Thanksgiving Tips and Tricks

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With the big day right around the corner, I wanted to compile a list of some of the best Thanksgiving tips and answers to commonly asked questions that I’ve learned along the way.  Got some of your own tips?  Feel free to share in the comments!

Thanksgiving Turkey

  1. When buying your bird, plan on 1 – 1 1/2 pounds of turkey per person.  I usually plan a bit more per person to ensure there are plenty of leftovers.
  2. Whenever possible, buy a fresh bird.  The taste is out of sight.  If you must buy frozen, defrost properly by placing in a large roasting pan or on a sheet-pan in the refrigerator.  And don’t plan on that 20 pound bird defrosting overnight.  It’s going to take a while.  Figure 1 whole day for every 5 – 7 pounds.
  3. Brining is not optional.  It’s required.  It’s also simple and pretty much guarantees moist white meat.  Keep it simple with the brine.  Remember this ratio and you’re set: 3/4 cup salt for every gallon of liquid that you use.  Keep in mind, the turkey must be fully submerged in the brine, so use as much liquid as necessary.  That’s a standard brine.  To put your own twist on it, add beer, wine, herbs spices or juice.
  4. While we’re on the topic, let that bird rest, on the counter-top for 20 – 30 (but no more) minutes before you start cooking it.  It’ll cook more evenly.
  5. Everyone has their theory on how to cook a turkey.  Start high and end low.  Or start low and end high.  I’ve found both to be pretty effective.  So, either way, figure about 20 minutes per pound and cook at 325 degrees for a majority of the time.  Start or end for about 45 minutes at 425 degrees to get crispy, browned skin.
  6. Start days in advance.  I have a rule when hosting that I always try to follow: nothing should be chopped, sliced or diced when your guests are in attendance, with the exception of the turkey and desserts.  This type of prep work can be done days in advance.  Carrots, celery and onions for the stuffing?  Chop those in advance and keep in sealed containers.  There’s no reason to leave that stuff until the day of.  Same goes for sides.  Almost every traditional Thanksgiving side can be made a day ahead of time and reheated on the big day.  Trust me.  You’ll enjoy the day more too.
  7. Thanksgiving is not the time to show off how experienced you are in so many different cuisines.  Thanksgiving is about and people expect, traditions.  Stick to the basics and focus on excellent execution.  Your guests will remember that more than your “traditional English trifle.”  Please don’t end up like Rachel Green.
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  9. Real chefs use an instant read thermometer.  Early and often. And usually a simple, yet accurate one.  Those huge meat fork thermometers?  Please stop gouging your meat.  In culinary school we were given a Taylor Analog Instant Read Thermometer.  I still use it today.
  10. Let your bird rest before carving.  I say it with every post involving meat and the rules don’t change just because it’s a holiday.  Tent it LOOSELY with foil and let it hang out for 10 – 15 minutes.
  11. Feeding a big crowd?  Consider two smaller birds instead of one mammoth bird.  Smaller turkeys are easier to cook and probably fit better in your oven.
  12. No bottled gravy!  Homemade gravy is too easy.  Just remember this ratio: 1/4 cup all-purpose flour + 2 TBSP of fat (butter, oil or best, turkey roasting pan drippings) + 1 1/2 – 2 cups of stock = Best Gravy Ever.  It’ll give you something to do while your turkey rests.  Get your fat hot or melted, whisk in the flour.  Cook for a minute or two and then slowly whisk in your stock.  Salt.  Pepper.  Taste.  Adjust.  Serve.
  13. All good Thanksgivings start with some wine.  Not sure how much to have?  Figure one glass, per guest, per hour.  Family full of teetotalers or lushes?  Adjust accordingly.
  14. Mashed potatoes.  Again, make the day the before.  And make sure your cream and butter are warm before adding to the potatoes.  And don’t use a food processor.  Use a masher.  Or a ricer.  But that’s it.  Unless you like eating glue, which is the consistency your potatoes will have if you use a food processor.
  15. Classic stuffing ratio: 3 cups mirepoix + 2 tbsp. each sage and thyme + 3 cups broth + 2 eggs + 16 cups stale bread = Thanksgiving stuffing.  Saute your mirepoix (carrots, celery, onion) in some butter.  Add your herbs.  Add your broth.  Place bread and lightly beaten eggs in a bowl.  Add your broth mixture.  Mix well.  Poured into a butter dish.  Dot with butter.  Cook until golden at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.
  16. Make at least one pie from entirely scratch.  And make the crust.  And use the 3 – 2 – 1 pie crust ratio courtesy of ratio master Michael Ruhlman.  Google it and follow it.  It’s the best crust I’ve ever had.  The easiest too.
  17. Whatever you do, enjoy the day.  As a chef, Thanksgiving is naturally my favorite holiday.  It’s all about food and smells and memories of who and why you are.  Embrace your crazy family, enjoy the food and remember that you’re really fortunate.  And when you’re in a food coma watching football, think about how you can give back to the less than fortunate.  Preachy?  Maybe.  Cheesy?  Sure.  Worth it?  Always.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

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