By JULIA MOSKIN
By mealtime, many cooks will be tired of hovering over the turkey and ready to unload it, but just try to find a taker.
“One year my 13-year-old nephew, Josh, was the only one willing to take it on,” said Nissa Goldstein, a retired teacher in West Hartford, Conn. “Of course, everyone was shouting instructions at him, and he ended up locking himself in his room and refusing to come out.”
It is generally agreed that the art of carving is in sad decline. The definition of the “man of the house,” who would traditionally assume the job, is increasingly slippery. Family members recognize the risks involved in taking a knife to a relative’s hard work; guests often decline such a high-profile role. Add the inherent drowsiness of Thanksgiving, a cold day devoted to a single huge meal, consider the tendency in many families to start in on the house cocktail as soon as guests begin to trickle in, and the general unwillingness to put blade to bird becomes unsurprising.
“One year the turkey took a long time to cook and I went to carve it after about 13 beers,” said Maurice Landry, who lives near Lake Charles, La. “The way I remember it, I bore down to take off the leg and the whole thing went shooting off the platter and knocked over the centerpiece.”
All of these are good reasons to adopt the high-yield, low-profile carving method described here. It involves a radically untraditional step — often followed by professionals, but new to many home cooks — that makes carving easier, if less spectacular.
“I don’t cut like a chef, I cut like a butcher,” said Ray Venezia, the meat director for the four Fairway markets, a third-generation butcher and one of the biggest turkey purveyors in New York City.
Instead of slicing the meat from the roast at the table, Mr. Venezia’s carving protocol calls for the biggest pieces, the breasts and the thighs, to be removed whole, then boned and sliced on a cutting board. “Trying to carve from the carcass is like trying to cut it off a beach ball: it’s all curved surfaces and it moves around under the knife,” he said. “Give me a flat cutting board any time.”
Roger Bassett, the owner of the Original Turkey in Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, uses the same method for the 30 turkeys carved and served at his store every day. “Cutting a turkey the traditional way, where you leave the meat on the bird and cut down, you can’t cut across the grain,” he said. “The pieces you end up with are all stringy because the fibers are long instead of short.”
Mr. Venezia demonstrated the method to me twice last week; I then tested it on two roast chickens, and met with howling success.
It is important to start with a turkey that has rested for at least 20 minutes; 40 is even better, so that the meat has firmed enough to cut cleanly. Mr. Venezia does not use a carving fork. (“Why pierce the meat more than you have to and let the juices run out?”) Instead, he holds the bird in place with one hand and uses the other for cutting.
He counsels against using a large or unfamiliar knife, like a wedding set carving knife. Since most of the cutting is done with the first few inches of the blade, a small, sharp knife that you know how to wield is a wise choice. For our demonstration he used an eight-inch boning knife with a plastic handle that cost, by his estimate, $10. He used a larger knife only for slicing. The skin can be removed or left on the breast, as a matter of taste and aesthetics.
At the end there was almost nothing left on the carcass: a turkey that weighed 22 pounds raw was reduced to a denuded two-pound skeleton and a platter mounded with thick, clean slices of breast and thigh and a few whole pieces for those who like the bony bits.
“You’ll find that people eat a lot more of the dark meat when it’s carved this way,” Mr. Venezia said. Still, he advises ordering a pound of turkey for each person and five or six pounds extra, to make sure there is enough white meat for those who will not eat anything else.
Mr. Venezia said this method was easier on the carver and more satisfying at the table. “I look at a turkey as I would look at any primal cut of meat,” he said, referring to the sides of beef and rumps of lamb that butchers break down into retail cuts. “I want to get the most meat off that carcass, and I want the meat to come off in nice, thick pieces. Not shreds, not chunks, and no ragged edges.”
The only disadvantage of this method is that it eliminates the opportunity for showboating. It requires counter space and is probably best done in the kitchen (although a roomy sideboard with a cutting board on top would be fine), making it ideal for less-experienced carvers. Mr. Bassett, who is used to carving with an audience, said he preferred to present the turkey in its whole, golden-brown, burnished state, then retreat to the kitchen to carve it.
“If you want the Norman Rockwell moment, this is not the method for you,” said Michael Darre, professor of poultry science at the University of Connecticut. “However, you will get a lot of meat off the bird.”
Although modern domesticated birds do not do a lot of flying, he said, the largest muscle is still the pectoralis major, the breast, which has the heavy job of pushing down the wing during flight.
“These days the breast can be dry because the soft muscle doesn’t hold fat and hemoglobin as well as an exercised muscle would,” Dr. Darre said. “But the payoff is that nice, mild turkey flavor.”
Even for the experts, carving the turkey is the most intimidating part of the day. Their advice to the anxious: don’t panic or start hacking away, even if guests are baying for turkey and the meat is beginning to cool. “Piping hot gravy will take care of everything,” Mr. Venezia said. “That’s your endgame.”