With that said, it IS Turkey Day, so let's get on with the festivities, shall we?
Here's a sort of random list of thoughts, tips, and things I've learned from hosting Thanksgiving over the last couple of years. I hope it helps
To Pot-Luck or Not?
I spent the first couple of years trying to control the menu so I could plan the perfect Thanksgiving meal and have all the food on the table and hot at the right time. It failed miserably. For most people, Thanksgiving is a holiday filled with family traditions. Guests at your table want to share their traditions with you and they want to "help" you by bringing a dish...or two...or three and you can rest assured that they'll all show-up while you're trying to make the gravy, heat the dinner rolls, and carve the bird and they'll want oven or microwave space to reheat their dish.
To this I say, embrace the pot luck. Start assigning dishes to people that you know they like to make or bring and plan ahead for how that dish will be reheated or served. If you can have a separate area or an extra microwave just for reheating, all the better, as it allows you to finish doing whatever you have to do in the kitchen and they can do what they need to do in that other space.
You may also find that space at the table and serving dishes and spoons get to be at a premium when people are bringing food. If you're hosting, consider setting-up a buffet where people can fill their plates and then sit-down at the table together. This keeps a family dinner atmosphere while leaving some elbow room at the table. When assigning dishes, ask folks to bring their dishes ready to serve, including any special utensils. When I attend a pot-luck, I even label my utensils so that they go home with me and if I know I'll be leaving early, I'll use disposable or discount store ceramic serving pieces so they can be left with the host.
I'm not going to tell you how to cook your bird. There are 100 techniques and most of them have sound food science behind them (except for Grandma's method of starting at 5am and basting it every hour...that one is bunk). Serious Eats did one of the most complete jobs I've ever seen done on different styles and techniques, so I'll just point you there. I'll also say that I'm trying "bird in a bag" this year, which is a unique and old-school choice and I'll let you know how it works out. Here are some general thoughts:
- A smaller turkey will cook quicker and juicier than a large turkey. What this means is if you're feeding a crowd and can get 2 pans that fit side-by-side in your oven, two 15 pound birds will cook faster than one 23-25 pound bird and you get more of every part of the bird.
- If you do the two-bird thing above, take it from my bad experience. You MUST have them in separate pans. Putting them in the same pan amounts to having one giant bird and will take as long to cook the middle of the combined mass.
- I've used the "flip" method (developed years ago by ATK) for quite a few years and it works well. you start your bird breast-side-down and cook the dark meat facing-up at a higher temperature first for about 2 hours. Then you flip the bird over (no easy feat...get out some kitchen towels you don't mind getting greasy) and continue roasting at a reduced temperature.
- Don't baste your turkey. I know Julia Child and Grandma said to do it but they didn't have food science in their day. :-) If you want crisp skin, basting will make it leathery and chewy. For crispy skin, oil or butter your turkey generously.
- Brining is great but will change the texture of the meat. Some people like it, some don't. The hardest thing with brining is how to refrigerate a 20-pound hunk of meat submerged in water. If you really want to brine, Google "Dry Brining," a relatively new method that is akin to a dry rub and all the food science geeks are raving about it. Personally, I never brine at all.
- Spend the money on decent turkey. You've all seen my rant about spongy supermarket chicken. The same applies to most supermarket turkey as well...particularly the ones marked self-basting, enhanced, or pre-brined (that'd be you, Butterball).
There's lots of advice on whether to stuff the bird or not and why. The bottom line is this. If you stuff the bird, you need to get the temperature of the stuffing to 160 degrees in order to avoid food poisoning. This results in the outside of the bird (the white meat) reaching "sawdust" temperatures. There are a couple of strategies to help:
- The obvious solution is to cook the stuffing separately. I'll be honest and say that it won't taste nearly as good unless you have real turkey stock hanging around. You can pour some turkey drippings over it towards the end if you like and stir.
- Use a stuffing bag (a cheesecloth bag) to stuff the bird). About 2 hours into cooking, once the juices from the turkey have run into the stuffing, remove the bag and mix it with any remaining stuffing. Finish baking in a separate pan. I've done this a few years in a row. It's messy and requires timing, but it works well and preserves that "baked in bird" flavor.
I wrote a nice little post about cranberry sauce with 3 recipes this morning, so I'll just point you there.
Repeat after me. I will not buy canned gravy. Okay? Good.
Thanksgiving gravy bugs the crap out of me because people make it way more complicated than it needs to be. Don't fuss.
Ideally, you make it during that hour of "rest time" while the turkey is waiting to be carved and you make it entirely from pan drippings. In reality, the world needs more gravy than one bird can provide and the logistics never seem to work out quite so simple, so I often make a lot of it ahead from chicken stock and maybe add the pan drippings to it. Just use a basic "veloute" recipe that involves making a roux from butter and flour and adding the stock. If you're going to make gravy from pan drippings, use a flour/water slurry to drizzle into your hot liquid instead of the roux.
And guess what? Lumps are no problem. That's why they invented fine-mesh sieves! ;-)
Above all, have fun and remember that it's about enjoying time with family and friends.
Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!
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