Turkey Time: deboning a turkey

All photos by Larry St Aubin

The day before Thanksgiving is a great time to buy a turkey – they are reduced in price. I saw them going for $1.19 a pound at the Metro supermarket. However, I went to my favourite butcher – Whitehouse Meats – at St. Lawrence Market,

For this blog assignment I am to select a choice of meat and talk about the cut. I decided on turkey and, not just a singular cut, but the whole bird. I start with how to remove the bones from the turkey. I then go on to 2 different recipes – one for the dark meat and one for the white. A turkey has about 70% white meat and 30% dark. And for those folks into turkey trivia – a turkey is a variety of pheasant and has about 35,000 feathers.

This will be a lengthy post but I captured the process in photos and will add them as I go along. I must thank my instructor for Food Theory II, Chef Tawfik Shehata, for providing a guide on how to debone the turkey. I had been deboning chickens for practice but Chef Tawfik presented a real challenge with the turkey guide. All poultry have the same basic structure but working with a large bird provided an opportunity for taking it to the next level   It was the first time doing it but I was up for the challenge (and so were the pugs who say “yes” to bigger birds).

The Turkey Farmers of Ontario have some great recipes. They also provide a link to a consumer site, Make It Super, that have additional recipes plus links to turkey farms like the Turkey Shoppe near St. Thomas. The recipes are a great examples of why you don’t need to purchase a whole bird. Like chicken, you can buy parts or ground. The recipes cover a wide range of cooking methods: grilling turkey sausages, baking in a lasagna or stir fry for a salad.

But, if you want to challenge your knife skills, then this blog is about how to remove the bones.

Turkey is low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein. It is a complete protein supplying all essential amino acids plus zinc, iron, selenium, potassium, phosphorus, niacin, vitamin D and B 12 according to the  Canadian Turkey nutrition guide.

I decided on roasting but I could have grilled it on the stove top or the BBQ. I also could have cut it up and used it in a saute. Once the bones have been removed, a variety of cooking methods can be applied.

Whitehouse Meats had an Ontario, free range turkey and he gave me a post-Thanksgiving discount of $74 for a 19 lb bird. By the way, free-range means that it has had some access to the outdoors but is mainly kept inside the barn. When I count the number of meals I get from it, plus the homemade stock I will make from the bones, it is cost effective to buy whole and remove the bones yourself.

It was frozen. turkey01The safest way to thaw a bird (meaning no danger of bacteria or toxin growth) is to let it thaw in the fridge. It will take about 4-5 days but it keeps the meat at 0 degrees Celsius – out of the danger zone.

Even after 5 days, when I opened it, there were crystals along the backbone. But it was ready to fabricate.


Okay, why am I removing the bones? The white meat and dark meat have different “doneness” temperatures. If you leave the whole bird in long enough to cook the legs, then the breast will be dried out.

But, once you remove the bones, you can roast the dark and white meat separately – where both come out juicy and tender. The pugs and I both could not believe the flavour by doing it this way. Or you can roast both at the same time just take the breast out earlier, when it is done. In that way those who like dark meat or white meat can have their choice of juicy selections.

And there will be a lot of bones so freeze them in order to make a homemade stock later.

The first thing to do is lay the bird breast side up and split it down the middle. I had a cleaver, chef’s knife and boning knife for this procedure. Once it is split, then separate the legs and thighs. I had these colour coded cutting mats that I used but will get a large cutting board for next time.


I start with the legs first so the thighs went into the fridge. Remember, while the turkey is out on the cutting board, it is in the danger zone (40 – 140 F or 4 – 60 C). Meat can only be in the danger zone for 2 hours so when not working on the meat, put it in the fridge.

Remove skin from legs

I remove the skin. I will use the skin later to wrap the dark meat into a roll. Skin goes into the fridge. The dark meat has a richer flavour than white meat. This is due to the fat content. turkey05It also takes longer to cook which is why we are separating it from the white meat. Now we need to remove the bone from the leg



Chop off the ankle joint with a cleaver or the heel of the chef’s knife. With the meaty side facing up, find the knee joint and push the tip of the boning knife down so it reaches the outside edge of the leg bone.

Slowly work down the edge of the leg bone to the bottom of the leg. turkey06Return to the knee joint and begin to cut around the edge of the joint to release it. Then begin the same process of bringing the knife down to one side of the thigh bone and begin to slowly cut between the bone and the meat, working around the bone until the meat is released.


You will now have a a boneless spread of dark meat. However, notice the tendons sticking out at the bottom. They need to be removed. You will need a pair of pliers.


