How to Spatchcock a Turkey
Want a Thanksgiving turkey that cooks twice as fast, more evenly, and with crispy skin? Spatchcocking is the method for you! It’s the best turkey yet.
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Photograph by Sher Castellano
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Sure, a whole roasted turkey at the Thanksgiving table is iconic. But that bulky bird takes up space in the fridge for days, monopolizes the oven, and, carved tableside, makes hungry diners wait for what feels like an eternity.
The solution? Spatchcock it! What is spatchcock turkey? It's a way of butterflying a whole turkey where you remove the backbone so you can fold the bird out flat. Why spatchcock a turkey? There are a bunch of good reasons. It might look a little goofy at first, but the big win with this method is how fast the turkey roasts — in some cases, as quickly as 1 hour. More skin is exposed, so it roasts up crispier. Overcooking the turkey breast is less likely (meaning the cooked turkey is more juicy) because it’s not elevated, and the flattened bird leaves space for other things in the oven as it roasts.
Once it’s flattened, you can cook your bird all the regular ways: roast it in an oven, grill it on a gas or charcoal grill, or smoke it. Of course, you can also brine it or cure it with a dry salt rub before cooking.
Spatchcocking lends itself best to lighter birds, 10 to 14 pounds (the size to fit on a sheet pan), so it’s perfect for smaller gatherings. But if you need more turkey, consider spatchcocking two small birds rather than a large one.
Here are the steps for spatchcocking a bird. Plus, we have recipes for how to season and how long to cook a spatchcock turkey, as well as ideas for brines, rubs, gravy, and stock.
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Tools you need to spatchcock a turkey
Before you get started spatchcocking your turkey, gear up. (Note that if you’re buying a fresh turkey, you could ask the butcher to spatchcock it for you so you could proceed directly to the recipes.)
• Paper towels
• Large cutting board
• Sturdy poultry shears or kitchen shears
• Sharp knife, medium-size, optional
• Sheet pan (aka a rimmed baking sheet), broiler pan, or large roasting pan
• Flat baking rack or roasting rack, optional
• Meat thermometer such as the Yummly® Smart Thermometer
The best way to spatchcock a turkey
Photograph by Sher Castellano
Provided you have a sturdy pair of poultry shears and a little muscle, spatchcocking a whole bird is a straightforward technique you may find pretty easy to pull off. Make sure your bird is completely thawed (this can take about 3 days in the fridge for a 12-pound turkey).
1. Prep your work space. Set out all your equipment (above) so you don’t need to fish tools out of drawers with raw turkey juice on your hands.
2. Prep your turkey. Working in the sink, remove the turkey from its packaging. Pull out the neck and giblets and save for gravy or stock if you like. Pat the turkey dry inside and out with paper towels.
3. Cut out the backbone (pictured above). Set the turkey breast-side down on the cutting board with the tail pointing toward you. Use poultry shears to cut along the sides of the backbone until it's free. You’ll have to use your muscles. Save the backbone for stock if you like. Trim the excess skin hanging from the upper part of the breasts and save for stock if you so choose.
4. Optional: split the keel bone. This helps the turkey lie flatter. Working from the inside of the turkey and starting at the neck end, use a sharp knife to cut through the membrane and split the triangular keel bone that joins the two sides of the breast. (If you can’t cut through it, skip this part — the turkey will still be reasonably flat.)
5. Crack the breastbones. Flip the turkey so it’s breast-side up. Place both hands on the breastbones and press down very firmly to flatten out the bird — you may hear the bones crack.
Photograph by Sher Castellano
6. Fold the wing tips under the breast. This protects the wingtips from burning and exposes the breast so it roasts up golden brown. You can skip this step if you’re grilling over indirect heat.
7. Optional: Brine the bird. If your recipe calls for wet or dry brining, do it now. (Many conventional turkeys come seasoned with a brine solution — check the package before you buy). You can also refrigerate the spatchcocked turkey up to 24 hours — I keep it uncovered on a flat pan to dry out the skin, which helps make it crispier.
8. Roast (or grill or smoke) as directed. About 1 hour before cooking, let the bird stand at room temperature to promote even cooking. Line a sheet pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil for easy cleanup. Set a flat baking rack on the sheet pan — or if you don’t have one, make a bed of chopped onions, carrots, and celery. Arrange the bird on top with the legs splayed out away from the body. The drumsticks should not extend over the baking sheet, but if they do, tuck doubled pieces of foil under them to direct any drippings onto the pan.
9. Serve. How to carve a spatchcock turkey? You can present the cooked bird at the table any way you want, but let’s be honest — a spatchcocked turkey is a little awkward-looking. For easy serving, consider carving it in the kitchen and arranging the meat beautifully on a platter.
