The ultimate Thanksgiving disaster: brittle, burnt skin and dried-out breast meat when you've got a table full of hungry people - people who've been looking forward to eating that turkey dinner with all the fixings since last year.
Thanksgiving is an important and special holiday for many people, as it brings friends and family together around the table where they enjoy a spectacular feast. In fact, the food is usually what people look forward to most of the year - dreaming of the creamy mashed potatoes, rich gravy, pumpkin pie, and, of course, the turkey.
But not everyone eats or makes their turkey the same way. Some people prefer eating on the early side around noon, and others eat in the early afternoon or around the typical dinner time. The types of seasonings and stuffing used are also individual, but there are two things that almost everyone wants: flavorful, golden-brown skin and tender, juicy meat. The specifics are up to you.
To help you avoid a Thanksgiving disaster, we paired up with Betty Rosbottom, cooking teacher and author of the new cookbook Sunday Roasts, for tips on how to achieve this perfect bird. From the ideal cooking temperature to buttering breast meat (yes, we just said that), Rosbottom shares everything you need to know to make a delectable roast turkey.
How Big of a Bird to Buy
Generally, she recommends that you buy half a pound to three-quarters of a pound per person for a Thanksgiving meal. But if you want leftovers, then a pound or more per person because, for some people, Thanksgiving is just as much about the leftover sandwiches and dishes the next day.
The Best Type of Turkey to Buy
"Local is my answer right away," Betty Rosbottom recommends. You should be looking for two things in a turkey - one that's local and fresh. Why? She says that local is good because the bird hasn't travelled and fresh means it hasn't been frozen. Plus, local birds are better for the planet and usually taste better, too.
Best Seasonings for Turkey
If you've ever heard the Simon & Garfunkel song, then this will be an easy tip for you to remember. Rosbottom says that there are certain herbs (here's where you break out in song) - parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme - that work fabulously with turkey. She explains that you can do "many variations with turkey, like with cilantro or Indian seasonings because it's a wonderful neutral palate that receives all kinds of flavors, but these herbs really work the best."
The Ideal Roasting Temperature
Rosbottom has made quite a few turkeys over the past three decades, at home and in her cooking classes, and she's found that she likes to stick to moderate temperatures. Though she admits there are a lot of theories out there about starting at high temperatures and then lowering the heat, she stays between 325 to 350 degrees. Why? Because an even temperature produces the kind of bird she likes (one that has tender meat and dark, mahogany skin - basically the ideal bird).
She explains that for a roast, if you were doing a piece of meat and not a piece of poultry, you would sear the outside to brown it and want the inside to be rare, but in the case of turkey, it has to be cooked through. So the only advantage she could see of starting at a high temperature and then lowering it, would be that it would brown at a faster rate, but it doesn't ensure that the meat will cook evenly and be moist. What's the lesson to walk away with? Stick with moderate heat all the way through. If you'd like, you can start at around 400 degrees to get the browning process going and then lower it, depending on the size of the turkey, after 15-20 minutes.
How to Keep the Meat Moist
"That's my favorite question. I only have three words: Baste. Baste. Baste." What do you baste with? Rosbottom says that though she uses butter sparingly other times of the year, it's the rule at Thanksgiving. She generally bastes her turkey with a seasoned butter and then with chicken or turkey stock - the butter will give the skin that great sheen and the stock will prevent the meat from drying out. Every 30 minutes or so, she says to take a brush and brush the butter right over the bird. Then, pour about a third or half a cup of stock over the bird (make sure to buy low-sodium broth if you're not using homemade, otherwise you'll be left with all of that salt in the pan and on the bird).
A Secret Method for Perfect Breast Meat
What's this secret? You may have guessed that it's butter. Rosbottom says that "you just keep putting that butter on there." In her Never-Fail Turkey recipe, she recommends putting some butter, preferably seasoned with herbs, in between the skin and the flesh. Use your hands (making sure they're clean and no long nails) and loosen the skin just above the breast meat and place a little butter in there. That way, she says, you can have internal basting going on as well.
How to Avoid Burned Skin
Rosbottom says that if you see that the skin is getting too dark on any part of the turkey, like the breast, wing tips (these tend to burn early), or ends of the legs, then get some tin foil, and, if you want, you can lightly butter the underside of it and loosely cover those areas. This will keep it from browning any further, but it will continue to cook.
Essential Components of a Good Stuffing
Rosbottom says that there are a few basics to stuffing a bird. First off, stuff it loosely and don't pack it in. Secondly, most stuffings are bread-based, so she recommends cutting the bread into cubes and toasting it lightly at 300 to 350 degrees so it's not mushy.
You can add roasted vegetables (usually root vegetables), some of the herbs mentioned above, and then some stock and egg, based on the type of dressing. You can also make this as individual as you like, adding andouille sausage if you're from New Orleans or chorizo if you want some heat. Butter can also help to make things rich - just remember, "Thanksgiving isn't the day that people are watching their waistlines."
To Brine or Not to Brine:
"Here's my answer: I'm a no briner." She says that she has never brined, but has students who are fine cooks that do brine and say that it makes the bird more tender and tasty. She references the article in The New York Times by food scientist Harold McGee on brining that mentions how a tremendous amount of salt is being added to the bird and that she'd rather add it in different ways. But the worst part about brining is that you can't make a pan gravy because there will be way too much salt in it. But, she says, "If you like to brine, then stick with it because Thanksgiving is about your family's individual likes and dislikes."
Should You Marinate a Turkey?
Rosbottom would have to say no. She doesn't marinate the turkeys ahead of time, but does make the herb butters she uses the night before. Why? She explains that marinating isn't necessary since she does so much basting during the cooking process.
For an average-sized bird that's around 10-14 pounds, she recommends letting the bird rest for about 30 minutes (this gives you the perfect opportunity to make the pan gravy). Of course, the larger the bird, the longer the resting period.
Make sure that you've got a pan to fit that turkey in and a plan on how to get it out. And most importantly, make sure that everyone is hungry and ready to eat your delicious turkey!