Sam Sifton Wrote The Book On Thanksgiving
It's when we “cook aggressively American," he says
I’ve put my life in the hands of Sam Sifton and he assures me that nothing bad is going to happen. I believe Sam Sifton because, first, he dresses like the cool college professor you want to grab a beer with after office hours. Second, Sam Sifton — the former restaurant critic and current National Editor of The New York Times — knows what he is talking about when it comes to turkey. And we’re talking about how leaving turkey out to warm will be essential, and hardly fatal, this Thanksgiving.
“If you touch the turkey, it feels like a dead body and that is scary,” says Sifton, author of the forthcoming Thanksgiving: How To Cook It Well (out Oct. 23, and available for pre-order now). “When the oven is heating up, when you’re locating your butter, when you’re freaking out about this or that, just let the thing sit for a little bit. Nothing bad is going to happen.” Why so? It’s all about readying the turkey skin (more on that later).
This is the type of clear-headed, practical insight that put Sifton to work each Thanksgiving manning The Times’ turkey tip line — a live blog ritual that he took so seriously it eventually became the book that all Turkey Day hosts should think about picking up. Or anybody who wants to throw better dinner parties. Because, as I found out during our talk at the Food Republic Test Kitchen, the ethic of Thanksgiving — cooking a ridiculously grand meal with family and friends — is something we should be doing more often. And this is the book that tells you how to do it right. And why you should skip the heritage bird all together. And why there is truly an art to crafting the Friday turkey sandwich. “Get the fuck out of here,” says Sifton as if I was arguing to write a 33 1/3 for Ace of Base's The Sign. “There is no place for herb aioli in a Thanksgiving leftover sandwich.”
Did your house smell like Thanksgiving for a year?
I don’t think my kids are going to eat much turkey in coming years. We cooked a lot of turkey. People love the Thanksgiving meal and if you cook these dishes a gazillion times, that might be a mistake. But a few times a year, it’s pretty nice and a good family dinner.
At our Test Kitchen today, we’ve been asking a number of chefs for their Thanksgiving tips. Many have said that you should make as many of the dishes ahead of time. Agree? Don’t things get stale?
I would agree with the chefs. It’s good to get what you can get done, done early. Make those pies beforehand and a lot of side dishes. But it’s sort of bogus when a lot of pro chefs give tips, because you have to take them with a grain of salt! My kitchen doesn’t come with a full staff and I don’t have a convection oven or any of that stuff.
And you don’t have space either.
No! I have a little oven like everyone else and am trying to figure out how I am going to pull everything off. I’ve got to say, and this is based on a lot of research, the most important thing that the home cook can do is not freak out when that turkey is left out to get dry and come off the temperature of the fridge. You have a shitload of work to do while you’re getting ready to cook that turkey. Having it sit there — not in like 80 degree weather or overnight — but for an hour or two before you cook where you are patting it with paper towels so you have a nice and dry skin on a reasonably unfrozen bird before it goes into the oven, is a great idea.
Why should I not freak out?
For a couple reasons, all having to do with the skin. If there is no liquid on the outside of the bird, the oven doesn’t have to work to evaporate it before it starts to tighten up the skin. If the inside of the bird is in like, zero degrees, it doesn’t have to defrost it before it is cooking. The first thing that happens in that hot oven is that the skin kind of contracts and blisters up a little bit and forms this seal around the bird that keeps the juices in and gives you effective cooking from the very start. That’s a hell of a lot better than having to play catch-up in the oven before you get going.
People think that if you leave your bird out to air-dry and warm up, they will get salmonella and die before the pumpkin pie…
Yeah. I think the “warm up” is what freaks people out. I’m not saying leave it out overnight. Nothing bad is going to happen.
Let’s talk about heritage birds versus organic birds versus factory farm birds. Is there a big difference between the three equally?
I think again, when you talk to chefs, they will say that you have to have a heritage bird, read poetry, and do all this stuff…
In fact about 8 out of 10 said that.
OK, it’s probably a pretty good idea to have a bird with a college education. I’m not advocating that horrible factory, Butterball or whatever. But there’s a huge amount of territory between the frozen turkey off the back of a truck that your neighborhood drug dealer hands out to curry favor with the populace and that heritage bird that Sean Brock taught Greek to. It depends a lot on how you’re cooking and what you want your result to be. I often cook a lot of birds in a couple different ways because we generally get a lot of people at our Thanksgivings. One year, when I was just getting started on this, I cooked a heritage turkey alongside a reasonably factory-ish commercial bird. One from Empire Farms or something.
Did you buy it at Key Food?
A step up from Key Food. No offense to Key Food because I’ve bought a lot from them. So I had this commercial bird, what’s called a broad-breasted white, and the heritage bird was like a bourbon. In the cooking, you could really see the clear difference that you don’t see when you put them side-by-side. On one side, you had this heritage bird that looks roughly like Omar on The Wire. Really stringy, but incredibly attractive too. On the other side, you have Pamela Anderson. These are very different animals. They were delicious in totally different ways. I would totally brine that heritage bird, whereas I might not brine the commercial bird.
There is the perception that heritage birds take longer to cook.
I think the perception is based on the fact that there is a lot of dark meat in those birds and there is a lot of connectivity to break down or whatever. I don’t see a hugely appreciable difference in the amount of time, but I do think that you have to be careful with it.
Would you confit a bird?
I would totally confit a bird. In what, duck fat?
