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Turkey Talk: Prepping for Thanksgiving

Mary Anne here. Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite winter holiday — all of the joy of spending QT with the fam, minus the hassle and anxiety of shopping for the “perfect” gift. But that doesn’t mean this festive interlude is entirely sans stress….

The first time I attempted roasting a turkey I was 19 years old and living far away from my family in Colorado. Still just a kid myself, I was desperately homesick and yearning for a home-cooked, mom-made meal. My roommate, Felicia, was also feeling bereft and so we decided the night before Thanksgiving that we would celebrate the day by roasting a turkey and preparing all of the trimmings. We swaggered off to the local supermarket armed with our grocery list and a very healthy dose of “this is a no-brainer!”

Once inside the store, we discovered there were only a few turkeys still available – all of which were absolutely enormous. We were preparing our celebration for three people and figured we’d just eat lots and lots of leftovers. “Back in the day”, frozen was the only option, which seemed perfectly reasonable in terms of timing when we purchased our 28-pound turkey. We selected the assorted components necessary for a traditional Thanksgiving – sweet potatoes, prepared bread crumbs for stuffing, pearl onions, canned cranberry sauce, etc. Proud of our organizational skills and pleased with our purchases, we trundled home to our tiny apartment and set to work. By now it was getting very late but I decided I’d call my mom in New York and ask a few questions. She was alarmed and horrified when I told her we had only just bought this monster-size frozen bird and informed me that no, sitting it out on the counter top overnight would not produce a miraculously thawed bird in the morning.

For the first time, my self-confidence wavered as I whined, “Well then, how do you suggest I defrost it?” (Like this was somehow her fault!) My mom told me that the only safe way to proceed was to put the turkey under cold running water, turning it every so often for even thawing. Right. No problem. By now it was nearing 11 p.m. and the bird was far too big for the kitchen sink, so into the bathtub our dinner went!  Felicia and I took turns throughout the night checking and turning the turkey, each silently and sleepily praying for that miracle-thaw.

Like an onion, the moral of the story has many layers, not the least of which is pretty obvious – plan ahead and prepare as much as you can before the big day. Not a news flash, but a very friendly reminder. In the end we did have a wonderful Thanksgiving all those years ago – certainly my most memorable and I wonder sometimes if my old roommate recalls our daring dip into the treacherous waters of Thanksgiving dinner. Wherever you are, Happy Turkey day, Felicia!

So on to the tips for your turkey. I’ve gotten really good at this in the last 30 years and if I’ve missed something or if there are any questions, please feel free to email me (or just leave a comment). Be sure to check out Well-Stocked for your baking and cooking essentials.

1. Selecting the bird: I never buy them frozen (it’s kind of a phobia, as you can well understand). But having said that, frozen are by far the cheapest. To defrost the turkey in the fridge (not on your back porch!), it takes 24 hours for every 5 pounds. Translation: figure it takes minimally 2 days to defrost a bird in the refrigerator, even smallish turkeys, and it takes 4 to 5 days to defrost a 24 pound Tom.

2. Price Ranges: A frozen turkey in the tri-state area can run as low as $0.59 a pound. The fresh turkey that I prepared for the blog was purchased at Costco for $0.99 a pound. In general, a fresh turkey runs as high as $1.29 a pound. Kosher turkeys are the most expensive, priced at $3.49 a pound and free-range are advertised at various local markets from $1.79 to $2.49 per pound.

3. How Big is Big Enough?: If you figure one pound per person, you will have plenty for not only second helpings, but ample leftovers as well. (And isn’t it really all about the leftovers?)

4. Turkey Timing: Many turkeys come with the pop-up timers, but I have found them to be less than reliable so I depend on several different devices to help me discern when the dark meat is done but the breast hasn’t dried to something akin to saw-dust:

i. For a 350 degree oven calculate 20 minutes per pound for an un-stuffed bird; 25 minutes per pound if you stuff it.

ii. If you’re nervous, use a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh. The bird is ready to come out of the oven when the thermometer registers 165 degrees.

iii. If you don’t have a meat thermometer (but really, you should!), you can test for doneness by pricking the thigh. When the juices run clear, it’s done.

iv. Another test is by wiggling the thigh. If it moves easily, it’s done.
Before roasting the turkey, rinse it inside and out under cold running water. Pat it dry with paper towels. If not stuffing it, lightly salt and pepper the cavity.

5. To Truss or Not to Truss a Stuffed Turkey: I have never ever trussed a bird and have had nothing but exceptional results every year. I do however use a V-shaped roasting rack, which keeps the turkey’s legs more or less together. I’ve not had any problem with stuffing over-flow from this end of the bird. I also stuff the neck and don’t sew that orifice shut, either. I fold the excess neck skin over the stuffing, tucking it underneath. Some chefs use a metal skewer to close the flap, which is certainly a lot easier than sewing your food!

Tip 1: Spray the rack with Pam or similar oil spray. Cleanup is much easier.

