If your household is like many (most?) American homes, you are starting to think of plans for Thanksgiving, which is next Thursday. Maybe you are going to a friend’s or family member’s home, and they are doing the heavy-lifting. If you’re the one responsible for the bird and most of the rest of the meal, though, then read on to learn from my experiences in preparing a dozen or so Thanksgiving dinners.
Let’s talk turkey
If you’re buying a bird, here’s what you don’t even know that you want: a fresh one. This means that it has never been stored at temperatures below 26°f (which is apparently the approximate temperature that a turkey freezes—so fresh turkeys are right at the threshold of frozen). These kinds of turkeys are always better-tasting, and they are usually better for you too; that’s because fresh turkeys are often raised without steroids or growth hormones, and sometimes they are raised in a more “free-range” way. Note: this isn’t the least-expensive kind of turkey to get, but you should be able to find one for a fair and reasonable price. Because of the way it is stored, you will obviously need to get your turkey much closer to Thanksgiving Day; stores that sell them typically accept orders and you pick them up on the Tuesday or Wednesday before.
Okay, now the next thing you don’t know that you want: get one that is not “pre-basted.” So-called pre-basted turkeys are injected with saline solution. What’s the big deal about that? Well, two things: first, the pre-basting injections are sometimes poorly done, and they are usually insufficient to really achieve the goal of pre-basting (which is to keep the meat moist at all costs). Second, it creates problems with a future step (more below).
“But wait!” you say. “Won’t that mean that my turkey will dry out?"
Not at all—IF you follow the rest of my advice. If I’ve lost you, or if I lose you below, then go ahead and get the bird that was injected with a saline solution at some point in the unknown past.
But if you really want the juiciest, most delicious turkey you can have, I’m happy to share with you all that I’ve learned.
What you do with the bird, part 1
Next up: brining. This is an interesting category of cooking, because some cooks (especially pros, but many amateurs as well) know all about this, while others have never heard of it. The idea of brining is to soak the entire bird in a “brine” (which is, at very least, water and salt—yes, a saline solution—but can also include a variety of other things) for a certain length of time, based generally on the concentration of the ingredients in the brine and the weight of the bird. (Note: you can brine ANY meat; I find brining my pork roasts before smoking them for pulled pork is excellent… but that’s another post.)
To brine your turkey, you need some sort of vessel large enough to submerge the turkey entirely in water. A large cooler will do, though I’ve found that a food-grade bucket is a better option. I bought a 4-gallon bucket with a lid from a restaurant supply store years ago, and it is perfect; it cost me about $20, and it will fit in the bottom of a refrigerator (with a shelf or two removed), or sit in a large cooler with ice around it. This is key, because while that turkey is sitting in the water, you still need to keep it cold (and safe—so just sitting it outside in a very cold climate may serve in lieu of refrigeration, but it also might invite curious neighborhood animals).
I brine my turkeys with salt, water, and sometimes some whole sprigs of fresh herbs. If you do the herb thing, you need (a) to adjust the concentration of salt for a longer brining time, and (b) a LOT of herbs. Just a few sprigs for a few hours will mean that the herbs were wasted—it’s just not long enough for their oils and flavoring to go anywhere. You need to really soak them.
The “normal” brine ratio is 1 cup of salt for every gallon of water; this means that you will need to brine an average-sized Thanksgiving bird (in the 12–16 pound range) for 4 to 6 hours. The problem is, if you do it this way you’ll be getting up in the middle of the night, either to put the bird in the brine or to take it out! So what I do instead is cut the salt in half, and double the time. Then I can set it to brining at 8 or 9 the night before Thanksgiving, and it will be ready to come out of the brine early the next morning (when I’m ready to put it in the oven).
Once it is done brining, take it out of the brine and dry the whole bird completely (paper towels are great for this).
[If you want to read more about brining turkeys, check these two articles: “The Quick and Dirty Guide to Brining Chicken or Turkey” from Serious Eats, and “How to Brine a Turkey” from The Splendid Table.]
What you do with the bird, part 2
Next up: preparing and seasoning the bird for roasting. (Note: if you’re grilling, smoking, or deep-frying your turkey, you’ll need to look elsewhere for advice from this stage forward; I just don’t have much experience with any of those—though I will vouch for brining the bird before grilling or smoking as a key for a moist turkey.)
After you pull the turkey out of the brine and dry it off, the next thing is to season it. The first thing I do to season the turkey is cover it in melted butter; I usually melt a half-stick or so in the microwave, and use a silicone brush to apply it all over, inside and out. The butter serves three purposes: first, it gives the seasoning something to “cling” to; second, it lends a great complementary flavor (there’s a reason why a popular brand is “Butterball”); and third, it helps the skin/outside of the turkey achieve a beautiful golden-brown color.
Next for seasoning is salt and pepper. No need to overdo it here, especially on the salt, as the brine will have given a nice amount of salty flavor to the meat. But go ahead and give a moderate coating of each.
After salt and pepper, apply other seasonings that you prefer. If you’re at a loss for which ones to choose, here’s a tip about poultry in general: it’s always safe to take them to Scarborough Fair. In other words: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme are a wonderful combination for seasoning poultry. Want more than that? Check out Penzey’s Spices; they have an awesome Poultry Blend that will really fix a turkey up. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, Kenji López-Alt has a great recipe for an herb butter to coat your bird in over at Serious Eats.
