I asked a few of my favorite chefs for their advice on preparing the biggest meal of the year for most of us and put together this Top ? list to help make your holiday a little easier.
You can also check out my article called Let’s Talk Turkey or my post, Turkey Basics to check out some of the Thanksgiving Day Dinner Tips. If you have some of our own, leave them at the end of this post in the comments section below.
First I would like to introduce the chefs who offered up their professional advice and thank them. If you click on their links, you can read all about them in my Novice2Pro interviews with them.
Chef David Nelson, Co-founder of Chef4Students.org
Chef Leslie Bilderback, Certified Master Baker & Cookbook Author
Chef Jennifer Field, Creator of PastryChefOnline
Chef Mark Vogel, Newspaper columnist
Here’s are some of their very helpful suggestions:
PREPARING YOUR MENU
Chef Field – “Make a chart listing all the dishes you plan to serve, prep time for each, whether it can be made ahead or not, etc. Then, you can plan to get some things done on Tuesday or Wednesday (or even the weekend before, depending on what you’re making). Spread out over a few days, Thanksgiving is much less daunting.
Oh, and set your table completely the day before, and according to your list. (If you’re passing 4 sides at the table, you’ll want to make sure you have the right serving pieces).
It seems like such a small thing, but it’ll save you from having to run around like a crazy person trying to find a pickle fork at the last second!”
HOW MUCH TURKEY SHOULD YOU BUY?
Chef Nelson – “3/4 of a pound will get the job done, but he recommends, “one pound of uncooked turkey per person, to ensure lots of choice and some leftovers.”
WHAT KIND OF TURKEY SHOULD YOU BUY?
Chef Vogel – “Wild turkeys are a little tougher, (although more flavorful), than commercial turkeys since they get considerably more exercise. But that also means less fat and ergo, less succulence. Younger turkeys will be more tender than their older counterparts. For the most tender, juiciest turkey, pick a young one that’s been cooped up in a pen.”
Chef Nelson – “Should I buy a Tom Turkey or a Hen for Tenderness? Age not gender, is the determining factor for tenderness in turkey. All domestic turkeys at the market are young, typically four to six months old. A hen will weighs less than 16 pounds and a tom is over 16 pounds.”
PREPPING YOUR INGREDIENTS
If there is one thing you can do to help make the day go smoother, it is get as much of the prep work out of the way as possible. Here are some suggestions from our chefs.
Chef Bilderback – “Make any yeast dough the night before and put in fridge for a slow, overnight fermentation. Then bake in the morning. Also, chop onions and celery the day before and store in zipper bags in the fridge. Peel potatoes the night before and keep them in water. Saves time.”
Chef Nelson – “I always start early preparing the stock. The stock is the key to a great Thanksgiving meal. You need it for the stuffing, the gravy and maybe for keeping the meat hot and juicy during service.
When I prepare turkey in large quantities, I break down the birds ahead of time. It is no secret that the breasts and the legs do not cook evenly and completely at the same time. So I break down the birds and cook the different parts separately so they are just cooked to perfection. This is fine in a restaurant kitchen, as you do not need to serve that big full bird as a centerpiece like you do at home.
Breaking the bird down into Breasts and Legs allows you to get all the remaining parts together to build your stock. Preparing the stock ahead of time allows you to prepare your turkey gravy ahead of time. It also gives you the critical ingredient to make your stuffing Over the Top.”
BRINING YOUR TURKEY
It is unanimous; all the chefs agreed you want to brine your turkey. Here is what they say,
Chef Field – “Brine your turkey! It makes a huge difference in juicy, succulent goodness. It’s also a step that requires very little active time, and its worth it.”
Chef Vogel – “Brine your turkey. This is a direct way to make the meat juicier. Brining is the process of soaking meat in a salt-water solution. I recommend at least six hours for a whole turkey.
Brining works via the processes of osmosis and the tendency for adjacent mediums to equalize their level of salinity. In a nutshell, the turkey will absorb some of the water and consequently will be moister. For a 12 16 lb. turkey use two cups of kosher salt, or one cup of table salt for every 2 gallons of water.
Chef Nelson – “I always try to brine my turkey before roasting, smoking or frying. Brining the turkey adds flavor, moisture and improves tenderness and texture. A basic recipe for brine is 1 gallon of water, 1 cup of kosher salt, 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1/2 cup of brown sugar.
Combine the ingredients and stir to dissolve the sugars and salt. (NOTE: I keep a 1-quart size version of this recipe in my fridge at home for chicken and pork preparations.) You can add other ingredients to your brine right before you use, like sliced garlic, peppercorns, honey, fresh herbs, etc.
Cover the bird with brine in a non-reactive container of glass, plastic or stainless steel. A Coleman cooler works great. The bird must be kept cold during the brining process. A large turkey should sit in the brine for a good twelve hours. Birds need to be fresh of thoroughly thawed for brining. So plan ahead.
