“The measure of success is not how high you fly but how high you bounce.”
Apparently I owe folks an apology. I blithely wrote a post about chocolate cupcakes for Thanksgiving, absolutely unaware that people were expecting some advice about turkey! Many thanks to the people who kindly made me aware! *grin*
First, my most important piece of advice: Let the worry go! I have never understood why people stress so much about cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. The truth is that, yes, something may go wrong. Just accept that fact now, plan for it, and move forward. It’s really rather freeing to know that things are not going to be perfect, so you can just enjoy being with family and friends. If the turkey is too dry, so be it; that’s what gravy and cranberry sauce is for anyway!
Now, for the turkey: (Will try to address the questions asked):
1. Frozen versus fresh: This is really just about time and money. Frozen turkeys tend to be cheaper, but you have to thaw them a couple of days ahead of time. Fresh is a little bit more money, but you can pick it up the day before.
A tip: If you don’t have a lot of space in your fridge for the turkey, put a cooler on your porch filled with ice and keep your turkey in there. As long as you’re replacing any ice that melts, your turkey will stay cold.
2. To brine or not: Funny how folks worry about this. This, too, is about time. Yes, brining does make for a moist turkey. Why? Because the turkey absorbs the liquid which then means less is lost during the cooking process. Brining, however, means doing some work ahead of time, and if you have any sodium issues, you don’t really want to add salt to your turkey.
If you choose to brine, it’s really just a matter of mixing some kosher salt with water, and if you want, herbs and/or aromatics like celery, garlic or onions. People will vary as to how much salt versus water they say to use. I usually use 2 tbsp of kosher salt for 4 quarts of water, and brine my turkey for two days. Others use more salt per water and brine the turkey for just 8 hours. What’s important to note is that the stronger the salt-water, the shorter amount of time you’ll want to use, because you don’t want your turkey to become too salty, even if you don’t have salt issues.
If you don’t want to brine, then the tip is to cook your turkey at a lower temperature. A long, slow roast makes for a moister turkey than cooking at a high heat which dries the meat out. This, of course, means starting your turkey a lot earlier in the day or having your meal much later in the day.
Tips: If you do brine, you can put the turkey into a large stockpot or tupperware with the brine and put it into your cooler on the porch. Also, if you purchased a frozen turkey, you can put the turkey into the brine frozen and allow it to slowly defrost in the brine.
3. Flavoring: If you really want a flavorful turkey, make a rub of herbs and rub it over the turkey flesh. This means gently pulling the skin away from the turkey and rubbing the dry rub underneath the skin. For the skin, if you actually like to heat the skin, you can make a moist rub by adding a bit of olive oil to the herbs and rubbing it over the skin. There’s no need to use salt or butter which helps folks who have issues with either.
A tip: Instead of stuffing your bird with stuffing, put herb sprigs and garlic and onions and carrots inside the bird. Makes for a lovely taste. Also, stuffing the bird is not the best, because you get all the bacteria from the inside of the bird onto your stuffing, and to get your stuffing to the right temperature usually means overcooking your turkey.
4. Cooking: If you are someone who really is worried about cooking a whole turkey just right, go ahead and purchase one of those turkey bags. They really do work. If you are like me and would rather not spend the whole day cooking a whole turkey, you can chop your turkey into pieces-parts and cook the white and dark meat in separate containers at the same time.
As I mentioned above, you can cook your turkey at a high heat for quicker cooking but as this will make for a drier turkey, you really should put water or chicken broth at the bottom of the pan and baste during the cooking process. Otherwise, cook the turkey at a low heat, and then just before it’s finished turn up the heat to crisp up the outer skin.
A turkey between 12 and 16 lbs usually takes around 3 to 3 1/2 hours at 350 degrees if it’s not stuffed. Add an hour if it’s stuffed. Always use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature. You want the bird to be at 165 degrees Fahrenheit before you remove it from the oven.
Tips: It’s always good to use a rack when cooking your turkey. To make your life easy, though, go ahead and purchase a disposable pan with a built in rack (basically a patterned raised bottom). I found these at our local dollar store for a buck. Best deal ever!
Also, let your turkey rest before carving. If you give the turkey time to sit, some of the liquids will be reabsorbed into the turkey as it cools. Use the resting time to finish off any side dishes in the oven.
Finally, you know what: You can always make the turkey the day before, slice it up, arrange it prettily on an oven proof platter, and then reheat it the next day just until it’s warm. No Thanksgiving day stress!
5. The gravy: If you’re looking to be healthy, just go ahead and use low sodium, fat free chicken broth in your favorite gravy recipe. If you make your own using the bones and neck and such of the turkey, you can also be healthier by straining your homemade broth over ice cubes which will skim the fat away for you.
A tip: Use your crock pot: Put anything you are not using from the turkey (bones, neck wings) into the crock pot with water and herbs (fresh is best like sage, oregano, thyme) and aromatics (I throw in carrots, onions, garlic cloves) and just let it cook on high for the whole day (12 hours). You’ll have some wonderful broth for your gravy and for soup without any work your part! When you go to make gravy, use 2 tablespoons of olive oil to 1/4 cup flour of your choice for every 2 cups of broth. For extra flavor, puree the herbs and aromatics from the crockpot and add it to the gravy. If using the pureed aromatics, you can reduce the flour by half because the pureed aromatics will also thicken the gravy.
6. Turkey sides: Make life easy on yourself. Use your crock pot to make veggies so you don’t have to stress about no oven space. Or make dishes which can stand at room temperature. Also, do as much as you can the day before so you can actually enjoy time with your family and friends. Finally, cut yourself some slack. Cheese and crackers are a wonderful appetizer! If you can’t have dairy, veggies and hummus work just as well. Don’t feel pressured to create something fancy. Remember, it’s all about time together, not how fancy the food is!