The Thanksgiving Table

A Turkey That Really Comes Together

By Tony Rosenfeld
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The potatoes may be lumpy, the cranberry sauce canned and the greens cooked to a dull gray. But if the meal's centerpiece, the roast turkey, has a beautiful browned finish and perfect rounded shape, all can be forgiven at the holiday table, right?

[SEE: Butterflied Turkey Roasting Times, Recipe: Herb-Crusted Roast (Butterflied) Turkey and Recipe: Mushroom, Fennel and Parmesan Stuffing]

Too many holiday cooks think so, and they often struggle to make the bird taste as good as it looks.

What if the star of the show were to get a makeover -- and not just a trim, but a real chop? Instead of trussing the turkey to create its iconic rounded shape, cut out the backbone and flatten the bird (a practice referred to as "spatchcocking") before roasting. Yes, you give up that traditional presentation, but the rewards -- quicker cooking, juicier meat, flavorful stuffing, easy carving -- more than make up for it.

As much as I would like to take credit for it, this technique has been around for centuries. Alan Davidson in "The Oxford Companion to Food" suggests that the term spatchcocking comes from the Irish and is short for "dispatch cock," or a way of grilling poultry after splitting and flattening it. (Or it may derive from the term "spitchcock," a method of cooking eels. Or it may come from somewhere else entirely.)

If you prefer, you can call the method something daintier, such as butterflying, but no matter its name, the approach solves many of the problems that generally ail roast turkeys.

You can blame the scourge of the Thanksgiving meal, turkey's tendency to dry out, on the meat's lean texture. But it's really only the breasts that are lean. The legs and thighs have moist, dark meat, and given their geography on the bird (generally on the bottom of the pan during roasting), they can take longer to cook. Thus, if you throw a bird in the oven and just walk away, you may get breast meat that's overly dry or dark meat that's undercooked.

To counteract the breast's penchant for dryness, many cooks brine the bird; that is, they soak it in a saltwater solution to flavor it and add moisture. Brines work well, but it's not always easy to find the refrigerator space for this flavor bath, especially during a holiday week. Many cooks flip the turkey during roasting to even out the disparate cook times and the positioning of the breast and legs, but anyone who's ever tried to lift a slippery, searing-hot bird knows that it's a stress-inducing task at best and a disaster at worst.

Spatchcocking eliminates the need for the brine and the flip. Because the bird is set flat, the breast and legs are exposed to even heat. And because their cooking time is evened out, you can raise the roasting temperature slightly to cook the turkey more quickly. The bird spends less time in the oven and thus has less chance to dry out. Sounds like a winner, right?

There's more. Spatchcocking can improve flavor, too. The technique exposes the bird's cavity, so it's easier to season. Try to distribute salt in a closed turkey cavity and gravity takes over, dumping the seasoning unevenly. With the cavity opened up, you can sprinkle the inner meat uniformly with spices and herbs. And then there is the stuffing. With our new awareness of food safety, many cooks now roast the stuffing apart from the bird. But what, then, comes of the turkey's wonderful juices? It's easy enough to set the stuffing (or dressing, as it were) under the flat bird to pick up those flavors. And then while the bird is resting before carving, you can finish browning the stuffing and cooking it to the proper temperature.

I know what you're thinking: The spatchcocking itself must be difficult, one of those cheffy techniques no home cook could master. Actually, it's quite simple. Here's how: Place the bird breast side down on a cutting board and, using a pair of heavy kitchen shears, cut along both sides of the backbone through the rib cage to remove a strip about two inches wide. It does take a bit of force to do that (a turkey's rib cage is noticeably more sturdy than a chicken's), so you could use a chef's knife if you prefer or, even better, ask the butcher to do the task for you.

That's it. Just make sure to keep the backbone for a soup or gravy.

Spreading the turkey flat does mean it will take up more room in a roasting pan because its breast now stretches wider and the legs and wings splay out. That shouldn't be a problem; just rotate the bird 90 degrees in the pan. The drumsticks might overlap the edges a bit, but any turkey weighing less than 20 pounds should fit in a large roasting pan just fine. And if you're roasting a larger bird, you might want to separate the legs from the breast so they can be set flat. That may be considered blasphemous by some, but it would be the first cut you'd make when carving anyway, and it supports spatchcocking's goal of quick, even cooking.

Almost every technique has a drawback, and that brings us back to the appearance of our bird. How to explain its flatness to your guests? You can take the lead of food stylist Lisa Cherkasky and cut out the breastbone, too, then bend the flattened, roasted bird back into shape, using the stuffing as a prop to help return the turkey to centerpiece-worthy verticality. (See a slide show.)

Or you could just wait it out. Even if people start chirping about the bird's unorthodox physique as they mill around the table, once they taste the juicy, perfectly cooked meat, they will happily quiet down and eat.

Tony Rosenfeld is a contributing editor at Fine Cooking and author of "150 Things to Make With Roast Chicken" (Taunton Press, 2007).

TIP: To Spatchcock the Bird

To butterfly or spatchcock the turkey, turn it breast side down, then use kitchen shears to cut along both sides of the backbone.

Once the backbone has been removed, turn the bird cut side down and gently apply pressure to flatten the turkey.

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