Many Thanksgiving guests and just one oven? Spatchcock to the rescue

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I received this note from one of my favorite people last week:

I learned last night that my sweet husband has invited five of his (giant) football linemen over for Thanksgiving, since they all live far away and can’t go home for the holiday. I’m all for this – I’m delighted to be anybody’s adopted mom on Thanksgiving – but I’m a little concerned about logistics.

We have a head count of about 18, which for all practical purposes is more like 25 since many of our guests will be starving (did I mention giant?) teenage boys. I have one oven, and I think I jammed a 20- or 22-pound bird in there last year. I’ve always found bigger birds to be a bigger pain, because they get super done on the outside but are still pink and poisonous on the inside. I could probably throw one bird in my mom’s oven and one in mine, but I’m wondering if it makes more sense to cook one whole bird and a couple of extra turkey breasts, which I could theoretically do the night before. What would Doni do??

Here’s my response:

I consulted with one of my favorite cooks, son Joe, and we both agree that brined and spatchcocked turkey is your best bet. You basically are breaking down the birds, which you can roast in the oven in shallow baking pans.

Actually, the more accurate term is butterflying, a method achieved that sounds a bit violent: remove the spine and crack the breastbone, so the whole bird is basically flattened. Without the backbone, and the crushed breastbone, it knocks off precious oven-space-saving inches from the height of the turkey, which is really just wasted space inside anyway. The resulting collapsed bird may look weird, but I believe the taste and tenderness are superior.

In fact, when I visited the Czech Republic a few years back, we American arranged for and prepared a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, all cooked, roasted and baked on a tiny range.

This farm-raised turkey may not have been very pretty, but he was delicious.

We brined and spatchcocked the poor skinny European bird that looked like it had a touch of scoliosis. You can find a goose for a holiday meal, but turkeys are impossible to find for sale in most parts of the Czech Republic.

Sister Shelly plucked the Czech bird.

This one was bought from someone’s farm. I have to say, it was one of the best turkey dinners ever.

While I realize the whole-bird in the oven thing looks very Norman Rockwellish, let’s face it; nobody puts the bird on the table for a photo when everyone’s sitting there, because all the hacking and slicing happens in the kitchen, and besides, the breast meat always gets dried out while the thighs are coming up to temperature.

A spatchcocked bird isn’t as pretty as a classic roasted turkey, but it tastes better, and take less time to roast than a traditional turkey. If you squint you can see that it does resemble a butterfly, right?

I’ve included a link about temps, as well as a Bon Appetit tutorial about spatchcocking.

If you truly want the traditional Norman Rockwell version, you could always do one picture-perfect old-fashioned bird on one rack, and a tray of the spatchcocked turkey below on another rack. It is a juggling act because you’ll have other dishes that need the oven, but hopefully you can have those (dressing, for example) made in advance, and brought to room temp an hour or so before, covered with foil and popped in a hot oven while the turkey is resting and being sliced.

Another thing, if you can get a turkey cheap before Thanksgiving. (I just got one Monday at the Churn Creek Road Grocery Outlet for $10 off the $19.99 price tag, if I spent $30, which, a few days before Thanksgiving was simple to do. So I got an 18-pound turkey for $9.99. Score!) Where was I? Oh yes. So you buy, spatchcock and roast a turkey a few days before Thanksgiving, which is good practice before the big day, anyway. Use that bird just for gravy, which you’ll make ahead and have in the fridge at the ready so you’re not messing with making gravy at the last minute, which is a royal pain in the middle of Thanksgiving chaos. (You cut up the meat and have it in the freezer for soup later. Or make sandwiches for those hungry football players.)

My friend proclaimed me a holiday genius (I’m really not), and said there was a bonus. “My sons will think “spatchcock” is pretty damn funny.”

So true. Speaking of spatchcock sounding funny, and because I know someone’s going to ask, no, I don’t have a definitive answer to the most pressing question: Why is this butterflying method called spatchcocking? However, according to Oxford Dictionary it’s of Irish origins: ” . . .to spatch the cock to dispatch the chicken . . . ” which really doesn’t clear up thing for me any better, unless the cock is the cook, but there you go.

But in case my friend chickens out on the spatchcocked turkey, here are some other solutions:

• Order some already made grocery-store-roasted turkeys, wrap them in foil and keep them in an ice chest until carving time. (Yes, ice chests keep hot things hot, too.) There is no shame in doing this. I still remember the Thanksgiving when I was going to school when I bought a boxed holiday dinner from Safeway – turkey, dressing, rolls, cranberries, mashed potatoes, gravy and even pumpkin pie. My kids said it was one of the best Thanksgiving dinners ever.

• Buy multiple turkey breasts and roast them on a cookie sheet. (But I kind of hate this idea, because breast meat is so dry and boring. I heard a woman at a luncheon yesterday talk about how she was going to roast their turkey breast in a crock pot, and I nearly cried. But that’s just me. More power to you if roasted turkey breasts are your favorite.)

• Spatchcocked turkey. See? We’re back to that again. One more thing I want to say about spatchcocking is that it’s not just for turkey, but any poultry. It shortens the cooking time, saves space in the oven, and also makes sure the meat cooks more evenly, avoiding letting the breast meat dry out as it’s waiting for the dark meat to come up temperature. That makes for a more juicy turkey, sadly, a term that’s not often used (honestly) to describe a Thanksgiving turkey.

Traditionally roasted turkeys are oven hogs, taking up a lot of room. Spatchcocking allows for more items in the oven to cook simultaneously.

