In a perfect world, we would start making food for Thanksgiving on Halloween. In reality, even experienced cooks don’t do this. Most of us cook the whole meal on Thanksgiving Day. Ever been in a grocery store on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving? Point proved.
Completing an entire Thanksgiving meal the day of is certainly reasonable and achievable, even for beginners. Here are 10 tips to get you going. Some are sure to horrify purists. But heat is heat and flesh is flesh. When they meet in an oven, the bird will cook.
1. Go over your recipes the night before.
Know your plan of action. If there’s time and you’re not too tired, chop onions, celery, and carrots and hold them in the refrigerator in zip bags. Get out the turkey’s roasting pan and any baking dishes you haven’t used all year. Check them because they might need washing.
2. Set the table the night before.
Psychological readiness is good for the cook and good for the guests. I had a friend who was a slow and dawdling cook. Her mother told her to always have the table set. Her family was fooled every time that dinner was imminent. In a more practical sense, a ready table spares last minute drawer-frenzy. Get out all serving platters and bowls for turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, salad and all vegetables — plus decide on every serving fork, spoon and tongs.
3. Don’t serve too early.
And don’t serve a meal this big too late, either. That’s hard on the digestive system. If you serve about 5 or 6 p.m. you’ll have plenty of time to make your menu from turkey to dessert. Before a meal this big, you don’t need nibbles and snacks around the house, just some nuts to stave off hunger.
4. Start with a fully defrosted turkey.
None of the information here applies if you’ve forgotten to defrost your turkey. If you’ve bought a frozen one the night before, you are in trouble. Yes, you can try sticking a blow dryer up the turkey’s cavity, but you will not only create a heated incubator for bacteria in the cavity, you will end up with a gross blow dryer you’ll never want to touch again.
If caught short the night before, buy a fresh turkey. If you’re so unlucky that fresh turkeys are sold out, but a smallish frozen one — 10 to 12 pounds. You can defrost it safely — still wrapped — in a sink filled with cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes, calibrating one 30-minute soak per pound of turkey. A 10-pound turkey will take about five to six hours to defrost.
5. Tackle the clamp.
Fresh or frozen, the turkey’s drumsticks are constrained for shipping by the meanest thing in cooking — the clamp. Whether metal or plastic, the bird comes with no directions on how to free the drumsticks. You’ve got to open the cavity to remove the giblets. In my struggles to remove the clamp, I’ve drawn blood. That’s because, at least with the metal ones, the maneuver is counterintuitive.
Metal clamp: With a towel, pull the upside-down “U” toward you. With your other hand, find the strength to lift the loosest drumstick up, over and out of the clamp. Once the first drumstick is free, the second one will come over and out easily. But the clamp is still in the bird! Squeeze its sides in, and push it away from you. It will slide out.
Plastic clamp: Snip it with scissors, free the drumsticks, reach in and remove the bag of giblets.
6. Skip brining the turkey and just salt and pepper the bird before it goes in the oven.
You need no elaborate brining step or roasting-temperature schemes for a tasty and nicely browned turkey. Season simply with salt and pepper, inside and out, underside and on top (breast). You can wear rubber gloves if you’re grossed out by the bird’s cavity.
Some recipes have you start at a high temperature, turn it down, give the bird a few flips so the bottom is on top and back over again. This is ridiculous. A turkey isn’t pizza dough. Let it be. Once seasoned and in the oven, you’ll have no contact with this bird for another hour, so move on with your life.
7. Have the essential equipment.
- Towels for gripping the clamp, holding on to a warm (and slippery) drumstick at carving time.
- Oven mitts for both hands to prevent burns on your hands and arms.
- Instant-read thermometer.
- Turkey lifter that looks like mini-snow-chains and acts as a sling. This device lays across your roasting pan with handles draping over the sides. The turkey goes on top. When done, all you have to do is grab the handles and lift. You can find turkey lifters at dollar stores.
- Roasting pan with low sides because high sides prevent heat from getting down into the bottom of the turkey, precisely where the dark meat that takes the longest to cook is situated. If all you have is a roaster with high sides, elevate the turkey on a rack inside the roaster. Your best bet is a disposable aluminum roasting pan with shallow sides you throw away when roasting’s done.
- Mesh strainer for straining clear pan juices after roasting.
- Aluminum foil to tent turkey when it comes out of the oven
- Extra large cutting board to carve turkey.
8. Always use a meat thermometer.
Turkeys are tricky. The breast meat cooks first, but it’s still attached to the bird while it waits for the dark meat to finish. White meat is ready at 170 F, dark meat at 175 to 180 F. To take a reading, insert it in the dark meat, which takes the longest to cook. Newer digital thermometers stay in the turkey for the entire roasting time and beep when the set temperature is reached.
A 10- to 14-pound turkey should be cooked at 350 F for 2 to 2½ hours. A 14- to 18-pound bird should cook at 325 F for 2½ to 3½ hours.
If you don’t have a meat thermometer, here’s the old-fashioned method. Gently pull a drumstick (use a towel to hold on) away from the body. Where the skin has stretched, use a small knife to make a cut to expose the meat. Take a look. If you see red juices or pink meat, keep roasting. Check for doneness at 15-minute intervals until juices run clear. I like this method because no one will see the cut.
9. After the turkey has roasted an hour, add about 2 cups of water to the bottom of the pan.
This is the beginning of your gravy or natural pan juices.
10. If, after carving, parts are undercooked, microwave them for a minute or two.
No one will know.
Zester Daily contributor Elaine Corn is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and food editor. A former editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Sacramento Bee, Corn has written six cookbooks and contributed food stories to National Public Radio.
Photo: Turkey in the oven. Credit: Sergiy Serdyuk