Yeah, I would mess with that.
Oh dude, that would be a very exciting project. You’d need a lot of duck fat. Again, that favors the restaurant chef over the home cook, but I think that the more fat that you can add to a Thanksgiving meal – in the form of butter or turkey fat or whatever – the better your meal is going to be. That’s the difference between restaurant cooks and us.
Right. They’re not scared. They’re fearless.
They’re not scared at all and you don’t ask, “How much butter was put into this?”
On that topic, let’s talk about mashed potatoes. I think that the proper butter-to-potato ratio is something that people don’t really understand.
It should come frighteningly close to one-to-one. You don’t want people going home feeling really sick, so one-to-one is perhaps excessive, but it should be frighteningly close. And you can top off the rest with heavy cream or plenty of salt.
Let’s talk about leftovers, which are part of the Thanksgiving tradition. Do you have a favorite sandwich prep?
I’m going to be very clear about this and speak definitely. The way it works with Thanksgiving leftovers is as follows: the best Thanksgiving sandwich is the first one that you eat. You eat it as soon as you get hungry again, in the kitchen, probably barefoot and when it’s dark. You open the fridge, adjust the light in the refrigerator and rip out some dark meat. You want a little dressing or stuffing…
You say dressing?
Well, there’s a big difference. Stuffing goes in the bird, dressing goes outside the bird.
I thought that was some regional thing…
No, I like to fight the regional bias on this. It makes sense – stuffing goes in the bird. I’m not a big advocate of that because I can make more outside the bird. But whatever you call that stuff – the bread-based deliciousness – that’s going to go on your sandwich, as well. I like a little cranberry sauce on there and crucially, whatever bread you are using, mayonnaise. It’s Thanksgiving sandwich number one.
No herb aiolis, no vinegar…
No! Get the fuck out of here! There is no place for herb aioli in a Thanksgiving leftover sandwich. That’s absurd.
The first one will always be the best and then it all goes downhill?
Yeah. When you’re down there ripping off pieces of cartilage, thinking that’s going to make a good sandwich, that’s when it gets bad. At that point, you want to shift to towards risottos, gumbo and other things that require pulling out of the bones.
What about turkey ramen? Somebody suggested that.
A turkey ramen?! These guys, man. They are unbelievable. “Oh, I’ve got it, we’ll do turkey sushi!” Sure, I might do an Asian turkey salad or something like that. Turkey ramen wouldn’t be a problem…
You put some egg in there, some ramen noodles, some dashi…
Sure. Poof! That plus Instagram and you’re a chef. I might do it, but I want to stay within the larder. I’m not a chef and most people aren’t. It’s just this one time a year that we cook aggressively American food, and when we do that, I don’t really see the reason to add dashi. Although, I say that and I use some Asian flavors in my roasting, so who am I to talk?
It is a rigidly American holiday.
Right. But let’s be clear about who we are as Americans. We do use dashi as Americans, you know? And I’m coming around to this dashi idea and doing a little ramen.
Do you drink rigidly American for the holiday?
My father used to bring Armagnac. There is this whole tradition about this French hole — that it cuts in your stomach lining that allows you to keep drinking [laughs]. I prefer applejack, bourbon, rye. Keep it American for just once. The rest of the time we can do what we want.
What about pairing wines?
I think that the most important thing about wine and Thanksgiving is that there be a lot of it. I think that it’s appropriate, maybe appropriate, to begin the meal with something light and refreshing like a Prosecco or bubbly, particularly because you start drinking early in the day and often. Then you want something that’s drinkable, your lighter reds. For a couple years, though, we went with big American reds like Meritages and Zins. I think that that’s an area where families and groups of friends can really experiment and have all their guests bring alcohol.
Do some punches, maybe?
Sure, that’s a little risky.
The Times recommended a fish house punch last year. I made it and everybody was basically really happy.
Yeah, I’m just going to go ahead and say no to the fish punch right now. You know, Uncle Larry is going to get loaded and fall asleep on the couch. You need to be prepared for the people that are going to be there. Thanksgiving is not a time to change people’s behaviors. There should be ashtrays for those who smoke and vodka for Uncle Larry.
It’s hospitality, right? The host needs to think about these things.
Absolutely. There are a lot of people who have come to me in the past worried about social dynamics at the table. “This cousin always does this,” or “my brother always does this.” Well, if he always does that, be prepared for it. Not to change the behavior, but to embrace it. This is going to sound cheesy, but I do believe that the whole point of the holiday is to give thanks. You’ve gathered your family with all its warts and trouble and psychosis. He’s here and came to your meal. Yes, he hates homosexuals. Yes, he’s a horrible drunkard smoker. But just say, “Hey dude, let’s go smoke outside.”
Do you miss reviewing restaurants?
I do. I miss my byline and I do miss some parts of being in restaurants every night. I don’t miss scratchy wigs and itchy dresses and high heels and the whole kabuki of being The Times critic. And I do love being a regular in restaurants that I could never be when I wasn’t the critic. But the chance to travel the city and experience it through food and see how the city is and is becoming in restaurants and dining rooms – it’s tough to give that up. It was a great seat to observe the city.
And those deadlines, too. Those must have been addictive.
Yeah, well I have a daily deadline now for the report that we put out for the national desk. I’ve got plenty of adrenaline, fear and self-loathing pulsing through me, so that’s fine. But the good food and the chance to experience the new is something that I miss.
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