It’s such a traditional event that most people already know what their menu is: turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, a vegetable or two, rolls, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie for dessert. This is one dinner party where points for creativity are not dispensed, because most people tend to want the tried and true. Gathered around the turkey will be a few family favorites such as green bean casserole, peas and carrots and maybe some sweetened yams or sweet potatoes covered with a fluffy cloud of melted marshmallows.
If you ask anyone, I’m betting that what people remember about Thanksgiving is the fact that they always had — (fill in the blank). They also will remember the quirky tales of family gone bad — maybe Aunt Marge had a bit too much to drink, or maybe it was the year brother Fred showed up with his dead deer draped over the hood of his pickup truck. Whatever your reminiscences, the important thing is that friends and family are together. It’s certainly a time to enjoy our eclectic and sometimes eccentric families.
That being the case, it takes the pressure off trying to come up with a fabulous menu. All we really need is the usual menu served up on card tables and TV trays once the main table is full. It is not the time to try out a new, extravagant recipe with weird ingredients. Do the basics well and you’ve got it made.
Let’s talk turkey
Let’s start with the main course: Get yourself a decent roaster with a lid. These pans are designed to baste the food automatically — the ridges in the top of the pan collect the steam and then it reverts back to liquid and drips down on the roast or turkey. Don’t use aluminum. For one thing, it is very difficult to move an aluminum roaster when it is full of a very heavy and very hot turkey.
Fresh or frozen?
Will you serve a fresh or frozen turkey? Fresh turkeys need no thawing and are ready to cook. They also take less time to cook than a turkey that has been frozen. While a “fresh” turkey from a local grower is going to be fresh, never frozen, a turkey labeled as “fresh” at a supermarket may have been chilled to 26 F — a temperature that won’t freeze the whole turkey (at least not quickly), but it does cause ice crystals to form. These crystals may thaw, combine with other crystals and refreeze, leaving you with a turkey that can be tough when cooked. Frozen turkeys can be purchased weeks in advance, but require days of thawing time before roasting.
How much to buy?
According to the Jennie-O Turkey Store, plan on about 3/4 to 1 pound per person. If you would like leftovers, plan on 1-1/2 pounds per person. Keep in mind that a larger turkey will have a larger proportion of meat to waste, so if your turkey is 15 pounds or less, plan on 1-1/2 pounds per person. If your turkey is larger, one pound per person should be enough.
• Whole turkey: 3/4 to one pound per person
• Bone-in turkey breast: 1/2 to 3/4 pound per person
• Boneless turkey breast: 1/4 to 1/2 pound per person
How long to thaw?
It will take one day for every four pounds of frozen turkey — a 20-pound turkey will take five days to thaw in the refrigerator, so plan ahead. According to Butterball, “Safely thawing a frozen turkey is one of the most important steps in preparing a meal.
There are two recommended methods, depending on the amount of time available. Refrigerator thawing is preferred and the least labor-intensive but requires more time. Cold water thawing takes less time but requires more attention. Regardless of which method you choose, you should never thaw a turkey at room temperature.”
Thaw a turkey in the refrigerator by placing it, breast side up, in an unopened wrapper on a tray in the refrigerator. Leave space around it and allow one day of thawing for every four pounds. If you must thaw it under cold water, thaw breast side down, in an unopened wrapper, with enough cold water to cover your turkey completely. Change water every 30 minutes to keep the turkey chilled. Estimate a minimum thawing time of 30 minutes per pound. Know what you’re getting
Caution! Butterball and Jennie-O both produce a “ready to roast” frozen turkey product, so pay attention to what you’re buying and read the package instructions. According to Cooks Country, “A great-tasting roast turkey is not just about turkey flavor; the texture and moisture of the meat are important, too, as anyone who has eaten a mouthful of dry, chewy turkey can attest.”
Commercially raised turkeys are bred for the white meat because that’s what most people want. The birds go to market in an unbelievable 14 weeks, weighing 16 to 22 pounds or 12 to 18 pounds dressed. Heritage breeds need seven to eight months to mature. Here’s the thing. Fat adds flavor, and the younger you butcher a bird, the less fat it has, which means it has less flavor. So, commercial growers often brine the bird — labeling it as “prebasted.”
“Kosher” birds start out the same, but according to Jewish dietary law, they are covered in kosher salt and then rinsed multiple times in cold water, which works to season the meat, improve its texture and help it retain moisture. Basically, it’s another type of brining.
What brand for best taste?
You’re on you own for this one as I compared taste test results from Epicurious, Cook’s Illustrated, Bon Appetit and Chowhound, and tests were inconclusive with no clear winner.