Preparing for Thanksgiving
Preparing for something less dangerous but perhaps more stressful.
My favorite American holiday is coming up: Thanksgiving. There are no gifts, no obnoxious holiday anthems, and really no expectations other than eating a lot of food. Amazingly, it has resisted our rampant consumerist corruption, perhaps ironically by being a holiday about consumption from the beginning.
But cooking the big feast can be stressful. So let’s take a brief break from our usual doom and gloom to focus on making Thanksgiving easier. I’m not going to offer specific recipes (well, maybe one or two), but instead this will be more focused on strategy.
Shop and Defrost Now
If you listened to my warnings for the past few weeks, you’ve hopefully already bought most of what you need. If not, you gotta do it now! The clock is ticking!
Also, about now—Saturday at the latest—is when you want to start defrosting your turkey by moving it from the freezer to the fridge because it takes several days. Speaking of turkey, my recommendation is to never buy one weighing over 16 pounds. Bigger than that and you’re getting a bird that’s a) harder to get to the proper internal temperature without drying it out b) probably an older, tougher bird. If you need more bird meat, buy two smaller turkeys. Or several whole chickens.
Turkey gets a bad rap for being dry and bland. That’s not the turkey’s fault, people just don’t know how to cook them. An essential item is a probe thermometer to let you check the internal temperature. If you pull the bird out at or just under 165°F and let it rest for 30 minutes or so, you’ll have a moist bird. Brining also helps, which we’ll discuss below. I use a Thermoworks Chef Alarm while cooking and a Lavatools thermometer for spot checks.
Also, consider buying a bag of cranberries. Cranberry sauce is easy to make and it’s so much better than the canned stuff. You can even mold it in a used food can to give it the right look.
Always Have Backups
My friend Joe Kissell wrote Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner many years ago. Given that Take Control is a tech brand, readers were left scratching their heads (sort of like how Chilton’s, which publishes car manuals, was the original publisher of Dune). This is a shame because the book is full of useful tips that are especially handy if you’re cooking your first Thanksgiving dinner.
The best thing I learned from that book is this: always have backups. For instance, I always have the following on hand for Thanksgiving:
A rotisserie chicken
Two boxes of Stove Top stuffing
Jars of turkey gravy
Canned cranberry sauce
I’ve never needed any of that, BUT it takes the pressure off! I’m not sweating over ruining the turkey or screwing up the dressing, because I can always pull out the chicken or the Stove Top and save the day. By having those backups, I make it less likely I ruin dinner. And if I ever ruin dinner, I have an alternative.
Start Your Brine on Tuesday
Do you brine your turkey? If not, you should. It’s a massive pain, but it keeps the turkey moist and makes it more forgiving of overcooking. Plus, it helps evenly salt the bird. You’ll want a box of kosher salt, a bag of ice, and a big cooler.
My absolute favorite turkey and gravy recipe is Alton Brown’s Good Eats Roast Turkey followed by Best Gravy Ever. The gravy follows the turkey because the drippings are a key ingredient. (Switch the canola oil for avocado oil, which has a high smoke point and isn’t a nasty seed oil).
Step one in the recipe is brining the turkey, which means heating up a great deal of vegetable stock, mixing in the salt, sugar, and spices, and letting it cool to refrigerator temperature. It doesn’t take long to heat up, but it takes a very, very long time to cool down, so start this on Tuesday at the latest.
I boil my brine in an All-Clad Stock Pot (I bought on sale at TJ Maxx. Worth every penny.), and then set it outside (with the lid on) to cool. I put it directly on concrete and out of direct sunlight because concrete has a way of sucking the heat out of anything.
If you start the brine on Wednesday, you’re going to have a long, stressful night of trying to get that sucker to cool down, no matter how much ice you have. I learned that the hard way.
You might also want to spend Tuesday prepping for your side dishes. And take time to sharpen and hone your knives.
Wednesday: Side Dishes
You can cook most of your side dishes on Wednesday, which makes Thanksgiving Day easier. Plus, a lot of Thanksgiving favorites taste better after they’ve had time to sit in the fridge, like dressing and cranberry sauce.
I don’t have a great dressing recipe to share. My mom makes the best dressing but doesn’t have a recipe and instead cooks it by psychic intuition.
I cook my cranberry sauce and giblet gravy on Wednesday. Again, no recipe for either.
