As we prepare for Thanksgiving, we wanted to know what sorts of questions you encounter this holiday season. We asked, and boy, did you answer! We talked turkey, stuffing, special diets, and everything in between.
Janine P. asks: Because I only have one oven, I have to find different ways to cook all the food for Thanksgiving. This includes a large slow cooker, an instant pot, a small toaster oven, microwave, and of course, the stove top. This also includes using a large plug in roasting pan to cook my turkey. What is the best way to cook a turkey in a plug-in roasting pan?
Welcome to the club, Janine! Ideally, we would all have ten ovens on Thanksgiving, but it sounds like you’re figuring out how to make it work. You can roast your turkey in the plug-in roaster just the same way you would in a traditional oven. Season the turkey and start it in the roaster as hot as the machine will go, then lower it to prevent burning, to about 375°F. Some roasters are better than others at circulating air, so your turkey may not have the crispest skin, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be tasty! You can even pop it in the traditional oven for a few minutes to help crisp up the skin, if there’s time.
Do you have a grill? That’s also a great way to cook your turkey. If you don’t mind missing out on the whole turkey for the table, you can break your bird down into pieces and grill it that way. It’s delicious and really easy!
Katie B. asks: How long is a frozen turkey good? My husband got one last Thanksgiving that we never cooked and is still in the freezer.
In food, sometimes it’s important to make the distinction between “fine” and “good.” If the turkey has been kept frozen at the proper temperature this whole time, then sure, it’s safe to eat. But after a year in the freezer, lean meats have a habit of taking on those freezer flavors we’ve all experienced, and the quality just may not be as good. If you’re entertaining for a crowd and hope to make a great impression, you might want to invest in a new turkey. You could use the frozen one for broth or gravy, or roast it for leftovers at home!
Cynthia S. asks: What’s the proper way to carve a turkey?
Carving a turkey is easier than it seems! You can check out this video for a little visual help, but here are the basics.
Rather than slice meat directly off the turkey, it’s neater and more efficient to remove the meat in pieces: 2 wings (unless you removed them for gravy), 2 legs, and 2 breasts. From there, you can remove the bones and slice the meat.
Removing whole bone-in pieces is not physically challenging if you’re patient. Follow the natural creases and seams, and instead of trying to break the bones or joints, use your knife to cut away all of the connective tissue. If the joints don’t pull apart easily, use your fingers to feel for anything holding them together (you’ll feel tension, like rubber bands). Once you find that and cut it, the thighs, for example, will pull right off. Use the same principle to debone the thighs before you slice them. Look at the thigh and see where the bone connects to the meat, and slowly use your knife to slice into the seams.
For the breasts, cut along both sides of the breast-bone to remove the entire boneless breast. Then you can slice it and arrange it on a platter.
Mary P. asks: I know to check the temperature at the thickest part of the thigh, but can you explain where that is?
That’s where the thigh meets the leg, right here:
Peter K. asks: What is the difference in the final product whether you start to roast your turkey from a thawed state or from a frozen state? As long as the internal temperature reaches 165°F?
Though it’s safe and possible, certainly, we consider roasting a frozen turkey to be an emergency option. If you forget to defrost your turkey, sure, you can roast it from frozen, but it will take much longer and you won’t be able to properly pre-season it (brine or dry rub). All of the parts will cook at different rates—even more so than a typical turkey—and your finished product will probably just be fine, not great.
Vickie G. asks: I have heard about a “French Method” of cooking a turkey at high temperature. Can you give me a heads up on cooking a 14 lb bird, please? Where can I find a recipe?
The temperature for roasting a turkey is a matter of great debate, even among the chefs here at the CIA. The truth is, there is no “right” way, and you can absolutely roast your turkey at high temperatures, like 450°F. This method is better for small turkeys, since the larger the bird, the longer it takes to cook through, and under very high heat, the skin and exterior of the turkey will dry out before the interior is fully cooked. This is perhaps why you’ve heard it referred to as the “French” method. Their birds are typically much smaller than ours and can hold up to higher heat cooking.
You can use your favorite recipe or seasoning for a 14 lb, high-heat turkey, you’ll just want to cook it at 450°F for about 2 hours, or until the thigh registers 170°F on a thermometer. Just be sure to keep an eye on the turkey. If it’s starting to burn before the meat is fully cooked, reduce the temperature to finish cooking.
Matthew D. asks: Unfortunately, our centerpiece bird is not always quite camera ready, with uneven browning and pale patches. Great idea; inconsistent execution. How do I consistently produce a picture-perfect turkey ready for center stage on my table?
