To ensure a smooth and enjoyable Thanksgiving in the kitchen, try to get as much of the cooking done ahead of time as you possibly can. The pay-off in peace of mind is worth the effort. Most desserts can be baked well ahead of time and reheated if desired. On Tuesday, start simmering stock if you are making it from scratch; pick up the turkey so it has time to thaw or brine. On Wednesday, cook the cranberry sauce, prepare your gravy if you have chosen not to use the pan juices from the roast turkey, and assemble your stuffing (without added eggs) for baking.
If the majority of your prep is done before you wake up on Thanksgiving, you will have more time to spend with your guests. You will also be able to focus on the centerpiece of the family feast: the turkey. From Joy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary Edition.
Choosing a Bird
—Select a size according to the number of people you will be serving, allowing about 1 pound per person, plus, if you wish, a margin for leftovers.
—Turkeys sold as “fresh” taste markedly better than frozen turkeys and are worth their higher price. Whether or not a turkey labeled “organic,” “free-range,” or “natural” is worth the money is up to you.
—Thaw frozen turkeys thoroughly in the refrigerator (allowing 1 day for every 6 pounds) or in cold water. To thaw in cold water, leave the turkey in its original packaging, place it in cold water, and weigh it down to keep it submerged. Defrost for 1 to 8 hours, depending on the weight, turning the bird and changing the water frequently. Do not assume it is fully defrosted until the flesh feels soft and pliable to the touch and the legs and wings move freely at the joints when wiggled.
—Brining is optional and requires a little extra work, but it can result in very juicy breast meat. Do not brine self-basting or kosher turkeys, as they have already been treated with salt. Use 1 cup table salt or 2 cups kosher salt per each gallon of water. Brine for 12 to 24 hours. Remember: the longer you brine, the saltier the meat.
—If you have limited refrigerator space, place the turkey in a brining bag (or triple-bag it in white, unscented garbage bags) and put it in a suitably large cooler. Pour enough brining liquid in the bag to cover the turkey and carefully tie the bag(s) shut. Cover with plenty of ice and check often, draining the water and adding ice as necessary.
—Residual brine may make your stuffing and gravy overly salty. If you are stuffing the turkey or using its pan juices for gravy, reduce or omit salt in both.
—We do not advocate stuffing the turkey. So often, in order to be assured that the stuffing is done, the turkey must be overcooked, resulting in dry meat and potentially undercooked stuffing. For the sake of presentation, you may stuff the turkey after both are fully cooked.
—If you must stuff the bird, do so just before roasting. Have the stuffing hot or at least room temperature, and pack it loosely in the body and neck cavities—only about three-quarters full—as it will expand during cooking. When done, the center of the stuffing should reach 165°F on a thermometer.
—Rub bird well with melted unsalted butter or oil and place on a greased rack in an uncovered roasting pan in the center of the oven.
—For birds between 7 and 15 pounds, allow 15 to 20 minutes per pound. For turkeys weighing over 16 pounds, allow 13 to 15 minutes per pound. In any case, add about 5 minutes to the pound if the bird is stuffed.
—Remove the bird from the oven when the temperature reaches 170°F, and let it rest for 20 to 40 minutes or until the inner thigh reaches 180°F. Be sure that the thermometer is not touching the bone.
For more helpful tips and a selection of Thanksgiving recipes, visit our kitchen blog.
Recipe excerpted from Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker. Copyright © 2006 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.