Plus, spatchcocking is not just for turkey, but any poultry, from huge turkeys to tiny Cornish game hens.

From left, in Doni’s kitchen: an 18-lb. turkey, a 7-lb. chicken and two 22-ounce Cornish game hens, all of which can be spatchcocked. Doni plans to spatchcock the chicken before Thanksgiving, just for the gravy. The Cornish game hens? They’ll go in the freezer for a special occasion.

Really, once I learned the art of spatchcocking, I’ve never roasted a whole bird with that gaping cavity again.

I hope my friend tries spatchcocking, and not just because it’s fun to say.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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14 Responses

  1. Avatar Alice Bell says:

    I would never had made it through hosting previous Thanksgiving for family and friends at our one oven home without our turkey roaster. We set it up in the utility room adjacent to the kitchen and it has always turned out juicy and delicious turkey, in less time than roasting one in our oven.fora small investment of around $50 it has served us well for more than 30 years. Due to it’s large size, when not in use, it spends it time in the garage, wrapped in a large plastic bag to keep it clean for its next use.

    • Alice, I wish I’d thought of a portable electric turkey roaster, because you are absolutely correct that this is a perfect solution to expand the kitchen’s oven space. Great idea!

      • Avatar SHANNON F KENNEDY says:

        This is what I do too! We roast it in the laundry room to free up oven AND counter space. Fall off the bone moist and delicious every time and takes a little less than 4 hours for a 20lb bird.

  2. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    Lots of lore for spatchcock, but a common one is that it derived from spitchcock, a mangling of dispatched cock. Dispatch became spitch and eventually spatch. Whatever the true background, it’s a great way to cook fowl.

    I love Alice Bell’s solution. When I worked at the fire district, we had a large party, and Chief cooked a turkey in his handy-dandy roaster. He even referred to it as the Nesco, not the roaster.

  3. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    I love Thanksgiving—my favorite holiday. I do the turkey and go all out. My best result: I brine it, put a mixture of butter, herbs, garlic and other flavorings under the breast skin, slather the whole turkey with the same, and stuff it with quartered lemons, onion, fresh herbs, etc. I remove the breast halves and carve them into 1-inch chops so that each piece has some tasty skin and the moister meat closer to the bone.

    The result is merely decent…because it’s roast turkey.

    When I remarked about this article at the breakfast table this morning, my daughter joked that Doni’s friend should just buy a bunch of Costco rotisserie chickens and halve them, because they taste better than turkey. Ouch.

    Anyway, I’m convinced. This year I’m butterflying the goddamned turkey. It’s worth a shot.

    • Steve, your roast turkey sounds absolutly divine. I’ll bet it’s delicious. I like the way you carve the breasts into chops, rather than those deli slices.

      And your daughter, no disrespect to her, but if she’s never had a spatchcocked turkey, she may change her tune about the Costco rotisserie chickens (although I’m a fan of those, too). This method may make a spatchcock believer out of her.

      Happy Thanksgiving, Steve. I’ll bet your table is a lively place at the holidays. Enjoy!

      P.S. I hope you still do the under-the-skin number with the butterflying. I will be awesome!

  4. Avatar Kerri says:

    Oh, we are DEFINITELY spatchcocking! I’m currently in possession of two giant birds – Zach named them Bonnie and Clyde – and we’re looking forward to a fine feast. Thanks for the assist – I’ll let you know how it goes! 🙂

    • Well, I didn’t want to out you .. but hey, I’m SO glad you guys are giving spatchcocking a go with Bonnie and Clyde.

      I have a spatchcocked whole chicken in my oven as I type, just for the gravy, which I’ll make tomorrow. (Seriously, who could tell the difference between chicken and turkey gravy?)

      What a wonderful, warm and welcoming family you have to invite those football players into your home. Take photos, and notes, and yes, we want a full report.

      Thanks for handing me this column on a silver turkey platter. 😉 Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Avatar Kathy says:

    Yesterday, I was talking to a friend and she was telling me how they cooked their turkey in Austria and Germany. You got it- this way, but not brined.
    She still makes it this way and yes, much more flavor!
    Thanks, Doni
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours and all at A News Cafe. Com.

    • Well, since many European ovens are smaller than American’s spatchcocking would make sense. And I love a brined bird, too. (I’m kind of surprised that turkeys are a thing in Germany and Austria. I would have expected goose.)

      Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Kathy!

  6. Avatar Kathy Chisum says:

    Doni, I like this idea and as I have only used it on Cornish game hens in the past I plan to try it on my turkey as well. By the by it is a terrific way to cook the game hens. Hope you have a wonderful holiday.

  7. Avatar Jim Farmer says:

    I’ve been spatchcocking chicken for years, it’s wonderful for grilling or smoking on the Weber…..
    I’ve always loved the taste of stuffing but prefer the browned crust of dressing so this year I experimented with spatchcocked turkey on top of a huge lasagna pan full of dressing. It was great! All the flavor of stuffing with the brown bits all the way around the turkey ?

  8. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Jim’s note reminded me that I’d forgotten to report back. Everyone agreed that the spatchcocked turkey was the best in a long time, and maybe ever. I dressed it pretty much as normal with herbs, spices, onion, lemon, etc., (tucked in around the bird rather than stuffed inside), so it was definitely the cooking method that bettered the bird. It definitely cooked more quickly and evenly, resulting in no areas of relatively dry white meat.


    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      We were going to have a Long Island duckling for Christmas but instead, we had the flu. It’s waiting in the freezer to be spatchcocked when the will to live returns.