Unrealistic beauty standards is not just a conversation about models and celebrities in retouched magazine photos! That picture-perfect Norman Rockwell turkey is very difficult to achieve, and any one that you see in an advertisement or TV show is likely raw, or at least way undercooked, and painted to look perfect. No matter what you do, a well-roasted turkey will shrink, thighs will fall away from the body, skin will shrivel. It’s just what turkeys do when we cook them.
That being said, there are things you can do to make a beautiful turkey. The sooner your turkey is removed from the oven, the more beautiful it will be. If your centerpiece turkey is just a showpiece that gets carved later for leftovers, take it right from oven to platter to table so it doesn’t have time to cool. For pale patches and uneven browning, make sure your bird is dry (pat down with paper towels) and well-coated in cooking fat, like butter, when it goes in the oven, and as it cooks, add additional butter wherever pale patches start to form. Rotate your roasting pan from time to time to make sure it’s getting even heat.
When you plate your turkey, a bed of fresh herbs is a great way to make it photo-ready. Pick up a bunch of fresh bay leaves to fill in any gaps and have some small clementines and fresh cranberries on hand to add a bit of color.
Sam N. asks: Convection or not? Cook the turkey whole or cut it up and cook it in pieces?
Cooking your turkey in a convection oven will cook it faster, so that’s always helpful on a busy day. You’ll want to reduce your oven temperature if you use convection, though, by about 25°.
Cooking your turkey whole or in parts is a matter of preference, but in parts is certainly easier to control. Whole turkeys are more beautiful if you plan to use it as a centerpiece, but they are notoriously hard to cook evenly. The breast often dries out before the thighs are cooked through! Cooking your turkey in pieces means you can remove pieces from the oven as they are finished, so each piece is perfectly done.
Linda R. asks: If I spatchcock my turkey for roasting, can I still stuff it? Putting the stuffing underneath the bird as it cooks, will the stuffing cook as it does inside the bird or will it turn out to be gummy and gloppy and basically uncooked?
If you’re planning to spatchcock your turkey, you’ll probably have better luck cooking your stuffing separately. You would ideally roast the turkey on a rack, which doesn’t really give the stuffing anywhere to go anyway, and it will end up mingling with the pan drippings for, as you said, pretty “gummy and gloppy” results.
Mary H. asks: I have heard differing opinions on whether you should rinse the turkey before roasting. What is your answer on that?
We do not recommend rinsing a turkey—or chickens or any meat, for that matter—before cooking. If there are unsavory bacteria on your turkey, rinsing with water won’t help that, but the heat of cooking absolutely will. All you do when you rinse is a turkey is splash that mess in your sink and the surrounding area, causing more problems than you solve!
CBH21 asks: To brine or not to brine?
This is a question for the ages, and sorry to report, there is no definitive answer. But here are our thoughts.
The theory is that soaking your turkey in brine, or a salted, flavorful liquid, will result in the turkey absorbing some of that liquid, producing a moist, flavorful meat. Some people, including chefs here at the CIA, swear by this method and wouldn’t dream of roasting a turkey that hasn’t first been brined.
There are others who believe a brine does not really add much flavor to your bird, but rather just dilutes the flavor of the turkey with extra water. These folks prefer to salt their turkey, which is sometimes called a “dry brine.” It can be just salt, but is often a mixture of salt, spices, herbs, citrus zest, and/or maybe some sugar. The theory here is that the salt pulls moisture from the turkey which then mingles with the other seasonings in your rub. While it rests, that moisture reabsorbs into the flesh of the turkey, seasoning the meat with the turkey’s own juices.
The best way for you to decide? Try both and choose for yourself. You can test your theories throughout the year on roasting chickens or even chicken breast to see what you think is the best option for you.
BD R. asks: Is it necessary to baste a turkey during cooking?
Basting will not make or break a good turkey, but it can certainly help produce a nice golden brown skin. Just keep in mind that every time you open your oven to baste the turkey, you’re letting heat escape, so don’t do it too often.
Linda A. and Cathy C. both ask: What’s an easy, make-ahead gravy recipe?
Make-ahead gravy is the best trick to a less-stress Thanksgiving. You can do it like Chef Sada did for our Thanksgiving Mini Boot Camp, or you can use the roasting method. Put your turkey scraps and gizzards (or just chicken bones, if you don’t have turkey scraps) in a roasting pan with onion, carrot, celery, garlic, and herbs. Toss them with a little oil and roast them at 400°F until everything is roasty and toasty.