Rinse cranberries and toss out bad-looking ones
Cook in a cup of water and a cup of honey over low heat until they burst
Put in container and put in the fridge to cool
That’s pretty much it. I’ve tried adding things like orange juice and crystalized ginger, but the orange juice makes it too sour and the ginger is too fancy for my taste.
Take the giblet bag you found in the turkey (or fish it out of the brine if you missed it)
Boil giblets (plus extra chicken liver) in chicken (or rabbit) stock for at least one hour
Remove meat, let cool, chop and/or shred
To thicken the broth: ladle some into a container, stir in a bit of cornstarch, and add back to the broth. Repeat as needed. Do not add cornstarch directly to the broth.
Boil some clean eggs in the broth while you do other stuff. At least 11 minutes to get hard-boiled.
Add meat back to the broth, pull eggs with tongs, peel eggs, chop, and toss it back into the broth
Add seasoning as needed. I keep my Thanksgiving food simple so I just use salt and black pepper here.
Thursday: Show Time
Thanksgiving Day is all about the turkey. I get up early, microwave my apples and all that, and throw in the turkey to cook.
You may want to season your turkey more than I do, which is your prerogative, but if you brined it, do not add more salt!
I don’t recommend deep-frying turkeys. Some of you roll your eyes at that, and more power to you if you have a good system, but I don’t see a slightly tastier turkey being worth a potential explosion of hot oil. Or dealing with hot oil at all.
It can be done safely, but you have to thoroughly dry the turkey and set up a rig involving a ladder, pulleys, and rope. No thanks. Save the vats of hot oil for defending castle walls.
If you want an alternative to the traditional roast turkey, I recommend smoking one in cherry. No need to brine, just coat it in rub (I like Weber’s, well, everything, but their rubs are really good). I did that one year and it was delicious. The only downside is you can’t use the drippings unless you want smoky gravy.
A common problem on Thanksgiving is families getting into political arguments. I’m not going to tell you how to avoid your business, but my advice is: avoid it. Unless your uncle is an elected official, his dumb opinions count about as much as yours. Debating, arguing, and yelling won’t change anyone’s mind and won’t even really make you feel any better. I recommend Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which explains this much better than I do.
Instead, try to gently change the subject to less-controversial things they’re interested in. If your uncle starts rambling about politics, but he’s also a big football fan, ask him if he thinks the Patriots or Vikings will win. Pretend to be interested whether you are or not, and actively listen to come up with additional questions.
Thanksgiving is a great time to practice these people skills, which could enhance your career or even save your life someday.
Black Friday: Make Stock
If you didn’t get trampled while buying a TV at 4 AM, it’s time to turn that turkey carcass into something. Strip the remaining meat and put it in the fridge. Break down the carcass with a knife or your hands and put it in a pot. I like an Instant Pot for this or use a big stock pot.
Cover well with water. You can throw in carrots, celery, onion, and a bay leaf if they’re around but I don’t bother. Cook the crap out of those bones. All day in a stock pot, at least a couple of hours under pressure in the Instant Pot.
Making stock is an excellent skill. You’re extracting every last bit of nutrition, including wonderful collagen, from that bird. Your ancestors would be proud. And bird stock has excellent healing properties. Ask any Jewish grandmother.
Strain out the bones, which should be soft enough to crush with tongs. Skim off any scum that’s floated to the surface.
You can immediately turn that stock into soup by throwing in some chopped turkey meat, some egg noodles or rice, and a few vegetables. Or let it cool, and set it in the fridge overnight so the fat sets. The next morning, scrape off the fat. You can store some of the stock in the fridge and freeze the rest.
I recommend saving that turkey fat to cook with. Waste not, want not. Skim off the hard fat and store it in the fridge.
What do you do with stock? You can heat it up and drink it, which is especially nice when you’re sick. You can make soup. You can use it in any recipe that calls for broth or flavorful liquid. Boil it to thicken it into a demi-glaze sauce. So many uses, so much nutrition.
I don’t make a turkey anymore (husband hates turkey), but I’ve learned to practice making a rib roast ahead of time to get the timing correct. I’m definitely going to have to practice this year because we had to get a new oven.
I love the idea of having a back up rotisserie chicken. My mom had two ovens break before major holidays. At the time getting a replacement wasn’t a big deal, but with the supply chain issues some size ovens are 6 month back order (we got lucky in that someone got impatient and canceled their order).