How to spatchcock a turkey (video)
Sometimes when you’re trying a new technique, seeing is believing. In this video for his Cajun Smoked Turkey, Marrekus Wilkes of Cooks with Soul shows you the key steps for how to butterfly a turkey. You can get the full Southern Thanksgiving menu here.
Spatchcock turkey cooking time
How long to cook a spatchcocked turkey depends on the size of the turkey and the recipe. For a roasted spatchcocked turkey, most recipes recommend cooking at 425° to 450°F for 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours. For a grilled spatchcock turkey, 425°F is a typical bbq temperature and the bird will be done in about 1 hour. For a smoked spatchcock turkey, plan to keep the smoker at about 350°F and cook the turkey 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 hours. As for the internal temperature to aim for, most recipes suggest 165°F in the thickest part of the breast or about 175° in the thickest part of the thigh. For your total time, add about 30 minutes for a turkey rest to allow the juices to go back into the meat.
Spatchcock turkey recipes
Once your turkey is butterflied, how do you season it, and just how long do you cook it? These 10 butterfly turkey recipes for roasting, grilling, and smoking will answer these and other questions.
This straightforward recipe for roast turkey with classic flavors comes with a cook-along, step-by-step video. It's doesn't call for brining, but you can apply the seasonings and refrigerate up to 12 hours ahead. Roasted at 425°F, this turkey cooks in 70 to 90 minutes.
Looking for an easy turkey recipe? This one is simple — the twist is roasting it on lemon slices. Rub a paste of chopped herbs and olive oil between the skin and the flesh of the bird before roasting.
Want gravy with your turkey? Of course you do! Here, you take the neck and backbone, nestle them in a pan of vegetables, and roast the butterflied bird over them on a rack. Then make the roasted bones, veggies, and savory drippings into a quick stock strained and thickened with a butter-and-flour roux.
Blitz fresh thyme, rosemary, orange zest, anise seed, and the requisite salt and black pepper in a food processor to make the dry rub for this turkey. Six to 18 hours later, roast the bird on a heap of vegetables and baste it with orange-scented oil.
Looking for a smoked spatchcock turkey recipe? To take your spatchcocked bird to the next level, brine it, inject and rub it with spiced Cajun butter, then smoke with cherry wood, basting to ensure the skin comes out extra crispy.
This dish is inspired by the Chinese braising techniques called "red cooking." In this recipe, the bird gets lacquered in a baste of soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, ginger, cinnamon, and star anise. It’s ideal for people who are looking for an adventurous Thanksgiving turkey but without advance prep.
This bird gets a brine, so buy a natural turkey, not a self-basting one. There’s maple syrup in the brine and the melted butter baste. Grill the turkey at a moderate temperature of 350°F to avoid burning the baste.
A grilled spatchcock turkey has the advantage of leaving your oven wide open for Thanksgiving side dishes. Lemon zest, butter, olive oil, and plenty of fresh herbs give this bird a lighter flavor. Grill it over medium-high heat (about 425°F), with a speedy cooking time of about 1 hour.
Despite the name, this turkey recipe works better with a 12- to 14-pounder. Allow 12 hours for dry brining and use a natural (not self-basting) turkey, because you’re going to be adding fresh sage butter.
You can position a spatchcocked turkey lots of ways. This one (12-14 pounds) is tucked to fit into a roasting pan. Start with a cook time of 3 hours at 275°F, then brush the bird with the glaze and blast it at 450°F to crisp up the skin.
Brines, rubs, stock, and gravy
As a lean and mild-flavored meat, turkey benefits from a brine to add flavor and hold in the juices (particularly in the breast meat). It also benefits from a rub for extra oomph, and from gravy (made from a tasty turkey stock) to moisten and season every bite. If you need a tutorial on making gravy, look here!
If you’re wondering how to brine spatchcock turkey, the easiest method is a dry brine (like a rub). Here’s an easy dry brine you can use on any bird — just pulse kosher salt, garlic cloves, and four kinds of fresh herbs in a food processor until they're minced. This makes enough for up to a 20-pound bird, so you could use some on a chicken as well as on your Thanksgiving turkey.
If you prefer a traditional liquid brine, here’s a lovely one with apple juice, orange zest, and fresh rosemary.
Good stock is the heart of flavorful gravy. This recipe calls for turkey drumsticks and wings, but you can substitute (or add!) the neck and backbone you saved from butchering the bird. Roast the bones and vegetables for a deeper flavor.
You may not get a ton of drippings from your bird, so here’s a gravy you can make with turkey wings ahead of time. Use your own homemade turkey stock (see above) or boxed chicken stock enhanced with white wine, herbs, and garlic. You can always enrich a make-ahead gravy with drippings from the bird later on, too.
Here’s another contender for a make-ahead gravy — it uses giblets for extra flavor. You’ll be making stock with the browned neck and giblets, so you can throw in the backbone leftover from spatchcocking the turkey, too.
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