Very Important! Thoroughly rinse brined birds or pork before you cook them to remove the saltiness. And if you are frying that turkey, dry it off, inside and out very thoroughly before submerging it into the peanut oil.”
Chef Leslie – “Brine the Bird! It stays super-moist, and much more flavorful. By far the best bird Ive ever had has been a brined bird. Brining is essentially a marinade, high in salt, with sugar, spices, and herbs.
Brining hydrates the cells of the muscle. The salt content of the brine is higher than the muscle cells, and this saline contrast forces the salt into the cell by osmosis. The salt draws the water and flavorings in with it, resulting in a moist, flavorful bird. The salt also denatures the protein of the muscle, which essentially re-configures the protein to hold more water.”
COOKING THE BIRD
Chef Vogel – “Roast a turkey at lower temperatures, usually 325º 350º F. Intense heat can overcook the outside before the center is completely done.
Many cooks will either start or finish the bird at high heat (400 degrees or more) to ensure a fully browned exterior and crisp skin. I prefer the latter as it is easier to gauge how much additional browning is needed toward the end of the cooking process.
Also, don’t bother basting. The meat, covered by the skin, will not absorb the juices. Every time you open the oven door you’re allowing heat to escape and prolonging cooking time.”
IS MY TURKEY TIRED? NO BUT IT NEEDS TO REST
Chef Nelson – “It needs to rest after it comes out of the oven. A good rule of thumb is allowing it to rest for one minute per pound after cooking. This allows the juices in the bird to redistribute evenly through the bird.”
Chef Vogel “Allow the turkey to rest for 15-30 minutes before carving. All roasted items should rest before being carved. This allows the juices to be reabsorbed into the meat.
If you carve it immediately the juices will run out. During this time the turkey will continue to cook due to carry over cooking. Therefore, you should remove the turkey when it is about 10 degrees less than the target temperature.”
Chef Field – “Please make your own gravy. I roast the turkey on top of mirepoix (veggies: onion, celery and carrot) to start with nice, deep base flavors. Save some of the cooking liquid from your vegetables (starch from potato water adds to the thickening) and use chicken stock.
Leave some of those spent veggies in the roasting pan. Build a roux right in your roasting pan by adding flour to the drippings (do this over 2 stove burners, on medium) and scraping up all the brown goodness from the pan (fond).
Cook the roux for about 5 minutes, then add your water/stock and cook until you have gravy. You can hit it with an immersion blender the leftover bits of veggies will help thicken it then strain it (if you don’t want any lumps). Season to taste however you like.”
Chef Nelson – “Thanksgiving Turkey Gravy has always been a high priority for me. If the gravy is not up to par everything you put it on is not up to par either. My Thanksgiving gravy is more of a demi-glace than a flour/roux thickened sauce or gravy.
It is made by roasting the bones, trimmings of the broken down birds with onions, carrots and celery and then simmering them in the stock pot overnight. The rich broth is then strained and further reduced until it is rich and the turkey flavor is intensified.”
RG – Check out my Turkey Gravy Recipe that I adapted from Cuisine.
Chef Field – “As far as I’m concerned, there must be mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. For the best-mashed potatoes, make sure you dry out your spuds before mashing. Too much water in the potatoes will make them all stodgy.
After boiling, let them sit in the hot pan and release steam for a few minutes before mashing. (Or try baking your potatoes before mashing instead of boiling. You wont have as much of a water issue).
I also mash in the butter first, and then the dairy and salt and pepper. They’re also really good with a heavy sprinkle of Mrs. Dash Original Seasoning Blend. (Notice, I don’t use it as a salt substitute, but as an addition to salt.
Add a whole head (or more, depending on how many potatoes you’re mashing) of roasted garlic.”
RG What is the best recipe for mashed potatoes?
Chef Field – “Here is a short-cut sort-of recipe if you dont want to make/dont have enough time to make your own cranberry sauce. Use Ocean Spray whole berry sauce.
Add in a little salt to taste, some orange zest and a splash of Grand Marnier (or Cointreau or Triple Secany orange liqueur will do) or a little OJ, for a non-alcoholic version.
You could also add a hit of Amaretto and some toasted, chopped almonds. Or some Frangelico and some toasted, chopped hazelnuts. Easy and good.”
RG I have a Fresh Orange Cranberry Sauce recipe that’s pretty good too.
Chef Bilderback – “Make sure you’ve got someone ELSE lined up to do the dishes! Also, do NOT put a bunch of stuff down your disposal! Plumbers make a killing on Thanksgiving!
Start a compost pile instead and save our planet. They may just look like carrot peels, but with all the other stuff, it adds up, and your poor pipes wont hack it.”
I hope you enjoyed these tips and please post your own or go over to my new Cooking Community, sign up and post your favorite recipes.
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone