The timeless tradition of Thanksgiving dinner is one of our fondest memories and also one of our worst nightmares. Many home cooks feel the pressure of this holiday, making sure the meal is flawless and spectacular to boot. Sometimes a new family member comes up to take the reigns, and may not always know exactly what to anticipate. Never fear! A few simple tips will ensure that your Turkey Day stands successful and stress free! As for dealing with your family, well, you're on your own.
- Defrosting: the first defense against holiday disaster is making sure your bird is properly thawed. Best practice is to follow the directions on the packaging. Many poultry brands recommend thawing in the fridge for about 3 days before the big meal. You can also thaw it in cold water for at least 5 hours prior as well.
- Hardware: make sure your bird has an adequate cooking vessel. a large roasting pan with tall handles and metal roasting rack would be ideal (make sure it's not wider or taller than the inside of your oven). The rack will elevate the turkey and keep the bottom from drowing in drippings while the breast gets left out of the moisture action. If you don't have that kind of hardware, place a row of celery stalks and carrots on the bottom of a regular roasting pan so the turkey has something to sit on while it's cooking.
- To stuff, or not to stuff: If you want your bird cooked evenly, ixnay the stuffing. Although putting stuffing inside your bird looks nice and get the flavors of the turkey, just remember that bread is a sponge, and will suck out all the great flavor from the bird itself - leaving you with a dry and improperly cooked turkey. In lieu of edible stuffing, I recommend filling the cavity with quartered onion (yup, with skins still on), an entire head of garlic cut in half width-wise, quartered citrus, some springs of fresh herbs, and maybe even some celery and carrots for some aromatic action. You don't have to use all of the aforementioned at once, so feel free to mix and match to your liking.
- Basting: a widely accepted practice, and highly encouraged. Although some will say that basting is out of date with advances in cooking technology, you will still need to baste semi-religiously for birds with punctured skin (the Butterball brand, for example, slightly punctures the skin of their turkeys). be sure to do some research on your favorite poultry brand to find out for sure. In my opinion, it never hurts to baste any turkey, punctured skin or not.
- Flavor Injectors: BEWARE! The concept itself seems to make sense, but I will always abide by the "don't poke the meat," rule first. Remember the rule on cooking a great steak? When cooking steak, you never want to pierce the meat, as valuable juices and flavors will escape. Same thing applies with any other meats. Sure, you might be injecting some flavor in, but all the natural flavors of the turkey will escape. Also, don't forget that those gaping holes in your bird will create more heat exposure, which can potentially cook your bird improperly. If you're that animate about distributing flavors into the innermost areas of your turkey, I would recommend using a brine instead.
- Brine: Turkey brines are an excellent way to ensure you have an ultra-moist turkey. If you plan in advance, and with the right equipment, you can have the most flavorful bird. For some more information on turkey brining, check out the article from Slashfood.com here.
- Frying: BEWARE! I know turkey frying is increasingly popular due to it's quick cooking and interesting flavor. Regardless, leave the turkey frying to the pros. Too often do house fires ignite during the holidays from improper turkey-frying procedures.
- Spices/Herbs/Aromatics: Keep it simple. The best seasonings for poultry are rosemary, thyme, oregano, citrus, garlic, onion, carrots, celery. You don't have to use them all at once. In fact, I recommend oregano, cirtus, garlic, and onion (see my roast chicken recipe in my previous blog posting for more info). Remember kids, less is more. Let's not hide the naturally good flavor of turkey with a hodge-podge of spices and herbs.
- Checking for doneness: Your meat thermometer should read about 170 degrees at the innermost part of the thigh or breast.
- Resting time: VERY important. This also follows another tried and true steak rule. If you don't let a cooked steak rest, the juices inside will not be able to redistribute into the meat correctly. Let the bird rest for at least 15 minutes before carving for the best juciness and flavor.
- Gravy: Don't settle for that junk in the can or package! Utilize all those pan drippings in your roasting pan and make it into a tasty gravy. Simmer the drippings in the roasting pan with chicken broth and some cornstarch to thicken, and you'll have the ultimate homemade gravy. Be sure to whisk the cornstarch with a little bit of cool water before adding it to the hot pan drippings, or your gravy will be clumpy.
- Turkey Emergency??? If for some reason you decide to disregard every bit of advice, and end up in a tough situation, call the Butterball hotline for immediate assistance at 1-800-BUTTERBALL. They even offer Spanish speaking operators.
Side Dish 101:
- Less is more: Don't make an entire buffet of items. Limit your side dishes so that you can count them all on one hand.
- Make ahead: try to make as many side dishes as possible in advance. Store them in the fridge and reheat the day of. This way, you can concentrate more on the bird.
- Salads: Salads are your friend. Easy to prepare, don't involve cooking, and you can have a small collection of dressings to suit everyone's tastes. Not to mention, salads are light and won't fill you up before the main course.
- Make ahead: Avoid any desserts that require immediate attention, such as creme brulee. Make simple desserts that can store ahead so that you don't have the extra stress of making a dessert right after you make the turkey. You can also suggest your guests to bring desserts of their choice, it makes for fun participation and less work for you. Also remember to keep the quanity to a realistic number, as many of your guests will be too full from your delicious Thanksgiving dinner!
-Tradition: Nothing beats the classics! Cherry pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie, should all be staples of your Thanksgiving dessert spread. I recommend making one dessert a non-traditional one, to create some spontinaiety in the meal, and get your family buzzing about your skills in the kitchen.
Follow these tips and you'll be bound to sweep your guests off their feet! Keep your mind focused, make some of the dishes ahead, and plan plan plan! Planning, organization, and classic know-how will keep you sane and your family at bay. They just might as you to host Christmas too!