FAIRBANKS — The traditional way of cooking a turkey is an exercise in frustration. It takes too long. The bird occupies the entire oven, so I am forced to cook side dishes early and then put them back in the oven for reheating while the turkey is being carved. And lifting a slithering turkey in and out of the oven is an invitation to wrenching my back. So, when I read an article on spatchcocking poultry, I became an instant convert. Ten years later I am still a believer.
Spatchcocking is essentially butterflying a piece of food. The origins of the term are obscure. Some sources say it came from a technique for cooking eels. Others insist that it is a corruption of the phrase for killing, or dispatching, a male bird, also known as a cock. What we do know for certain is that it first appeared in the late 1700s and was a common way to fix chicken and quail. More recently, it has become a popular way to prepare turkey.
You spatchcock a turkey by eliminating the backbone so that it can be splayed out into one long, flat piece. Simply put the bird, breast side down, on a large cutting board and use a very sturdy and sharp pair of kitchen shears to cut through the bones and meat on one side of the backbone. Then do the same on the other side. Remove the backbone and keep it in the freezer until you are ready to make turkey soup or stock. Now, use your hands to spread out the bird enough to flip it over on the cutting board, so that the skin side is up. Next, use a rolling pin to flatten the center breast bone, wielding enough downward pressure that the bone will crack and the bird can now lie flat. (Have I confused you? Then be sure to watch one of the many YouTube videos on spatchcocking poultry.)
Lay the bird in a rimmed cookie sheet or large baking pan, skin side up. You can tie the legs together if they spread out too much to fit into the pan. If you want extra crispy skin, pat the carcass dry and put it uncovered in the fridge overnight. A non-refrigerator technique for getting dry, extra crispy skin is to mix together 2 teaspoons of pepper, 2 teaspoons of baking powder and two tablespoons of salt. Rub that well into the skin and let it sit on the counter for an hour before baking.
I don’t care that much about super crispy skin, so I pat off any moisture and then rub the turkey with some olive oil and salt and pepper before letting it rest on the counter for an hour, while the stove preheats to 450 degrees.
Baste every half hour; I use chicken stock with a bit of butter melted into it. If you want to keep the turkey meat from sitting in the basting juices, cut three or four onions or lemons in half and rest the carcass on them before placing in the oven. Or, if you like your dressing wet with drippings, use a layer of stuffing as a mattress.
A 12 pound turkey will be done in about 80 minutes, although I always use a thermometer to be sure that the thickest part of the breast has reached 160 degrees. Remove from the oven and let it rest for about half an hour before carving; that will help it stay juicy and the temperature of the meat will continue to rise slightly.
If you are an advocate of slow cooking, feel free to roast at 275 degrees for two to three hours. When the breast’s temperature is reaching 140, raise the oven to 450 for the last half hour or the skin won’t crisp well. (Always use a thermometer to be sure the meat reaches the safe temperature — time cooking is always an estimate because ovens often run hotter or colder than the given temperatures and your bird may weigh slightly more or less than noted on the label.)
Spatchcocking gives me all the traditional taste but is faster, leaves room in the oven for another shelf for side dishes, and, most importantly, makes it easier to maneuver a big bird in and out of the oven. Frankly, as someone who has spent several holidays in the ER due to cooking-related accidents, this may be the best part of spatchcocking.
Linden Staciokas is a freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.