The story of spatchcocking and how Mark Bittman changed Thanksgiving forever

A real Thanksgiving game-changer.
A real Thanksgiving game-changer.
Image: AP Photo/Matthew Mead
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Americans have been cooking Thanksgiving turkeys for more than 100 years. But it’s only the last few when a radical innovation in turkey preparation has started to become mainstream: “Spatchcocking,” or removing the backbone and flattening the turkey. This process—also known as butterflying, and common for preparing chickens—reduces the roasting time for a turkey from roughly three hours to around 45 minutes. Freeing up both oven and host, it’s a complete Thanksgiving game-changer.

Spatchcocking awareness—measured by Google Trends data, which represents search interest—grew modestly for years, until 2012, when it spiked. It has since become even more popular during Novembers, when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving.

Spatchcock chart Google Trends

Who’s responsible for this? Signs mostly point to one man: Mark Bittman, the long-time “Minimalist” food writer for the New York Times. Bittman’s “45-minute roast turkey” recipe first seems to have appeared in 2002.

Bittman repeats the process in a 2008 video, which is as funny as it is helpful. “I have forgotten to roast the turkey,” he smirks. “However, thanks to the patented Bittman 45-minute roast turkey method, I’m going to save the day. Watch this.” He slices out the turkey’s backbone, presses the bird flat, dresses it simply, and puts it into the oven. He then hangs a wall-sized clock around his neck. “I’m not kidding, 45 minutes is the time, and the time is 45 minutes.”

Mark Bittman 45-minute turkey
Mark Bittman removes his 45-minute turkey from the oven in a 2008 video.
Image: Screenshot/New York Times

But I first learned about the 45-minute turkey in 2012, along with—it seems—most food enthusiasts. What happened that year that set things off? In my case, someone—probably my wife—sent me a link to Bittman’s video, and his 2012 edition of the recipe, “The 2-D Thanksgiving.” It worked great! And even better the next year.

But Bittman wasn’t alone to spatchcocking in 2012, and in fact, he tends to shy away from what he calls the ”quaint” s-word, which dates to the late 18th century. The bigger performer seems to be this Serious Eats article, “How to Cook a Spatchcocked Turkey: The Fastest, Easiest Thanksgiving Turkey,” which spread widely on Twitter after it was published on Nov. 6. A week later, on Nov. 13, Alton Brown, the witty host of Food Network’s “Good Eats” and “Iron Chef America” went on NPR’s “All Things Considered” show to talk about spatchcocking. “It’s a fantastic word.” Bittman’s articles are dated Nov. 15.

“It seemed like ‘spatchcock’ was the word of the day this year,” web developer Jim Ray said in a 2012 Thanksgiving-recap episode of his cooking podcast, Salt & Fat. “There seemed to be some consensus that this was the way to roast your turkey. And—I didn’t do that this year—I think it’s probably the last year that I won’t spatchcock my turkey.” Today, Ray tells Quartz, “I’m all spatchcock all the way.” Along with, it seems, many people.

I emailed Bittman to ask if he takes credit for this holiday cooking revolution. “I suppose it’s fair, for this generation at least,” he replied. “I mean, I didn’t make it up. You spatchcock an eel, that goes back forever. Spatchcocking a chicken I learned, probably from James Beard. Spatchcocking a turkey I might have made up, at least I was doing well before 2008, although that was the first video.”