We are not much on “how-to” or “5 keys to the best Thanksgiving x…” posts here at the farm, but with the holidays coming (including the once in a lifetime bonus holiday of “Thanksgivvukah”) we figured we should share some thoughts on how to make the most of your Thanksgiving cooking. Here is our take on the important stuff:
Before the holiday:
- Don’t worry about the specific dishes and recipes you are going to cook until you have a guest count. Some recipes work with small crowds, some with big crowds. Cook dishes that make sense for the size of the group you have (and your budget).
- Once you have the guest count, decide what you want to cook and what oven and stove top space you have. Make sure you can cook the dishes you want with the appliances and tools you have. Then when guests ask “what can I bring?” you will have a good idea of what else you need, based on the resources you have.
- Remember that your grill can be a useful tool if you are out of stovetop burners or ovens.
- When a guest asks “what can I bring?”, be very specific and ask for something you know the guest can bring and/or make. At first, you may come off a bit fussy or demanding, but when a guest brings the perfect dish, pie, bottle of wine, etc. that fits with the meal, they will feel great- and so will you and the rest of your guests. Everyone likes to be a hero. Don’t be afraid to ask guests to bring what will be best with the meal.
- Desserts are often best made day ahead or earlier in the day to save you time and space. Most pies are better at room temperature anyway. Cakes need to cool before frosting. All of this is best done ahead of time.
What to cook on Thanksgiving?
- Thanksgiving is about giving thanks for all we have (and regardless of the craziness of everyday life, most of us have a lot to be grateful for). The meal is not about Norman Rockwell paintings or Martha Stewart magazine spreads. Thanksgiving should be about serving your best dishes to the people you love. Beauty is only skin deep, makes sure the food tastes good!
- With that in mind, there is nothing wrong with serving something other than turkey. If you make great beef, chicken, pork (or even vegetarian) dishes for a crowd, then serve them. Serve them with pride. How about a small turkey and something else? There will always be
the high-maintenance jerksomeone who will talk about “grandma’s this” or “traditional” that. They can cook next year…but usually they won’t. Forget ’em (but with a smile, of course) and serve what you know tastes good. Tasty food wins over everything. Always.
But what if I want to serve turkey?
If you plan to serve turkey and actually want it to taste good and be moist, here are a few pointers that will make a big difference:
- Deep-fried turkeys are great, but proceed with caution. Let’s face it, most of us drink a
lotbit during the holidays. Booze, fire and hot oil are a very bad combination (particularly if you have kids running around). If you want a deep-fried turkey, hire a pro to do it. There are plenty of people who can do it for you. Seriously. DIY is great, but with hot oil? C’mon….
- Your turkey will be better if you salt / brine it. You can use a water-based wet brine, or simply salt the turkey with what is called a “dry brine”. Either way, the pre-salting makes for moister, more flavorful meat (trust us, the chemistry is sound, even if it seems counterintuitive). There are plenty of good recipes for brined turkeys, but here is a good guide to the pros and cons of dry or wet brining your turkey.
- One of the only drawbacks to brined turkeys is that you can’t use the drippings for gravy, as they will be too salty. We suggest you make a gravy using commercial chicken stock (usually it is your best option, that may sound heretical, but it is often true) or ask your butcher for turkey stock (they may have some) or extra turkey parts (like the backbone) for stock.
- The best way to cook poultry is to do it in pieces. White meat is done at a lower internal temperature than dark meat and there is no magical way to change that. The easiest way to get perfect white and dark meat is cook the breasts and legs separately and then present them together (even Julia Child said this was the way to go). If you present the turkey well, no one will even notice. Actually, your guests will notice…that you served the best turkey they ever had.
- If you are cooking the turkey in pieces, you need to track internal temperature for best results. You need a quick read (cheap, like $10), or even better, a digital thermometer (over $50) to know the internal temperature of your meat. No excuses. And those “pop-up” thermometers in the turkey simply don’t work…unless you like to eat bone-dry turkey.
- Rethink everything you know about the desired internal temperature of poultry. The “safe” 160-165 F degree internal temperature we hear about for poultry is based on the idea that you will eat the turkey at the very moment it comes out of the oven. Who does that? Nobody. At 165 F all bacteria are dead immediately. But turkey white meat starts to dry out above 150 F. This seems like an insurmountable problem, but if you cook the turkey breast to 145-150 F and let it rest for 20 minutes, the heat will increase to 160 while the turkey rests and the bacteria will be killed by longer exposure to temperature. You get a safe, but moist, turkey breast. (The government actually knows this, but figures we are all too stupid to understand this nuance). If you want more detail and a good recipe, see here and for the chemistry, see here.
- Dark meat is very hard to overcook. Shoot for an internal temperature of at least 180 degrees. If you go a bit over, it’s no big deal. There is so much connective tissue in the dark meat that it will stay moist at higher temperatures. We suggest you simply cook the dark meat to the desired temperature while the white meat rests. Easy.
- Don’t cook stuffing in the turkey. Just don’t. If you want to worry about food safety, cooking stuffing inside the bird is the biggest risk you will have.
- You can deep-fry, roast or smoke your turkey at many different cooking temperatures. Many methods / recipes work, assuming you target the right internal temperature of your meat. Some cooking methods will yield more attractive, crisper skin than others. You can always crisp the skin of your turkey with a quick blast in a high-temperature (500 F) oven. If you crisp the skin for less than 5-10 minutes, it will have minimal impact on internal temperature but give you a golden brown skin.
- You are (most likely) not a chef, don’t try to act or look like one. Chefs do all that flashy and speedy chopping because they are used to prepping for hundreds of guests. For them, speed matters (and is a bit of a macho thing). For you, it is best to avoid slicing your fingers off. Even if you have 30 guests, the amount of prep you have to do is probably manageable. Take your time chopping and slicing. Even if you go slowly it will only cost you an extra 5-10 minutes. Take your time, keep your fingers intact and avoid a trip to the ER.
- Plan on the right time and method for thawing your meat. If you have a fresh turkey or roast, that is great. But many of us will have frozen meat. Big frozen turkeys take a lot of time to thaw, and if you do it in the fridge (and you should), it will take days. Here is a guide. There is no better way to screw up your cooking for Thanksgiving than to forget to thaw the turkey or roast. Make sure you have a plan to thaw your bird.