Here are our best tips for Thanksgiving cooking, including how to achieve a crispier-skinned bird, fluffier pumpkin pie, and richer gravy, as well as guidance on what kind of turkey to buy.
Turkey Buying Guide:
CONVENTIONAL: This perennial favorite-typically a Broad-Breasted White variety-boasts an ultraplump breast that has usually (but not always) been injected with butter, water, and salt; it will be labeled “self-basted” if it contains these ingredients. Though the flesh tastes appealing when spruced up with gravy and cranberry sauce, it can be bland on its own. The price is the real selling point, as conventional turkeys are the least expensive, per pound.
NATURAL: Our favorite turkeys (often described as “minimally processed”) are those that haven’t been treated with artificial colors or flavor-enhancing ingredients. (Higher-priced “organic” turkeys are bred according to strict rules established by the USDA.) Like their conventional counterparts, natural turkeys are usually a Broad-Breasted White variety. Though you’ll pay more than you would for a convention turkey, most have a clean, pure turkey flavor and moist flesh.
HERITAGE: This category of turkeys comprises a host of old-time varieties, like Narragansett and Bourbon Red, which were staples of the pre-World War II American turkey industry. These breeds mature slowly; thus, their flesh can be pleasantly flavorful and moist-or unpleasantly gamy and chewy. It’s worth doing your research before buying: they’re by far the most costly turkeys available.
Crispier Skinned Turkey:
For a turkey with skin that’s crisp, and flavorful, keep a small saucepan of melted butter, whole peppercorns, sherry vinegar, and dried sage and thyme on the stove, and use a basting brush to slather the infused butter all over the turkey as it roasts, every 30 minutes or so.
Fluffier Pumpkin Pie:
There are those who would say it’s just not Thanksgiving without a pumpkin pie – and those who can’t abide the pie’s dense texture. A simple way to keep all of your guests happy: Fold two whipped egg whites into the filling for an airier, soufflé-like consistency.
Pecan Pie Brittle:
Fortified wines like Sherry, Port, and Madeira contain not only more alcohol but also more sugar than unfortified wines do. Adding a few tablespoons of any of the above to a gravy at the end of cooking will accentuate the richness and sweetness of the caramelized pan juices and other ingredients.
More Flavorful Meat:
If you’re brining your turkey, dried herbs are a better bet than fresh ones for seasoning the brine solution. Drying concentrates the flavor; after penetrating the meat along with the brine, the herbs will bloom in the heat of the oven, releasing their fragrant oils to flavor the meat.
Day-Before Mashed Potatoes:
Peeling, boiling, and mashing potatoes is something you can get out of the way the day before the big feast, leaving your hands and your stove top free for other tasks. Simply pass the boiled potatoes through a ricer directly into a Ziploc bag and refrigerate. Then, just before serving time, heat your cream and butter in a saucepan, fold in the prepared potatoes, and season to taste.
In lieu of cooking a whole bird, individual turkey roulades are an elegant and delicious alternative. Pound turkey cutlets to ?”-¼” thickness and season with salt and pepper. The filling can be anything from a traditional stuffing to a fresh herb pesto; lay it on the third of the cutlet nearest you and roll like a burrito. Then secure the roulade with toothpicks and pan-fry.
All-Natural Roasting Rack:
A mirepoix of chopped carrot, onion, and celery lining the bottom of the roasting pan not only enhances the flavor of the turkey as it cooks, it also acts as a roasting rack, elevating the bird so heat can circulate under it, for even browning all over. After roasting under the turkey and becoming infused with pan juices, the mirepoix can be added to the gravy to boost its flavor, too.
White meat cooks faster than dark meat does, and breaking down a whole turkey into breasts, drumsticks, thighs, and wings before cooking lets you give each part the treatment it deserves. Begin by seasoning and pan searing the turkey pieces skin-side down, then roast them skin-side up in the oven, removing individual pieces once they’re cooked.