Better late than never—The How To Guide for a Perfect Thanksgiving Meal

I know that I should have posted this prior to the holiday, but, in my defense, I was cooking.

I love Thanksgiving.  I have very fond memories of Thanksgivings of my childhood, spent in my Uncle Harry’s house, with all my relations on my Mom’s side, complete with Aunt Elsie’s Jell-O molds, and the family heirloom dessert, the Bergman Walnut Torte, (my job was chopping the walnuts with the nut chopper  and beating the egg whites) baked at our house and carefully transported to the seemingly big house in Glencoe. I have come to realize that I really don’t love the Bergman Walnut torte anymore; it was a lot of work for a dessert that was just OK. I think that it’s main attraction was it was flourless and could be made for Passover. The most fun thing about this cake was decorating each piece of cake with the recipient’s initial in Rediwhip. 

But, the point is, Thanksgiving is and can be lots of fun.  Unless, of course, you are the one making the feast.  Then, the problems mount up, and it can get harried.

So, how can you make the dinner, and enjoy it too?  We have found the secret.  DO AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE AHEAD OF TIME!  I have had it with the business of making the turkey, creating the stock, making the gravy, doing all the side dishes, and having it all come out at the same time with everything hitting the side board together.

But, you say, impossible!  You still have to time everything around the turkey, don’t you.  Well, no, you do not.  The first secret, and the most important one, is do not make the turkey on Thanksgiving.  Make it the day before.  In this one step you remove all the angst of Tday, and get a bunch of benefits…

  • removal of time pressure
  • decreased stress
  • better utilization of the bird (as explained below)
  • better carving of the meat

All the cooking tips you need:

  1. Better to use a fresh turkey.  It does taste better.  Trader Joes sells a fresh already brined Turkey, they even sell a fresh kosher bird for about 50 cents more per pound.  If you must buy a frozen bird, allow enough time to defrost it, and pay attention to whether or not it has been injected with a salt solution.
  2. Rinse the bird well.  Remove the neck and giblet package.  Stand the bird upright and let drain for a few minutes to dry.
  3. Cut off the wings at the armpit joint on each side.  The wings will not be missed for the cooking of the turkey, and we have a much better use for them.
  4. Start a stock pot with the giblets, neck, onions, carrots, celery, and herbs (I used rosemary, lemon thyme, and 3 bay leaves) with lots of water.  I use an 8 quart stock pot.
  5. Make a mixture of salt and freshly ground pepper.  Since the bird is brined, go very easy on the salt.  I like to use sea salt and a rainbow pepper mixture of white, black, red and green peppercorns, but just plain black pepper is fine, as long as you are grinding it fresh, to get the essential oils of the pepper.  Make a mixture of fresh herbs, such as sage, rosemary, thyme, and flat leaf parsley, chopped fine, and mix it with a stick of unsalted butter (or kosher margarine if you need to follow that route).  Season the inside of the bird with the salt/pepper mix.  Create a pocket under the skin of the breast and extending onto the leg and thigh with your fingers, starting on the head end of the bird, being very careful not to break the skin.  Massage your herbed butter on to the breast, thigh and leg on both sides.  Then use the rest of the herbed butter on the skin all over the bird, but especially over the breast, and season the skin with the rest of the salt/pepper mix.
  6. If you want, put in a mixture of onions and orange halves in the cavity of the bird.  Don’t bother with stuffing the bird.  More on this later, but the main reason is safety.  The stuffing needs to reach a temperature of 165○ F, and by the time that temperature is reached in the cavity of the turkey, the rest of the bird is massively overcooked.
  7. Heat the oven to 325○ F.  Put the turkey breast side down on a rack in your roasting pan.  Figure about 15 minutes a pound cooking time.  Cook the turkey for ½ of the total time upside down.  After ½ the total time, remove the roasting pan and turn the turkey over back to breast side up.  It is not as difficult as you would expect, and this helps the bird cook more evenly.  Tent the breast with aluminum foil for the next ¼ of the total cooking time, and then remove the foil to allow the breast skin to brown.  Baste or not, I don’t think it makes any real difference!
  8. Don’t be fooled by the reading of your instant read thermometers.  I’ve cooked birds to 171○F in the dark meat, and it is still bloody!  Rely more on timing and the looseness of the leg joint.  Remove the turkey and let it cool.
  9. Wait at least 30 to 40 minutes.  Cut off the legs and thighs.  Cut the dark meat in slices, removing all tendons especially from the leg meat.  Save the leg and thigh bones.  Remove the “oyster” meat in the small pocket above the thigh socket.  Using a thin knife (a boning knife is best), cut along the keel bone (the sternum) and, keeping the blade against the bone, remove each breast half in toto.  Then, (or even easier, the next day after overnight refrigeration) using a chef’s knife or a carving knife, cut slices against the grain, so each slice has a piece of skin.Slice the remaining meat against the grain.  This method gives much better and reproducible results.  Put all the meat in an air tight container and place it in the refrigerator.  Break up the remains of the carcass, and add the bones and carcass remnants to the stock pot. Deglaze the roasting pan with water, scraping up any fond, and dissolving it in the water. Add the deglazed liquid to the stock pot. Continue to simmer the stock for another 1½ hours. Remove from heat and let cool. Remove all the solids, and put the stock in a large container. You can remove the fat with a fat separator now, but it is very easy to deal with the fat later. Refrigerate the stock.

