will your family!

Lauren Sakiyama Lauren Sakiyama
Lauren Sakiyama is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience in the hospitality industry. She has managed restaurants, country clubs, and large-scale event operations, but her passion has always been about the food. Read Full Bio »
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