The holiday season is a time of joy, a time of togetherness, and, most importantly, a time of meats. Roasted, deep-fried, grilled, smoked meats, dappled with seasoning, maybe prepared with a can of Coors Banquet close by for moral support. It’s up to you. But one fact will never change: Holiday meats are huge. And somebody needs to carve them.
That’s the panic moment. After 17 hours of awkwardly making conversation while that turkey roasts, your family is desperate for an excuse to stop talking to each other, and a mouthful of bird would be just the thing. But nobody knows how to attack the beast. Finally, Uncle Ned or whoever reluctantly steps up and does it, fumbling around with the utensils like both his arms are asleep, depositing ragged shreds of flesh on disappointed people’s plates.
Wouldn’t it be nice if someone competent at meat-carving was in your family? A hero descended from the heavens, with the bladewielding skills of a champion and the meat-knowledge of a mountain man. Hold up, though: That someone could be you. Because you know what? It’s not that hard. Here’s all you need to know to be your family’s meat-carving savior.
Claim Your Blade
Your knife should feel comfortable in your hand, and it needs to be sharp and clean. Also, no electric or serrated knives. You want an old-school knife, one you could take back a few hundred years in a time machine and nobody would be like, “What manner of sorcery is this?!” They’d just be like, “Quality knife, bro,” or whatever the equivalent phrase was in the 1600s. Also, you’ll want a carving fork. If you can’t find one, just fish out the biggest fork in Grandma’s utensil drawer.
The bird’s (finally) out of the oven — but don’t go nuts just yet. Let it sit for 15–20 minutes. Then push your knife into the top of the turkey to find the keel bone, the shark-fin–like bone that runs lengthwise down the middle. Slice along one side of it, then cut down until you can’t cut no more. You’ve hit the wishbone, baby. And guess what? You’re halfway toward freeing a beautiful, bounteous turkey breast.
Now remove your knife. There’s a kind of obviously natural indentation down by the turkey leg: That’s the next place to cut. Score along that line, then pull the breast out with your hands. Slice it up and portion it out, and do the same for the opposite breast.
Next, score along the top side of the wing, and pry it back to find the joint. Cut through the “shoulder” joint — this part requires some doing but I believe in you! Yank the wing off, and cut it in half at the “elbow.” Voila. Two wing halves, ready to be chomped. Now do it with the other one.
You’ve already done the hardest parts. The rest is just gravy (pun strongly intended).
Cut off the turkey legs. That’s all the words this step needs. It’s easy. You can serve them whole like you’re running a Medieval Times, or slice off bits of dark meat and distribute it among the whole group. Now cut off the thighs. And finally, get at whatever meat remains on the carcass however you like, with your knife and hands. See how easy this is? Why are you not carving turkeys as your job? In a pinch, now you can.
Carving the turkey is the most daunting task to a novice meatsman, but lamb and beef offer their own unique challenges, so let’s take a look at those.
The bone in a leg of lamb runs diagonally through the meat, so look at your lamb. Get to know it. Figure out where that bone is. There will be two sizable portions of meat, one on either side. Pick one and start slicing straight down to the bone, against the grain of the meat. Leave the slices attached to the bone until you’ve gotten through one side of the leg, then slice ‘em all off the bone at once, cutting as close to the bone as possible so you get all that delicious lamby goodness. Then flip the bone over and repeat on the other side. You’ll be left with some scraps of lamb still on the bone — do what you will with them. Save them for sandwiches or just deposit them directly into your face.
There are a million different cuts of beef you might be enjoying this month, so I’m going to hit you with the two most necessary and universal tips: 1) Let it rest and 2) Cut against the grain.
When you cook meat, heat forces moisture (aka sweet, sweet meat-juices) away from the edges and towards the center. If you let the cut rest before slicing and eating, the outside of the meat has a chance to cool down a bit and reabsorb that delicious moisture. If you don’t let it rest, and just saw right into it, you’re going to be left with a dank plate and a dry dinner.
As for grain — all meat has it: a direction in which the muscle fibers are aligned. If you cut along the length of those fibers, you’ll be left with something that looks and chews like a handful of rubber bands. Some of the more expensive and fancy cuts of beef don’t have as much of a pronounced grain, so they might still be edible even if you cut them wrong — but why cut anything wrong? Cut across the grain, and you’ll be rewarded with succulent, tender meat every time. Assuming you cooked it right. But that’s a whole different issue, one that is best attended to with a frosty can of Coors Banquet in hand. For now, just being a mighty master of meat-carving will win you praise in story and song for generations to come.
Illustrations by Rob Dobi.
Tony Carnevale is a senior writer at Studio@Gawker.