Remember the wings?  I said I had a very good use for them.  I was watching an episode on braising turkey on America’s Test Kitchen on PBS, and although the cooking method was interesting, what really mattered was the discussion of stuffing.  They did a recipe that used turkey wings to create a casserole stuffing that tasted like a stuffing cooked inside the bird.  The essence of this technique is independent of any particular stuffing recipe.  Use the stuffing recipe of your choice.  Put the stuffing in a casserole.  Take the reserved wings, cut the pieces at the joints so each wing is 3 separate pieces.  Take 1 tablespoon of olive oil and brown each piece of wing about 2 minutes per side with medium high heat in a skillet.  Place the browned wings on top of the stuffing with the juices from the skillet, and cover the casserole dish tightly with heavy aluminum foil.  Cook the stuffing for 1 hour, cool with the foil on, and refrigerate overnight.

So, on Thanksgiving day, your job is much easier.

  1. Remove the fat from the stock.  Save some of the fat for making the gravy (or not, depending on your preference).  You will need about 4 cups of stock for your gravy.  Much of the rest of the reserved stock will be used in warming up the turkey meat.
  2. Create the gravy as follows:
    1. Use 4 tablespoons of fat, either all turkey fat skimmed from the stock, or all butter, or a combination of both.  Add 4 tablespoons of flour and cook to a golden color (the typical method of making a roux).   I tend to use mostly butter for extra depth of flavor and sauté finely diced shallots in the butter, then add the flour to cook to a golden roux.
    2. Whisk in additions of the stock carefully to avoid lumps (I hate a lumpy gravy).  Cook the gravy to the consistency desired.  Do not over-reduce the gravy.
  3. Before the guests come, place the sliced turkey in a baking pan, and put turkey stock on the periphery of the pan, as well as down the center.  It is not necessary to cover the turkey slices with stock.  The stock is there to keep things moist.  Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil.  Reheat in a 325○F oven.
  4. Reheat the stuffing with the foil removed.  Allow about 1 hour for reheating.

There you have it—Thanksgiving without pain.

Our menu for this Thanksgiving:

Spinach-artichoke dip with garlic crostini

Caprese salad skewers (grape tomatoes, mozzarella balls, basil, balsamic vinegar)

Harvest corn soup




Sage and sausage stuffing

Mashed potatoes

Sweet potatoes with maple sugar butter glaze

Green bean casserole (fresh green beans, fresh mushrooms and onions in a béchamel sauce topped with French fried onions)

Corn muffins with sour cream and sun-dried tomatoes

Kale stuffed delicata squash

Strawberry and banana sour cream Jell-O mold

Dark Chocolate Cheesecake

Apple Crisp


Reese’s PB cup chocolate chip cookies

(Recipes available on request)


About trustforce

A well trained amateur chef, I have learned by taking some master classes and doing a lot of reading and experimentation. I cook and enjoy many different cuisines. The fun is getting it right, with great taste and presentation. The smells and appearance add to the pleasure of eating well. I can enjoy a great Chicago style hot dog or an Italian beef sandwich, or have equal pleasure from haut cuisine. All my recipe postings are extensively tested by me unless I state otherwise. I will sometimes post a recipe that sounds like it should be good before I actually make it myself, but I will always come back and revise the "untested" recipe after I've made it, with valid comments to keep old posts accurate and current. If I am not the originator of a recipe I will always correctly attribute the source author, even if I have modified the recipe. I will occasionally post reviews of local restaurants on the site. The big problem that I have with eating out is that I know too much about restaurants and I find it hard to ignore or forgive sloppy technique or bad ingredients. I pull no punches in my restaurant reviews!
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One Response to Better late than never—The How To Guide for a Perfect Thanksgiving Meal

  1. Pingback: Turkey Leg Casserole | familyrecipebooks

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