Deglaze that pan with a little white wine, then add your stock and bring it to a simmer. Thicken the mixture to your preference with a corn starch slurry. Cool this down and freeze or refrigerate it, and then just reheat it for Thanksgiving dinner.
Greg M. asks: I will spatchcock my turkey this year. How can I make a great gravy?
Luckily, you can make a traditional turkey gravy whether your bird is spatchcocked (butterflied) or roasted whole. You’ll still have great pan drippings! Follow the technique in our roasted chicken recipe for a great gravy, or make it ahead of time.
Morrison asks: Do you have a scallop potato recipe for Thanksgiving that replaces mashed for easy baking in oven?
Cynthia S. asks: Can you share a chilled vegetable recipe, besides a salad?
Can we ever, though full disclosure, some of them are called salads, but you’ll find no lettuce here! You might like this simple Kale, Cashew, and Cranberry Pasta Salad; Braised Red Cabbage (good chilled or hot!); Farro Salad; Marinated Peppers with Pine Nuts and Raisins, or Roasted Beets with Feta and Tangerines.
Jim E. asks: Cranberry sauce or cranberry confit?
Potato po-tah-to, Jim! You call it whatever you like, though we typically say cranberry sauce around here. Here’s our favorite classic recipe.
Morrison asks: Can you make cranberry sauce from dried cranberries if fresh are not available?
Necessity breeds ingenuity, so sure you can! Soak those dried cranberries in a mix of water, orange and/or apple juice, and maybe even a little brandy, if you like. Transfer the whole mixture to the stove and cook with added sugar, if it needs it. You might need to add a little cornstarch slurry to thicken it, so just make sure you do that over a simmer.
All of that said, you will probably have better luck making cranberry sauce with frozen cranberries, which are typically as widely available this time of year as dried, so keep an eye out for them.
Marianna S. asks: How can you make a moist stuffing outside the bird?
The key to a good baked stuffing is fat and broth. Make sure you cook your veggies and aromatics in enough oil or butter, and use a flavorful stock or broth—preferably homemade—to coat the bread. You don’t want it to be soggy, but you also don’t want to see any truly dry pieces before you transfer it to your baking dish. Bake it covered until it’s fully heated through, and then uncover for a just a few minutes to brown the top.
Adding flavorful ingredients that add moisture and/or richness to your stuffing really helps, too. That’s why things like sausage and apples are such popular additions.
Donna B. asks: This is my first year as a vegan. Any tips for mashed potatoes without milk and butter, or Brussels sprouts without bacon, but a similar flavor?
Vegan Thanksgivings, or plant-forward celebrations in general, don’t have to be less fun than traditional dinners, we promise! Rather than thinking about replacing, like with a tofu turkey, for example, think about simple substitutions that won’t leave you disappointed.
For mashed potatoes, you can substitute milk for a nut milk, like cashew, for an equally rich flavor, and you can use good quality olive oil in place of butter. For some added richness, you can blend whole soaked cashews into the potatoes, if you like, but we bet you won’t even need it.
For smoky Brussels with a little something extra, you can use a prepared vegan bacon product, if you like, but we would probably opt to add a pinch or two of smoked paprika and some toasted nuts, breadcrumbs, or a combination of the two.
Joanna S. asks: What is your best stuffing for people who must eat gluten-free?
These days there are lots of good gluten-free breads available that you can use to make stuffing, so that’s a great start. We don’t have a favorite, but if you’re cooking for a guest with a gluten intolerance, you could ask them their favorite! Let the bread dry out a bit and toast it before adding it to your other ingredients.
Of course, rice and some other grains are naturally gluten-free, so you could make a rice or mixed-grain stuffing using the same principles as bread stuffing. Use the same flavors and ingredients, but substitute cooked rice or grains for the bread. Chef VonBargen makes a good version for our Thanksgiving Mini Boot Camp.
Joanne S. asks: Can you suggest a light dessert that speaks to the season that has no crust, no milk, can be prepared ahead of time, and is delicious?
We love a challenge! How about you prepare the filling from this Apple Strudel (without the breadcrumbs), and then serve it with Zabaglione or non-dairy ice cream? You could top it with chopped toasted nuts or granola for some crunch.
We also love these Ugly But Good Cookies, which are little chewy meringue-based cookies with hazelnuts. You could certainly add pumpkin pie spices to this recipe for a little something extra.