How to Break Down a Turkey (or Chicken)

Our post-Thanksgiving tradition of purchasing a severely discounted turkey continues for the third year! Two years ago, we dipped our toes into the water by buying a 12 lb turkey. Last year, we jumped into the pool with a 20 lb bird. This year, I was allowed to go to the store unsupervised, and I did a cannonball off the high dive and bought an 18 lb AND a 22 lb turkey! I was a little afraid as I pulled into the driveway that I had indeed done a full on belly flop, but I didn’t get in trouble for the purchase!

Anyway, we like to feast on discount turkey throughout the year (no way we could beat $0.49/lb any other time), so we had to break them down into various cuts before sealing them in zip top bags and sending them to the chest freezer to wait for their day in the oven/grill/pan. We will be eating as much turkey as we can handle in 2021, and we are going to be saving a ton of money in doing so. So, we figured we’d show you how we broke down our birds so you can do the same in the future if you wish!

This processing guide also works with chicken, and so it also gives a nice economical way to buy that as well since whole birds are generally much cheaper per pound then pre-butchered…and you get the added benefit of the bones to make stock!

In the end, this isn’t too difficult. I apologize that not all of the pictures are great. Just remember as you’re doing this that the key to success is finding joints with some strategic cuts, popping them, and then working your knife through the connective tissue to break through. Also, as with most things, it gets easier with practice. If it takes longer than expected or doesn’t come out perfectly, try not to be discouraged. See if you can figure out what went wrong, and improve your technique for the next time (yay experimental cooking)!

Half of one of our turkeys all broken down.
Yeah, I watched football on my phone as I did this.

Time: 45-90 Minutes (more if first time, less as you get more experienced)

What you’ll need:

  • Large Cutting Board(s)
  • Sharp Fillet Knife
  • Chef’s Knife
  • Defrosted Turkey (or Chicken)
  • Freezer grade zip top bags for storage. We used:
    • 5 One Gallon Bags (One for each breast, one for things, one for drumsticks, and one for wings)
    • 2 One Quart Bags (miscellaneous meat and giblets)
  • Optional: Food Grade Disposable Gloves
  • Optional (but highly encouraged): Patience

Method: For this, we will caption each processing picture to walk you through the steps.

Remove the neck from the main cavity and the giblet bag from under the flap of skin near the neck.

Legs and Thighs:

Slice through the skin between the breast meat and the leg/drumstick. Use your hand to work down to the joint that connects the thigh to the back.
Flip your bird so that the breast meat is facing down, and continue to work your knife around the leg/thigh from the step above. Then, make an incision around the thigh and down the spine all the way to the tail.
Flip your turkey again so that the breast side is facing up, and lift the thigh bone upward/outward to reveal the joint. This is a little grotesque, but you want to pop that joint, as it will be the only thing connecting the thigh/leg to the turkey. Then, work your knife through the joint to completely remove.
Success! Now to separate the drumstick and the thigh:
Find the joint between the leg and the thigh, and cut the meat until you get to it. Then, pop the joint, and work your knife through it to separate the thigh from the leg.

Wings:

Place your turkey with the breast meat facing up, and pull on one of the wings. You should see a little spot where the wing meat and breast meat converge. Make a slice through the skin in that spot.
Flip your turkey so the backbone is facing up, and pull the wing upward to see where it attaches. Make an incision all the way around that, and work your fingers in to feel for the join where the wing attaches to the body.
Pop the joint, and work your knife through it. The wing ought to separate easily from there.
Cut the tip off of your wing, and discard or use for stock. Then, move the wing and the (wing) drumstick so that you can determine where the joint is.
Make a cut on the acute angle side of the wing in towards the joint. Then, pop the joint, and work your knife through to separate the two pieces.

Breast Meat:

Cut down one side of the breastbone for the entire length of the bird. You want to cut until you hit the ribs.
Turn your attention to the side of the breast meat, and work your knife (in a series of small cuts) along the rib cage until you get to the breast bone. At this point, the meat will have been separated from the bones since you already made the initial cut in the prior step.

Then, go back to your carcass and remove any good chunks of meat left (we normally have some on the back directly under where the breasts were and around the top of the thighs). We find this to be great to use in tacos, pot pies, or even to bread and fry for turkey tenders! These parts are in the middle front bag in the picture below (although that particular bag is two turkeys’ worth).

Bag for Freezing:

Place in your bags, squeeze all the air out, seal, and label!

3 comments

Leave a Reply