Troubleshoot Your Thanksgiving Turkey
10 fixes for common, maddening turkey problems
The list of things that can go wrong on Thanksgiving Day is virtually endless. Too much booze, or not enough to comfortably deal with your extended family. Unexpected guests, unintentionally forgotten invites, inappropriate revelations, in-law drama. Never mind what’s going on in the kitchen. While we can’t do much to alleviate any familial discord that may plague your home this holiday season, we can make sure the meal leaves you relatively unscathed. Here are 10 quick fixes for common turkey quandaries.
Problem: Thanksgiving Day has arrived and your turkey is still frozen. Yikes!
Solution: Not giving one’s turkey enough time to thaw is one of the most common mistakes people make when cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Ideally, you want to thaw turkey in the refrigerator over as many hours or days as it takes. Depending on how much time you have, you can thaw it in cold water, which dramatically accelerates the process. If your turkey fits in the microwave, using the defrost setting is an option. As a last resort, it’s possible to cook your turkey frozen. It will take roughly 50% longer to roast than a fresh or defrosted bird. As a rule of thumb, factor one day of thawing in the refrigerator for every four pounds of turkey. Or, don’t buy a frozen bird!
Problem: My local, organic, grain-fed, free-range heritage bird is scrawny.
Solution: You’ve decided to go local, organic and free-range this year. Good for you! Unfortunately, you’ve noticed that these birds are not as plump and breasty as conventional supermarket turkeys. If you’re worried about the meat drying out because it’s leaner, try cooking your turkey breast-side down. This way, the breast, which is usually the driest meat, will be protected from overcooking, while all the juices from the darker meat will seep down into the breast for a juicy, tender result.
Problem: To truss or not to truss?
Solution: Trussing the turkey with twine or string is an age-old practice that is meant to keep the bird neat and compact for even cooking. But, like everything our grandmothers taught us, trussing has come under fire from modern cooks. It turns out that keeping the legs tucked so close to the body could, in fact, lead to uneven cooking in the crevices of the thigh. What to do? You can try cooking your turkey untrussed, which leaves you with a less picture-perfect bird (spread eagle, as opposed to politely cross-legged). Or, if you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, this well-circulated video of Alton Brown can walk you through the process.
Problem: The turkey is crisp and brown on the outside, raw on the inside.
Solution: Depending on when dinnertime is, you have several options to fix this issue. If time is of the essence, consider butchering the bird and cooking it in pieces. You may even opt to pan-fry the pieces in butter, then transfer them back to the oven to finish. One way to prevent over-browning and undercooking is to ensure that your oven is calibrated and that heat is being distributed evenly. If the damage has already been done, but you have some time to spare, tent the turkey with foil, crimping the edges to seal in the heat. This will protect the skin from getting any darker, while creating a dome of steam around the bird to help cook the inside. The breasts cook faster that the thighs, so you can always slice this meat off to serve and put the legs back in the oven to cook through so your guests can have a drumstick for seconds.
Problem: You don’t have a meat thermometer. How do you know when the bird is done?
Solution: As far as we’re concerned, the little red plastic button that is supposed to pop up when the bird is done is useless. It often pops at 190 degrees F, while the bird should be done once the meat reaches 165 degrees F. Without a thermometer, you’ll need to feel it out. Keep track of the clock and when the prescribed cooking time nears its end, make sure the juices from the bird are running clear. The meat on the drumstick should feel soft, and the leg and wing joints should move freely. And, if you really want to be sure, there’s no shame in slicing off a drumstick for a close-up look.
Problem: You’ve overcooked the bird. Big time.
Solution: If you find that you’ve left your turkey in the oven too long, there is no way to un-cook it. It will be dry: that’s unavoidable. But, for goodness sake, don’t trash the meat! If the breast is overdone, the thighs and other dark meat might still be OK to eat, as these have more fat by nature. And you can save the breast meat to shred for a potpie, soup or even turkey chili. If you’re determined to salvage the breast, slice it and place it in a covered casserole dish with a healthy dose of pan drippings and 2-3 cups of chicken stock. Heat in the oven for 5 or 10 minutes and serve. Remember: gravy is your friend.
Problem: Some idiot threw out the pan drippings that you needed for your patented turkey gravy.
Solution: Once you’re done strangling this person, get to work. You’ll need butter, beef or chicken stock, and a richly flavored fortified wine. Sherry or Madeira is ideal. Start by making a roux with a couple of tablespoons of butter and some flour. Then, add 1-2 cups of chicken or beef broth, as well as the fortified wine, and seasonings. Bring to a simmer and allow to reduce until the desired consistency has been achieved. You might need to adjust the thickness of the gravy with flour or cornstarch. Don’t let it get too heavy, as it will continue to thicken once you remove it from the heat.
Problem: What to pair with turkey: red or white?
Solution: Now, this one is easy. The answer is... both! As any sommelier under 40 will tell you, pairing rules are made to be broken. And this is especially true of turkey. White meat might pair better with white, dark meat with red, but this is hardly set in stone. So, make sure your guests have options. You can’t go wrong with a light red, like a Beaujolais or Oregon Pinot Noir, or weightier white, like a Chardonnay or even an orange wine. And you don’t have to stick to wine: hard cider is a lively, seasonal alternative. You can even opt for a nutty farmhouse-style ale. Or you could just throw caution to the wind and crack open a bottle of bubbly. It’s a celebration, right?
Problem: I stuffed my bird and now that it’s done, the stuffing is soaking wet.
Solution:While the bird may be the guest of honor, stuffing often steals the show. You can opt to bake your stuffing separate from the bird or to stuff it in the cavity, which flavors it with turkey juices and provides magazine-cover presentation. When the stuffing comes out, it’s often soaked through with turkey juices, so you’ll want to bake it in a casserole dish, uncovered, for 20 minutes or so until it browns. Keeping some stuffing aside from what goes into the bird is also a good idea – you can combine the wet stuffed stuffing with the dry unstuffed stuff to achieve the desired texture. Alternatively, you can add extra breadcrumbs or croutons to very wet stuffing to reduce sogginess.
Problem: Turkey, stuffing, sweet potato pie… how can they all fit into one oven?
Solution: Running low on oven space is a given on Thanksgiving Day. Short of breaking out the outdoor grill or breaking into your neighbor’s home, the only way to avoid this problem is to plan ahead. There are plenty of sides that can be made before the big day. You can prep salads and stuffing a day ahead of time, bake desserts weeks ahead of time and freeze them, roast vegetables the day before T-Day and even whip up mashed potatoes a day early. Using your oven and stovetop to reheat is more manageable than preparing several dishes from scratch at once. (For those mashed potatoes, reheat them in a saucepan, using milk and a hand blender to bring them back to life.)
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