Thanksgiving prep: the turkey

The first year I cooked Thanksgiving dinner, it didn’t go so well. I thought I was timing everything perfectly, until we started to carve into the turkey and realized it wasn’t nearly done. So, back into the oven it went, and all of the sides had to be reheated when the turkey was finally cooked. So sad. Fortunately it was just Andy and me (fun fact: we lacked a dinner table and therefore ate Thanksgiving dinner at the coffee table!), so although I had all sorts of angst about our first Thanksgiving together being less than perfect, I suppose it was a good learning experience.

The next year, Andy’s mom and stepfather joined us. Yes, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for my in-laws, and if I must say so myself, it went really well. Everything was COOKED and on time and everybody was happy. Since this year will be my third year preparing Thanksgiving dinner, I thought I would share a few tips I’ve figured out over the past couple of years.

Before you do anything, invest in some kitchen equipment. You’ll need a large roasting pan, a baster, and a meat thermometer. If you want to brine your turkey (I do), you’ll also need a brine mix and brining bag.

  1. Buying the turkey: if you are getting a frozen turkey, pick it up about a week before you intend to cook it. If fresh, then just about 2 days ahead of time. Last year’s turkey was about 13 pounds, which was definitely enough for four people (plus plentiful leftovers). This year, I bought a 15.25 lbs turkey to serve 6.
  2. Thawing: let the frozen turkey thaw in your refrigerator for what seems like an exceedingly long time–about 4 to 5 days.
  3. Brining: I discovered brining last year and highly recommend it. You will need a few extra supplies–Turkey Brine (I found a good mix at World Market) and a plastic Brine Bag. Remove the giblets from the turkey (most grocery store turkeys have these in a plastic package in the stuffing cavity). Prepare the brine according to the package directions and allow your turkey to soak in the refrigerator for 24-36 hours. Brining is a little extra hassle, but so worth it for the added flavor. Be sure to use the brine bag. They are extra heavy and will prevent turkey brine from leaking all over the inside of your refrigerator. I suppose you could also use any sort of air-tight container, but I don’t have one large enough.
  4. Stuffing: recipes for stuffing are so personal, so I’m just going to say one thing on this topic. I am a huge proponent of cooking the stuffing in the bird. YUM. Be sure to stuff the bird just before putting it in the oven, and remove the stuffing after cooking. I think that’s all you need to know to quash any lingering worries about food poisoning. Make about 3/4c of stuffing per pound of turkey and secure the little flap over the stuffing cavity with skewers.
  5. Trussing: I usually truss my turkey after stuffing it. The Fannie Farmer Cookbook has good illustrations to help with this; I also found a good video on epicurious. It’s really difficult to follow the process without some sort of visual aid, so I’m not even going to try to explain it here.
  6. Seasoning: once your turkey is trussed, you can rub it with melted butter. Also add salt and pepper. I still follow this step despite the brine process.
  7. Cooking: a general guideline is about 15-20 minutes of cooking time per pound (in a 325 degree oven). After year 1, I’ve found that the only real way to know whether your turkey is done is to use a meat thermometer. It should be between 165 and 170 degrees in the breast and about 180 degrees in the thigh. Make sure you also baste your turkey every 30 minutes or so. You can start by basting with a mixture of melted butter and water until there are enough pan drippings for basting.
  8. Carving: let your turkey rest for about 15 minutes once it’s finished cooking. Then scoop out the stuffing before you carve off the succulent meats and serve.

The turkey is probably the most intimidating part of preparing Thanksgiving dinner. If you use your meat thermometer, you can be pretty well assured that your turkey will be cooked appropriately (not too little and not too dried out). Thanksgiving is definitely a culinary challenge, but there’s such a sense of accomplishment when you pull it off!

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