How about what goes INSIDE the bird? You have this great cavity (two cavities, actually—be sure to remove the giblet bag from your bird at some point before or at this stage!) that you can put more stuff in. This is where the dressing can go, which (by definition) is when it officially becomes “stuffing.” Instead of stuffing, though, I prefer to cut up an onion or two, some carrots, a little celery, and a few sprigs of fresh parsley and rosemary, and fill the cavities with these. They will flavor the turkey as well, and you can serve them as an additional dish alongside the bird—OR, you can save them for later, as I do.
What you do with the bird, part 3
Now it’s time to prepare the turkey for the oven. I like to roast my bird traditionally, so my advice will follow that path. If you’re spatchcocking your turkey, now is when you should seek input elsewhere (I recommend this piece at Serious Eats for starters).
I always truss my turkey; this is when you tie the bird with kitchen twine so that it holds a certain shape (which it will maintain without the twine, once it is cooked). I know there is a debate over whether trussing is good or bad, but I’ve had good results from a trussed bird. In my view, it helps the different parts be well-positioned for even cooking. There are good instructions for trussing at the Williams-Sonoma website (but I always follow the guide in my well-worn copy of The Joy of Cooking). I also use some kitchen twine to make a few stitches that hold in the carrots, celery, onions, etc. that are in the cavities of the turkey; this keeps them out of the bottom of my roasting pan.
Now, as for roasting pans: If you absolutely must, you can get away with a disposable aluminum foil one from the supermarket; they are flimsy, and can be dangerous, but they will do when there is no alternative. (If you DO use one of these foil fellows, set it in a shallow jelly-roll style cookie sheet for more stability.) I recommend that you use a real, heavy-duty roasting pan with handles, a rack, and so forth. This is, at very least, because you’ll actually be taking the turkey out of the oven more than once, and the foil pans won’t hold up to much movement. (The Splendid Table did a great short piece on what defines the quality of a roasting pan.)
This is one of my favorite “secrets” for Thanksgiving turkeys: put the turkey into the roasting pan upside-down—that is, with the breasts on the rack, and the legs and thighs facing up. Why? Because the dark meat must cook to a higher temperature than the light meat, and positioning the turkey this way puts the dark meat closer to the heat. When there’s about 30–45 minutes left to roast it, you can turn the bird over (I use some poultry lifters like these) and it will brown up nicely on the breast side, for presentations’ sake. (One more excellent turkey roasting tip scored from The Joy of Cooking.)
There should be a generous amount of liquid in the bottom of the roasting pan, along with some fattier chunks and drippings. These are great for basting, which can be done with the old bulb-baster—but a large spoon works just as well (maybe better). Once the turkey is done, don’t discard these drippings! Instead, save them for gravy. (More on this below.)
Once the turkey reaches temperature (155–160 degrees for light meat; 170–180 degrees for thighs and legs), let it “rest” on the rack, outside of the oven, for about 10 minutes (or until the temperature has dropped about 5 degrees). THEN it is ready to carve.
My mother and grandmother always made flour gravy, and it was what I grew up with. I still love it, but I admit that it is not easy to make. I’ve done it a few times, with some success, but I have become a convert to cornstarch gravy in more recent years. It’s darker in color, thickens a little faster and more evenly, has a less distinctive taste of its own, and has the added benefit of not being gluten-based.
The key with cornstarch gravy (and I’m pretty sure this works with flour gravy too) is to mix it with cold water until it is a slurry, rather than pouring it straight into the hot liquid. This will avoid the lumps that are so unappetizing in gravy, and help it to thicken quickly and evenly.
Gather your drippings from the bottom of the roasting pan (if you have a heavy roasting pan, you can even make the gravy right in the pan) into a heavy skillet or dutch oven. I like a dutch oven, because I can whisk vigorously and it won’t slosh out! Skim out the fat as much as you can, so that the gravy won’t be greasy. Set the skillet or dutch oven on a large stove eye on high heat.
Let the drippings boil down until it is almost syrupy in consistency. Add 3–4 cups of chicken broth, and bring this to a boil, then reduce to simmering—stirring frequently—until it is reduced to 2–3 cups of liquid.
Now add 1 tablespoon of cornstarch (or flour) to a half-cup of cold water, and beat with a fork until the cornstarch is completely dissolved in the water. Slowly whisk this into the simmering pan of liquid. Keep whisking and simmering it until it is thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. Season to taste (it may need a little salt, and don’t underestimate the benefit of some black pepper to really liven up a gravy).
What about Leftovers?
In many households, a fair-sized Thanksgiving turkey will yield more leftovers than you may wish to eat as straight sandwiches or re-heated plates. What to do with all that turkey?
In our house, I usually pick the turkey carcass over on Thanksgiving evening, cleaning it of the leftover meat as much as I can. I divide this into two groups: slices and chunks for sandwiches and plates, and smaller bits for soup and other dishes.
Then I put the picked turkey carcass into a large stock pan, covered with water, and boil it for an hour or more. This will create a rich stock. I pull about three cups of this stock out, and to the rest of it I add 2 cups of the smaller pieces of turkey, ¾ cup of white rice, and the carrots, celery, and onions that were stuffed into the turkey earlier. This will cook up to a nice soup that it a hit with our family.
I also prepare a large batch of creamed turkey (following the recipe in The Joy of Cooking), from which I can make a turkey pot pie (adding some peas, diced carrots, and diced new potatoes and covering with a frozen pie crust) and/or a turkey casserole (adding some cooked white rice and sautéed mushrooms, and covering with a mixture of breadcrumbs, grated parmesan cheese, and butter for a crust).
And that’s what we do with Thanksgiving turkey in the Eubanks house! What do you to at your house?