By Catharine L. Kaufman — a.k.a. The Kitchen Shrink
It is time again for cooks from amateur to celebrity chefs to cocoon themselves in their kitchens for the annual ritual of whipping up turkey-gobbling communal feasts. Since a lot rides on their success, from family harmony to jobs, foodie careers and intestinal health, I’m here to help prevent—and if necessary, rescue your Thanksgiving feast from—culinary disasters.
The latter comes in such guises as the absentminded cook’s tendency to leave the plastic-wrapped giblet bag in the bird’s cavity while roasting; undercooking a turkey to the point where a competent veterinarian could possibly bring it back to life; neglecting to take into consideration that stuffing inside the turkey necessitates longer baking time; and many more oops!, from five-alarm crises to easily fixable glitches.
Let’s start with the basics that will help you navigate this traditional American cuisine without running your kitchen aground on some hidden (and easily avoided) culinary shoals.
Boy or Girl? Vive La Difference!
Hold off on choosing your victim until you know the difference between a Tom (boy) and hen (girl) turkey. Large, older males are tastier and more tender than the wily boys, while old hens are tough birds most cooks try to avoid. So it’s better to buy an old Tom or a young, tender hen no older than 15 months before it hatched. (You don’t have to tell me how unfair it is that even in the turkey world older males are more desirable than their contemporary females.)
What’s more, if your preference is for white (breast) meat, go for the young hen; but if dark meat is most of your company’s choice, an old Tom is best buy for its flavorful meat.
Dressed to Kill
To stuff or to stovetop your stuffing (which is considered by many to be the most important ingredient of Thanksgiving meals) is the question forever being debated by top chefs. Each method has its pros and cons—for example: A turkey will roast more uniformly and quickly if it is not stuffed—or at least, not densely stuffed. But if the stuffing isn’t completely scooped out of the cavity within an hour after the bird is removed from the oven, there is a risk of bacteria formation and proliferation that can cause some nasty gastrointestinal illness. A no-fuss stuffing technique is to simply pack the dressing in a cheesecloth bag and insert it in the cavity. This prevents some bits and pieces sticking to the cavity and being overlooked and left behind when the rest is scooped out for safety (see above), as well as making it easy to remove all the stuffing when the turkey is done.
The advantages of preparing stove-top stuffing includes avoiding worry, doubt and some messy steps, as well as allowing the cook to crisp up some of the carbs and veggies.
By the way, as a healthy change up from traditional high carbohydrate stuffing that contains bread and rice, try mixing an assortment of chopped hearty root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, turnips, etc.) with celery, baby onions, fresh herbs and groundnuts. Can’t go wrong with this one whether it’s baked inside the bird or when made on stovetop.
Rack It Up
No need to spend time and elbow grease on scrubbing the roasting rack. Just replace it with an edible one made of layers of whole carrots, celery and parsnips—which will do double duty by infusing the bird and its juices with an aromatic blend of divine flavors.
Let’s Talk Turkey (Math)
Discard the calculator for a simple rule of thumb: Figure one pound of meat per person, allowing some wiggle room for the weight of the giblets and other innards. Of course, each kid’s portion should be based on his or her size and weight. So, if you are hosting 10 people, a 12-pound bird should be an ideal size—unless you want to have plenty of leftovers for post-Thanksgiving sandwiches or meals, in which case supersize.
Fresh is always the best, but if frozen works better for your logistics, just remember: never put a frozen turkey into the oven, unless you’re preparing it for Christmas dinner. The safest way to thaw the bird is in the refrigerator, breast side up, in a shallow pan, in its original wrapper. Allow 24 hours of thawing time for every four pounds.
When the bird is ready for preparation, massage its skin with a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, sea salt (optional) and your favorite herbs and spices, such as cracked pepper or cayenne, sweet or smoked red paprika, fresh or dried basil and tarragon (the latter is every fowl meal’s best friend), turmeric, ginger or other whatever grabs your fancy. Mixing creaming butter with fresh sage and salt and slipping it under the breast skin ads juice and flavor to white meat which tends to be more dry than the dark. Another idea is to make a rub of liquid brine seasoned with 1/3 cup of kosher salt and an herb blend and letting the turkey marinate overnight for a more tender and juicy version.
For a crispier skin, unwrap the fresh or thawed turkey the day before cooking and expose the skin overnight in the refrigerator.
It’s About Time
Cooking times depend on whether your bird is fresh or frozen and defrosted. Allow 10 to 15 minutes per pound at a moderate 350 degree Fahrenheit for a fresh turkey and 20 minutes per pound for a frozen and defrosted one. Caveat: Stuffed turkey needs extra roasting time—about 25 to 30 minutes per pound—to ensure the stuffing is fully cooked and prevent the forming or proliferation of bacteria that might cause food poisoning.
Tent the bird with aluminum foil or parchment paper to prevent over-browning before it is fully cooked. And please, no peeping Toms allowed—only open the oven about 30 to 45 minutes before ERT (Estimated Readiness Time), when you remove the foil or parchment paper to allow the turkey to brown nicely.
A meat thermometer is practically a necessity when preparing a turkey-size bird. This great gadget will help you check for doneness. Stick the thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh without touching the bone. When the temperature reaches 180 degrees Fahrenheit, the bird is done. Also test the stuffing temperature, which must reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit for it to be safely cooked through.
If you do not have a thermometer, use the old school method of jiggling the leg joints (the ease and looseness of movement shows the bird is done) and piercing the thigh with a sharp and pointy knife for the second proof: if the juices run clear, it’s safe to remove from the oven. That’s when, believe it or not, the turkey needs to “take a nap” for about 20 minutes to let the juices settle in. It’s the secret of easier carving. During its naptime, some 15 minutes before carving, brush the bird generously with white vermouth to give it a golden glaze provided by the sugars in this fortified wine.
Just remember to remove all the stuffing before carving, and use a super-sharp or electric knife.
The Gravy Train
For a quick but tasty gravy from scratch, roast the giblets and other small parts, drain the fat and add a blend of pan juices, onion, garlic, fresh or dried herbs including thyme, rosemary and sage, as well as salt (optional), spices and if more liquid is needed, some vegetable or chicken broth.
Relish the Thought
Try the refreshing recipe below as an alternative to the traditional cranberry side (which is typically prepared by cooking the tart little beauties with sugar for several minutes to form a gelatin or sauce). This riff on the tried and true is a delightful addition, crispy, crunchy and bursting with fresh flavors. And the best part is that it requires no cooking, so you can’t possibly mess it up. Happy Turkey Day!
Foolproof Zesty Cranberry Citrus Relish
2 cups of fresh cranberries, washed, stems removed
Zest from one orange or Meyer lemon
Flesh from one orange, chopped
½ cup of brown sugar (to taste)
1 sweet apple, peeled, chopped (Gala, Fuji, your choice)
1/3 cup of roasted pecans
1/3 cup of dates (optional)
Place ingredients in a blender or food processor and chop to a coarse consistency. Refrigerate in airtight container.
For variation, the relish can be blended with mayo and used as a condiment for leftover turkey sandwiches, post T-Day.
My Last (and probably unnecessary) Tip: If you really don’t know what the heck you’re doing or feel overwhelmed the day before Thanksgiving, don’t sweat it, just order in Chinese, pizza or sushi.