Memories of the holiday season (hopefully) leave us happily recounting family feasts for the following year, in longing anticipation of the coming fall, pining for family and friends. All too often, however, the reality of Thanksgiving day is a hurried scene of scurrying children and tension in the kitchen, crowded with cooks, helpers, and irritating cousins reaching for early tastes of the holiday spread. The paramount challenge, of course, is ensuring the humongous Thanksgiving turkey is safely edible while remaining, well, desirably edible; the bird’s finicky white meat tends so easily to dry out that internal temperature control is the subject of hundreds of family secrets, wives’ tales, and the occasional raised voice.
If there must be turkey on your family’s Thanksgiving table, but the idea of using up family time to take care of a roasting bird isn’t up your alley, try breaking down the bird into smaller pieces prior to seasoning and cooking. Smaller chunks of meat means simpler and faster preparation, and the ease of use with the individual pieces invites personal culinary creativity by making each step just that much less bulky. From reducing necessary space and time for brining, to allowing for a quick, high-temperature roast, the 8-piece approach takes a chunk of chores out of Turkey Day.
Breaking Down the Bird
We’ll be separating the bird into 8 component pieces: 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings, and 2 breasts (or leave the breastplate intact for the double breast display). If your butcher has an extra moment between last-minute Thanksgiving requests, he’ll probably be willing to complete the task for you. If you’ve already got the whole bird at home, you’ll need a sharp knife and preferably some kitchen shears. Your primary task begins by removing the wings entire legs from the rest of the body using the knife, then removing the backbone with the shears, and removing the wings from the breast. For a visual explanation demonstrated on chicken, check out this piece from Serious Eats.
Whether you’ve opted for the 4-, 7-, or 8-piece approach, you’ve unlocked a new avenue for creativity in the turkey cook. While deep frying a whole bird is notoriously dangerous, frying individual thighs, drumsticks and wings can be done in a just a few minutes in a large dutch oven or frying pot, and they make for a fun and delicious crunch at the table. If smoking, your cook time goes from all-day to a couple of hours, and an 8-piece bird can be oven-roasted to completion in no more than an hour, at a temperature as high as 425 degrees. Note that if you choose to oven-roast, you’ll have to account for the varying size of the different turkey bits. Wings and leg pieces will reach temperature faster than the breast, so you’ll want to either pull them from the oven earlier, or start the breasts alone in the oven and add the smaller bits later.
Be Sure to Brine
Lastly, especially if you’ve never brined a bird at home, the reduced volume necessary to store the 8-piece presents a great opportunity to get creative with soaking that turkey in a saltwater bath. The day before the feast, heat 1 cup non-iodized salt for each gallon of water necessary to completely submerge the turkey parts. (Read our general guide to brines here.) There’s no need to boil the water, but you’ll want to aid the salt’s dissolution with a bit of heat. Add the flavor components to the heated mix (you can’t go wrong with peppercorns, bay leaves, sugar, and a few whole lemons), and allow the entire mix to cool to room temperature or colder. Place the turkey parts in the cold solution, toss the container in the fridge, and come back on Thanksgiving day for a user-friendly version of the hallowed Thanksgiving turkey.