That’s me, age four, stuffing a turkey. I’ve been doing this holiday dinner thing a long time. So much information exists on the humble turkey, a curiously popular bird. Here are simple answers to common questions from reliable sources. [Updated November 2015]
Q. Why do we eat turkey on holidays, anyway?
A. Great question. As this terrific column in Slate explains, back in the day when people grew their own meats, large poultry presented the most expendable option to feed a crowd.
Q. What kind of turkey should I buy?
A. Buy fresh, if possible. Fine Cooking explains the variations on supermarket options, while Epicurious offers their findings on a taste test of common brands.
Want local? See EatWild.com’s guide to locally grown turkeys in the U.S. and Canada. Despite all the talk of heritage turkeys, they account for less than 1 percent of the turkey market, as noted in this illustrated account from Bountiful Cupboard.
Q. How big a turkey do I need?
A. It depends on whether you’ve got big eaters and/or big leftover lovers. Aim for roughly 1 pound per person if you don’t want a lot of leftovers, and 1.5 pounds per person if you do.
Q. I have heard I shouldn’t stuff the cavity. Why is that?
A. The Centers for Disease Control advise against this because the uneven cooking this employs can make people sick. Plus, it will take the turkey longer to cook. Just cook it in a separate casserole pan; you can never make enough in the cavity of the turkey for the whole crowd, anyway.
Q. How do I safely thaw a frozen turkey?
A. Here’s a thorough guide form the USDA on the matter. Bottom line: either thaw a frozen turkey in your fridge, in a cold water bath or – very carefully – in a microwave. Just don’t set it on your counter and let it get to room temperature or you’ll greatly increase your odds of sickening your holiday dinner guests.
Q. Can I cook a completely frozen turkey?
A. Yes, and here’s the video to prove it.
Q. Turkey, again? Really? Any alternatives?
A. The Washington Post did a taste test on alternative faux meats for vegans, so check out those results if that’s your strategy. But I’m going to be honest here and say the point of Thanksgiving isn’t about serving non meat eaters a highly processed bit of fake meat. Consider vegetarian pot pies. Be sure to make a vegetarian gravy, like this onion version.
Q. Do I need to brine the turkey, or can I skip it?
A. You don’t have to brine, but if you’ve got time, do it. The turkey will taste a lot better and retain more moisture. A wet brine involves putting the turkey into a solution laced with salt, herbs and usually some acid, such as cider or citrus. Alice Currah at Savory Sweet Life has a great example of how to wet brine a turkey.
I’m partial to using a “dry” brine, which involved slathering the bird with a salt-based rub. The clearest and best example we can find of this is Russ Parsons version on Food52.
Q. Do I need any special equipment? What if I don’t have a rack?
A. You need a pan with at least one-inch sides large enough to hold your turkey comfortably without too much crowding. Handles are helpful, as is a rack. You can claim one for as little as $20 online. Avoid inexpensive aluminum roasting pans. No really. Don’t use them. They aren’t heavy enough to hold the weight of a turkey. Let’s paint you a scene: a cook pulls a golden turkey from the oven, and then the cheap pan crumbles, drenching her in boiling hot liquid as she tries to decide whether to catch the hot carcass as it tumbles to the floor. This happened to someone I know. Don’t let it happen to you.
In a pinch, you can use the bottom of a broiler pan. No rack? Try my carrots-and-onions in the bottom of the pan trick.
Q. What about basting?
A. The jury’s out on whether basting moistens the meat, but it certainly doesn’t hurt anything and will add a lovely sheen to the final result. The easiest way to do it is with a bulb-style baster, but you can also use a silicon pastry brush, a small (new!) paintbrush or even a ladle.
Q. What’s the best way to roast a turkey in the oven?
A. My friend Chef John at Foodwishes.com gives exactly the same instruction I would give you on cooking a turkey in his two-part video lesson. While I normally advise turning chickens over while roasting, most turkeys are too large to do this so I skip that step during the holidays.
For herb butter, go here.
Q. We want to deep-fry a turkey. What’s the best source of information on this?
A. Deep-frying a turkey is a popular and highly hazardous undertaking. A solid source for information comes from the blog Brian’s Belly. I advise anyone considering this method to watch this informative video from Underwriter’s Laboratory.
Q. Can you grill a turkey?
A. Grilling a turkey has overcome deep-frying as the fad du jour for the holiday bird. Virtually all the major U.S. food magazines featured grilling a turkey in their November 2012 issues. My favorite version was from Sunset magazine, which featured a cartoon version of meat master Bruce Aidells in a simple how-to.
Q. What is a turducken?
Q. How do I carve a turkey?
A. I can’t think of anything less useful than a fork when it comes to carving a turkey, so I’m not a fan of carving sets. What you need are a pair of tongs and either a carving knife or a nice sharp chef’s knife. The Food Network’s Alton Brown offers a great primer. I know the Norman Rockwell image involves bringing a whole turkey to the table, but this tends to bring on performance anxiety. Solution? Bring the turkey in for “viewing,” and then whisk it back to the kitchen for carving as the crowd focuses on the sides.
Other questions? Send them in and I will fearlessly answer.