My friend Sam, the guy who takes all these stunning food photos, is cooking his first Thanksgiving dinner this year. Last night as we talked turkey, Sam said something profound: “I don’t even know where to start.” Even the few lucky enough to learn from mom are often reenacting kitchen rituals last updated a couple of generations ago.
Here then is my Thanksgiving gift to Sam, a quick and simple guide to a straight forward turkey, no special ingredients, no crazy techniques, but it will put a delicious and respectable bird on the table so you can get back to sharing a special day with those you love.
1. Buying your turkey: You’ll need 1 pound of bird per person. That may sound like a lot, but it takes into account the weight of the bones. Turkeys typically range from 8-24 pounds. If you’re serving less than 8 people, congrats! you’ve got leftovers for late night sandwiches. If you are serving more than 16 people, I’d consider buying and cooking two turkeys.
When choosing your turkey, be just fussy enough. If what you can afford to feed your family is a $.98 per-pound bird from the grocery store, go for it. If you can afford a free-range organic bird for $4 a pound, it’s probably worth the expense. You don’t need to spend $10 a pound, period.
If at all possible, buy a fresh turkey. Frozen birds can take more than two days to thaw safely in the fridge (about 24 hours per 5 pounds). Remember that the neck and gizzards are usually placed in the cavity of the bird, often wrapped in paper or plastic. Remove them and save them for stock.
2. Brining: Brining, at its simplest, means soaking your turkey in heavily salted water, about 1 cup per two gallons. Coarse kosher salt gets the job done at a reasonable price. If you want to chop up and add one onion, one apple., 3 ribs of celery, 3 bay leaves and a tablespoon of peppercorns, go for it, but a simple salt brine works wonders all on its own. Any time in the brine helps, but 24 to 36 hours is ideal.
3. Use the right pan: If you are going to drop some money, do it here. Get ready to spend $100-120 on a roasting pan. Buy a multi-ply, stainless pan with a better heat conducting metal like aluminum or copper in the middle. This is the one place that All-Clad falls down. Check out Calphalon or Mauviel.
The reason for the heavy pan is so that you can take it out of the oven and put it over a burner or two to make the gravy. Do not buy non-stick, it reduces browning, which means less flavor.
4. Getting it ready to roast: There are four things to remember for a great turkey:
- Rub your bird with butter: Rub the turkey inside and out with a cup or so of softened butter. Then salt and pepper the cavity.
- Stuff it: I’m a stuffing-inside-the-bird guy. If you want to stuff your bird, nuke it first, as hot as you can get it, then stuff the bird right before putting it in the oven. This reduces the time needed to get the center of the bird to a safe 165 degrees, reducing the likelihood of drying out the lean white meat. If you don’t want to stuff it, add some aromatics to the cavity, try a halved lemon and a few sprigs each of parsley, thyme and rosemary.
- Tie it up: My Mom uses a magic, ancient system of cruel-looking, metal skewers to hold her turkey together. This is easier. Tuck the wings into the body, and, using kitchen twine, tie them in place, running the string once around the thickest part of the bird. Using a second piece of string, overlap the legs and the big meaty piece at the butt, and tie those together, sealing the cavity.
- Lay it on a bed of aromatics: This is the secret to great gravy. Cut an onion into thick slices. Cut a carrot in half the short way and the long way. Cut three celery ribs in half. Lay these in a single layer on the bottom of your roasting pan with a couple sprigs of parsley and thyme, and two bay leaves. Add 3-4 of cups of dry white wine, about 1/2″ deep. Place the bird directly on the bed of vegetables.
5. Roasting: There are a million right answers here, but I’ll give you two.
- 350 degrees for 13 minutes per pound. Place the oven rack in the bottom position in your over and pre-heat it to 450.When you put the turkey in reduce the temperature to 350. Baste it every 45 minutes with the pan juices. Starting at 2 hours, check the temperature inside the thigh and the breast, with a quick read thermometer. Make sure the thermometer isn’t touching bone. The turkey is done when both the breast and thigh have reached 165 degrees.
- 450 degrees for 8-10 minutes per pound. This method is for unstuffed turkeys weighing no more than 16 pounds. Larger or stuffed birds just need more time for the heat to penetrate. Baste every 20 minutes with pan juices. Check the temperature with a meat thermometer starting at 1 hour. The turkey is done at 165 degrees.
- Tenting and turning. I’m a fan of turning my turkey halfway through cooking. I think it gives you moister breast meat. To do this, simply start your bird, breast side down in the pan, and flip it breast side up halfway through your projected cooking time. This isn’t a must, but it’s worth the work. If your turkey is browning too early, tent it with foil. This will prevent the skin from burning.
6. Resting: This may be the most important thing you do all day. When you take your cooked turkey out of the oven, place it on a platter and cover it in foil. Let is rest for at least 15 minutes. But let’s be realistic, you’ve got a gratin to pop in the oven and some squash purée to reheat, so your bird’s got a good 30-40 minutes to rest, and it will be juicier for it.
7. Great gravy: You will be remembered forever for bringing rich, flavorful, thick gravy to the table. Once the turkey is out, tip your pan toward one corner and skim off the fat, or use a gravy separator. Return the liquid to the pan over medium-high heat and reduce to about 1/2 a cup, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom. Add 6-8 cups of homemade turkey stock (which you’ve made ahead of time) and reduce by half. Strain the stock, reserving the solids.
Take one cup of stock and whisk in 1/4 cup of flour to make a slurry. Return the remaining stock to the pan over medium heat. Chop about 2 cups of the vegetables and add those to the pan as well. Once the stock is simmering again, whisk in the flour mixture. Let this cook for 10 minutes longer to thicken.
Remove the gravy from the heat and whisk in 2 tbs of cold butter, along with a splash of brandy. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Now, bring your gravy to the table and prepare to be revered.
8. Carving: There’s no way around it, this is going to be awkward. Even the best YouTube video won’t prepare you for feeling your way around the leg and wing joints, as you separate them from the body. But don’t worry about it.
First, remove the legs and wings, feeling for the joints. Next, remove the thigh from the drumstick. A pair of sharp kitchen shears will make this much easier than a knife.
Next, remove the breasts, slicing down from the top along the breast bone. Continue, pulling the breast away from the bone and slicing out horizontally to remove the meat.
Now carve the breast and the thighs, cutting the short way across the pieces of meat. It will kind of be a mess the first few times. Just heap it on a platter and then watch no one care, as they load up with turkey and slather it with gravy.
Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Remember, if you want to do this like a pro, you’ll have to cook a turkey more than once a year. Otherwise, just eat that delicious turkey and toast to the many blessings in your life. Happy Thanksgiving!