Tip 2: For easy lifting and transferring: If you’re cooking a large bird, or really any size – they’re all pretty cumbersome. Cut a length of butcher’s twine that easily goes around the body of the turkey twice. Fold the length of twine in half and knot the end to make a loop. Before placing the bird on the v-rack, lay the looped twine across the rack. Place the bird on the rack. Bring one end of the twine up and lay it across the wings and breasts. Bring the other piece up and over the thighs. Make sure the twine is resting on the bird, not the edge of the roasting pan. When the turkey is done, it is easily lifted and transferred to the platter.

5. Speaking of Stuffing: Over the years we’ve become extra cautious with regards to Salmonella contamination. Gone are the days of stuffing the turkey the night before. However, it is perfectly safe to stuff the cavity just before putting the turkey in the oven. The juices of the bird truly enhance any stuffing combination and the result is moist and absolutely delicious.

6. Roasting the Bird: Melt 1 stick of butter on the stovetop. Using a pastry brush, generously coat the skin with the melted butter. Either clip the turkey wing tips and use them for the gravy stock, or cover them with foil to prevent over-browning. One of the keys to producing a moist turkey is frequent basting. It takes a couple of hours for the poultry to begin rendering its own juices so I paint it with butter every half hour. If the turkey is browning too quickly (which happens more often if it’s over 20 lbs.), simply “tent” it loosely with a large piece of tin foil. Once the juices have started to accumulate in the pan, switch to basting the bird with the renderings.

Remember to allow the turkey to rest for at least 30 minutes before carving. This time allows the juices to return to the meat. It takes at least an hour for a small turkey to become tepid, so don’t scrimp on the resting time.

7. The Dreaded Gravy: Believe me when I say that gravy is really, really easy. It’s simple chemistry with a ton of decadent flavor. Gravy requires a basic roux of fat and flour to which rich stock is added. I use the giblets and neck for my stock: Using a medium saucepan, cover the giblets, neck, and wingtips (if you’re using them) with water. Add some onion and celery if you have a bit left over, but it’s not necessary. Bring the water to a boil, and then simmer, covered, for about 2 hours. Add a bit of water if needed during the simmering process. When ready to prepare the gravy, strain the giblet/neck stock and reheat the broth. Skim 3 Tablespoons of the fat from the drippings.

Tip: I pour the drippings into a plastic container when the turkey comes out of the oven. I then place the container in the freezer for about 15 minutes to allow the fat to rise to the top. I take the fat that I want to use for the gravy, skim off the remainder and discard. Reserve the dark, rich drippings for the gravy.

Pour the fat back into the roasting pan, which is set over 2 burners on the stove. Turn the flames to medium-high. Whisk in 3 Tablespoons of flour and cook the roux for 5 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Very slowly, drizzle the turkey stock into the roux, whisking constantly while scraping up any bits from the bottom of the pan. Continue cooking until desired consistency. The entire process takes about 10 minutes. Reserve any leftover stock as the gravy will thicken when reheated and you might want to thin it a bit for leftovers and seconds. Season the gravy with a splash of sherry or white wine if desired.

8. Planning Ahead of Time: I prepare my pie crusts a week before and freeze them. I also bake pumpkin and date nut breads and pop those into the freezer. I prepare the stuffing two days before and last, but certainly not least, I actually roast a turkey the day before. Preparing gravy can unnerve the novice and I learned early on that I can save myself a boatload of anxiety by roasting 2 smaller birds; one the day before and one on the big day. Not only do I spare my back from lifting a huge bird, but this also gives me ample  time to the prepare gravy. Added bonus: you have 2 wishbones for the little ones to fight over! I carve the first turkey, covering the slices with the skin to keep the meat moist and then wrap it in foil for the next day. I bring the packet of poultry back to room temp the day of and pop it into the oven to reheat while we’re enjoying the fresh carvings from the second bird. This really saves the host/hostess a ton of last minute panic, knowing that there is a stash of carved turkey at the ready for second helpings.

You can prepare sweet potatoes a day or two before, and believe it or not, you can also prepare the mashed potatoes the day before. I whip the potatoes with garlic, butter, and milk. We like them a little bit lumpy but if you prefer them creamy, just be careful when you use an electric mixer. If you over-whip your spuds, they’ll quickly turn into a gluey mess. To prepare the day before, butter or spray a ceramic or glass (non-reactive is the key here) ovenproof dish. Fold in the prepared potatoes and dot with butter. Allow the potatoes to cool and then cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until the day of. When the turkey comes out of the oven it’s time to reheat the side dishes. About 2 hours before you plan to sit down to dinner, take the mashed potatoes and any other prepared side dishes out of the fridge and allow them to come back to room temperature. Just before placing the mashed potatoes in the oven, remove the plastic wrap and replace it with a piece of tin foil. Reheat at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until the center is hot. Remove from the oven and stir to incorporate the melted butter on top. Serve immediately.

In the next day or two we plan to post some savory sides and a few of our favorite pie recipes to help you plan your own family feast. We wish all of you a joyous and peaceful Thanksgiving with your own cherished loved ones!