Nearly everyone remembers the first Thanksgiving they were responsible for. My first was an epic failure. Being young and dumb, I thought lobster might be a good choice for the most important meal of the year as it was just my new husband and me at the table; our respective families lived far away. In hindsight, SMH. Inexcusable, as I brought hoarder-worthy piles of Gourmet magazine to the marriage.
The second time, I cooked a traditional meal, but didn’t realize that the producers of my supermarket turkey had secreted a plastic pouch of faux gravy in the neck cavity. But that was (so far) my last epic T-Day mistake.
What follows are hard-won but useful tips for hosting an amazing Thanksgiving.
(Keep checking this website as we’ll be sharing more Thanksgiving recipes and tips leading up to the big day.)
Thanksgiving Turkey Tips
- Unless you have one in your freezer, buy your turkey early. Turkey shortages and higher prices are forecast for some areas of the country.
- Allow several days (approximately 1 day for every 4 pounds) to defrost a frozen bird. Place the turkey in its original wrapper on a rimmed baking sheet in the refrigerator. (For safety purposes, never thaw poultry on the countertop at room temperature.) Alternatively, submerge the bird in its original wrapper in a sink filled with cold water. Replace the water every 30 minutes. Allow 30 minutes per pound.
- For the juiciest meat, brine the turkey (fresh or defrosted) in a deep food-safe container such as a reusable 5-gallon bucket. I use a bucket given to me by a local restaurant; it formerly held dill pickles—or a heavy-duty brining bag. Be sure to place the bird and brine on the lowest, most stable shelf of the refrigerator. Short on refrigerator space? Submerge the bird in brine in a cooler and top with large resealable bags of ice. Replenish the ice as needed. Our basic wet brine recipe calls for 1 cup of Morton’s brand kosher salt and 1/4 cup of brown sugar per gallon of cold water. Optional ingredients include citrus, apple cider, brandy or bourbon, whole peppercorns, and fresh or dried spices. Brine your turkey for 12 to 24 hours (no longer).
- For the crispiest skin, drain the brine, knock any whole herbs or spices off the bird, and air-dry in the refrigerator until the skin is relatively dry. Smoke-roast as usual. (We’ll cover dry-brining in a future blog. Stay tuned!)
- Expecting a crowd for T-Day? Instead of buying one toddler-size turkey, buy two 12- to 13-pounders. You’ll double the number of legs, wings, thighs, and breasts, hopefully pleasing everyone. The meat will cook better, too. Alternatively, cook one whole turkey and an easy-to-slice chicken breast.
- If smoke-roasting a turkey at lower temperatures (250 to 275 degrees), increase the heat to 325 to 350 degrees the last 1 to 1 1/2 hours to ensure the skin render its fat and gets beautifully browned and crispy. Turkey cooked at smoking temperatures from start to finish will have rubbery, unpalatable skin.
- Purchase extra fuel before the big day, whether charcoal, smoking woods, smoking pellets or chips, or gas.
- Place an aluminum foil drip pan under the turkey to catch drippings for homemade gravy. (Note: If cooking over wood or charcoal, protect the drippings from flying ash by vertically inserting a rimless sheet pan between the rungs of the grill grate before adding fresh fuel.)
- Slip fresh herbs, such as sage leaves or parsley, between the skin and the breast meat for more flavor and an attractive presentation.
- Baste the bird during cooking with a compound butter made from softened butter (preferably unsalted), 2 to 3 tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs, and minced garlic. The butter will help the skin crisp.
- Instead of slicing the breast meat parallel to the bone, remove each breast half in one piece. Then slice vertically with a sharp knife to ensure each dine has some of the succulent breast meat rimmed with crisp skin.
- We know “spatchcocking” a turkey is popular now. Don’t do it. Norman Rockwell wouldn’t approve.
- Leftovers? Make the obligatory turkey sandwich (don’t skip this part), then make Steven’s fabulous smoked turkey hash.