Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thanksgiving 101: choosing and cooking the turkey

Buying the right turkey for Thanksgiving dinner involves a lot more than a quick trip to the supermarket. You have to consider how many people you're serving, how much time the bird will need to thaw, and even whether you have enough room to store it. Here's how to get this most basic part of the holiday right.
Here are some helpful hints to help reduce the stress of the Thanksgiving holiday:
  1. Count heads. As a rule of thumb, you should procure between one and one and a half pounds of turkey for each guest-so a 12-person Thanksgiving dinner calls for a 12- to 18-pound bird. If you can afford to, err on the side of generosity; it's better to suffer through a week's worth of turkey sandwiches than to leave your guests hungry. Your best bet is to buy one 25 pound or two 12 pound birds. This will ensure you have enough turkey on the big day. I like to send guests home with a "care package". If you do the same, take this into account when purchasing turkey. You may need an extra bird if you want to send guests home with leftovers. Don't take on more guests than you can handle, no matter how much pressure your family and friends put on you. If mom wants to invite 30 people, suggest she do the cooking and you'll bring dessert.
  2. You'll need a lot of room in the freezer and a lot of room in the fridge. About 2 weeks before you plan to buy your Thanksgiving turkey, give your refrigerator and freezer a complete cleaning. Throw out any and all food that even looks remotely spoiled. Use baking soda, vinegar and the hottest water you can stand to clean. Use a small squirt of Dawn dish detergent (yes, Dawn. It cuts through anything. Use cotton towels to absorb any moisture left from cleaning. Put a fresh box of opened baking soda in each the fridge and freezer (put it on the door to save space). Now you're ready to buy the bird. 
  3. Know your appliances. One of the worst mistakes you can make is to buy a gynormous bird a week in advance, then discover that you can't stuff it into your freezer. If the size of your Thanksgiving guest list is inversely proportional to the size of your refrigerator, consider buying an already-thawed bird the day before the holiday. You can also buy fresh, never frozen birds. Check with your local supermarket for this option. Many health food stores such as Feel-Rite offer birds that are fresh never frozen, raised without hormones. They may require that you order a few weeks in advance and pick up the day before Thanksgiving by a certain time. If you have a Feel-Rite market in your area, check with the owner/manager for their requirements. 
  4. Plan the rest of your menu. While we're on the subject of storage, remember that a frozen turkey may not be the only thing for which you need to clear space. There's also dessert, salad, and various side dishes. If you have a tiny fridge, now is a good time to ask your guests to bring specific dishes, so you can concentrate all your efforts on big bird. Consider assigning desserts and side dishes for guests to bring. Most people enjoying bringing something along to contribute to the holiday dinner, so don't be afraid to ask Mom to bring the pumpkin pie and sister to bring the stuffing.
  5. Consider the bird's "thaw time." Hopefully, you're already aware that you can't pop a frozen turkey into the oven, cook it for half an hour at 800 degrees, and serve 22 guests. You need to weigh the size of your turkey against the two or three days it will need to defrost in the refrigerator, and also clear out enough space for this to happen.
  6. Do not use the pop-up thermometer in the bird, remove it, just take it out. It only pops up at the 180 degree point. What it doesn't gauge is the carry over cooking time when you take the turkey out of the oven. While resting, the bird will raise in temp another 5 to 10 degrees, making your pop-up thermometer bird overdone and dry. Use a traditional meat thermometer in the thickest part of the meat (generally the thigh or breast, check both) and pull the turkey at 170, then let it rest. It will finish cooking on the counter.  Spend a few dollars and get a good meat thermometer.
  7. Always check the package of your frozen turkey for any signs of damage or frost buildup, which are clues that the turkey may have partially thawed in the grocery store, then been refrozen. Also, the turkey should be solidly frozen, with no areas that feel soft to the touch..•Never leave your turkey out overnight to defrost at room temperature, since there's a possibility that this can lead to bacterial contamination. If you don't anticipate having enough time to thaw out a frozen bird, a fresh turkey may be your best choice..•Remember, your standard, store-issued, bagged and frozen turkey has a plastic bag full of giblets (the bird's heart, liver, and other internal organs) stashed away somewhere inside. Always remove this bag before roasting your turkey, or you'll have a mess of giblets and melted plastic inside your bird. 
  8. Plan to get up early (5:00am if at all possible) and check the bird to make sure it's defrosted. Don't panic if it's not. Fill up the kitchen sink (or bathtub if the sink isn't big enough) with cold water and put the bird in there. This only works if the bird is about 75% defrosted already. Keep the bird in the cold water, changing every half hour, until it is completely defrosted (this could take 4 hours). This will NOT WORK if the bird is less than 75% defrosted. Plan dinner time so that you can get in a nap. You'll need one so you won't be cranky. Invite guests for 3pm and you'll still have plenty of time to enjoy dinner (serve around 5pm if you are planning appetizers and cocktails; serve around 4pm if you aren't) and get in at least a one hour nap and a shower before your guests arrive. Make it clear NO earlier than 3pm (yes, you can do this nicely).
  9. Consider buying a stand alone roaster, such as a Nesco roaster. You can get one that is large enough to roast a 22 to 28 pound turkey and won't take up space in the oven. This time of year (late October/early November) you may be able to find other brands of stand alone roasters on sale for at little as $50. Give the roaster a test run a couple weeks before Thanksgiving with a couple of large chickens. You'll want to make sure the temperature of the roaster runs true or if it runs high or low, so that you an make adjustments in time and temperature accordingly. Having a stand alone roaster is especially good if you are the doing all the cooking and need the oven for stuffing and pies. Put the stand alone roaster on the counter, put your turkey in it with whatever else you need. I like to stuff the cavity with a large white onion cut in half, an apple cut in half, an orange cut in half and several ribs of celery. I have found that this adds a lot of flavor and keeps the turkey moist. I mash up the apple and onion in the drippings to make a delicious, naturally thickened gravy. I also like to butter the entire bird, and then sprinkle with some Kosher salt. I make a tinfoil breastplate and cover the breast so it doesn't dry out (I remove the breastplate the last 30 minutes of cook time to make sure it browns up nicely).
  10. You have to let the bird rest after cooking. Resist the temptation to take it out of the oven (or roaster) and carve immediately. If you do this all the juices will run out of the turkey and leave the meat dry and unappetizing. Cover it with the lid to the roaster or make a tinfoil tent and let it rest 5 to 10 minutes before carving.
  11. Last but not least, enjoy your day! It's your day too, let someone else do the cleanup. Consider using good quality paper plates and plasticware instead of breaking out the good china, crystal and silver. Chinet Cut Crystal is an excellent quality alternative. It looks good, but you can just throw it out at the end of the meal.

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