The trouble with Thanksgiving is that it is a holiday that asks people who ordinarily don't cook to prepare a feast. Come on, how fair is that? The Pilgrims had it easy. They were about a half-an-evolutionary step ahead of cavemen. They spent most of their day thinking about that night's supper. Thanksgiving was just another meal. It was part of their routine.
Modern Americans can operate three remotes to control the cable, program the VCR and operate the DVD player. But present them with a chef's knife and fork, and they don't have the slightest idea how to carve a turkey. So I have a few bits of advice for you kitchen novices as you prepare to prepare this feast.
Buy early. You are most likely going to get a frozen turkey. It needs to thaw in the refrigerator. Step 1: Clear out a space for the turkey to sit on a shallow baking tray or pan (to collect juices). Step 2: Buy the turkey, either Monday after work or Tuesday morning. Give the turkey plenty of time to slowly thaw. This procedure helps ensure a moist turkey. If you're brining (see below), then you'll want to have the turkey no later than Sunday night.
Turkeys are just big chickens. This advice would mean more if you had ever roasted a chicken, but I doubt a lot of that has been going on in your kitchen lately either. When you consider there should be about 1 pound of turkey for each person at the table (this accounts for bone and leftovers), some people are buying 20- to 24-pound birds.
This can present problems. It takes forever to cook those monsters. The longer the turkey is in the oven, the greater the chance it will dry out. Instead, buy two 10- or 12-pound turkeys, which are much more manageable and don't need to cook as long.
Brining is the one guarantee you'll have for producing a moist turkey. It is the cooking trick that Cook's Illustrated magazine hangs its chef's hat on.
Brining is nothing more than infusing water into the turkey. The process is easy. Take a large cooler, fill it with 2 gallons of cold water and inside dissolve 2 cups of kosher salt. Remove the giblets and place the thawed turkey into the salt and water, add ice, cover and let set for at least 4 hours (though overnight works better). Check on the water from time to time to make sure it remains at 36 to 40 degrees.
When ready to cook, take the turkey out of the brine and wash thoroughly to remove as much salt as possible. You do this by placing the turkey in a large colander in the sink and spraying it with water. Use paper towels to dry the turkey inside and out.
How long to cook? That depends on the recipe you're using. (Please find a recipe, and read it.) I'm a fan of high- temperature roasting, which calls for a 400-degree oven for the first hour before and then turning the heat down to 375 degrees.
Cooking times depend on the size of the turkey. After reducing the temperature, check on it every 20 minutes or so with an instant-read thermometer.
If basting, this is the time to do it. Remove the turkey from the oven (pan and all) and close the oven door as to not lose heat.
Insert a thermometer in the thigh, away from the bone. It is ready when it reads 170 degrees; the breast is ready when it reads 160 degrees.
Here's the last important step. Remove the turkey from the oven, and then loosely cover it with foil and let it sit for at least 20 minutes. It will continue to cook outside the oven, and this allows juices to settle and make for a moist, delicious turkey.
Dan Macdonald is a food columnist for the The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville.
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