Hold one of the tendons with the pliers and, with the boning knife, begin to scrape the meat away from you so it uncovers the full tendon. turkey08You will then be able to pull out the tendon. Continue to do this with all the tendons. Also remove any bone, ligament pieces or extra fat from the meat. This will take practice but it becomes easier. And, you now get to practice on the other leg. Make sure the one you just did is put in the fridge.


turkey10Now we work on the breast. White meat has less fat and you don’t have any tendons to pull out. We will use a recipe for our white meat that adds fat to the cooking process. Start by cutting the wing off at the joint. You can first use your finger to find the middle of the joint as you move it up and down. Pull the wing out to the side in order to create a space in the joint for your knife to slice through.

Place the breast with the ribs facing up and toward you. Depending how you originally cut the turkey in half, there may be part of the breast bone.


Slide the tip of the boning knife down the far edge between the bone and the meat. Use your guide hand to pull away the ribs as you slice away the meat. Once you’ve released the ribs then remove the bone from the wing’s drumette.  You now have a boneless breast of turkey.

turkey14I’m going to cook the breasts at a later date, so I’ll marinate them overnight. The marinade is orange juice, white wine vinegar, dried cranberries and tangelo slices.



For both the dark and white meat recipes, I will lay the pieces out flat then layer them with a filling, roll them up and tie, then roast.

I lay out the two dark meat pieces side by side along with the skin beside them. I will wrap the roll with the skin. turkey15

For the dark meat, I have prepared two sauces that will balance each other, plus add an additional flavour to the meat – a Soubise made with Vidalia onions and a Tamarind sauce.


I lay the two pieces side by side and spread a thin layer of both sauces. Season with salt and pepper. I roll the two pieces to form a log. Where the seam is, I cover with the skin to hold it together. I then tie up the roll with butcher twine (I need to practice the professional way of tying by forming a loop with the fingers).


Brush a light coating of oil on top and roast at 400 F to an internal temperature of 74 degrees C, 165 F. If the roll has different thicknesses (like mine did) check the internal temperature in several different spots. Also turn the pan around to a different location in the oven to get an overall even cooking. And remember the carryover cooking. The roast will continue to cook for about 10 minutes after you take it out of the oven. So allow for that extra cooking time.

I’m going to do something similar with the breast meat. I’ll use the Soubise I made but will balance it with cranberry sauce (cranberries were on sale after Thanksgiving so I made extra sauce). turkey20It is a simple recipe with water, cranberries and sugar. I didn’t want it too sweet so I tasted the sauce every 5 minutes as it reduced. It ended with  600 grams of cranberries and 1 cup of sugar.

And I used a cast iron pan so after I turned off the heat, the sauce continued to thicken with the heat of the pan.




turkey21I planned to do a poêlé for the breast roll. Poêlé is butter roasting. I start with a bed of mire poix – 25% carrots, 25% celery, 50% onion. I’m going to use a Dutch oven for even heat distribution.




turkey22Now to make the roll. Place the breast meat side by side so that when you flip the one piece over, it matches. I spread a thin layer of the onion puree and then the cranberry sauce (I put too much on this first time. It made it harder to roll up).



turkey23After I place the tied roll into the Dutch oven, I baste it with unsalted butter, garnish with dried cranberries and tangelo slices, season with pepper and salt. I’m going to cover it for the first 40 minutes. The moisture from the vegetables will heat the meat. Now, technically, this is braising. Braising is when you cover and let the moisture carry the heat to the meat. Roasting is done with dry heat – no moisture involved – like I did with the dark meat.  But I will uncover it for the last part of the cooking.

turkey24Every 15 minutes I will take it out and baste it with the butter from the bottom of the pot.

After 40 minutes I take the cover off but continue to baste with butter. Roast to an internal temperature of 74 degrees C., allowing for carry over cooking.

roast turkey breast

basting liquidNow, the liquid that is left in the pot can be used on the side. Strain it through cheese cloth. You will then need to degrease the liquid. Pour it into a pot and have the it halfway off of the burner.


turkey26Bring it to a boil. The fat will move to the side of the pot, away from the boiling part. You can then use a ladle to remove the fat.




Slice and serve with the flavoured liquid.turkey27

This brings us to the end of the blog. Turkeys will be coming up again during the Christmas season. However, try out a couple of the recipes in the links above. Arrange with your butcher to get turkey parts. Don’t wait for Christmas or next Thanksgiving. Give turkey a try anytime.

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