Thanksgiving 101: A First Timer's Guide

Look like a composed host and reduce stress with our tips from local food experts on planning the ultimate holiday feast

Staff writersNovember 13, 2013 

STAFF ILLUSTRATION/ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

There are certain rights of passage into American adulthood we all share: no longer asking your friends to help you move, trading in your milk crates and cinder blocks for real furniture and hosting your first Thanksgiving dinner.

It’s understandable why so many avoid it. It’s hard enough to get one dish right let alone half a dozen. Add in shopping, decorating and that final unpredictable ingredient – relatives – and it’s enough to make one consider booking a late November trip to Hawaii.

Don’t worry if you’re planning your first Thanksgiving this year. If your guests have been hosts, they’ll know what you went through and if they haven’t, they’ll just be happy that they didn’t have to organize it themselves. Any Thanksgiving where Grandma Ruby doesn’t scream “You’re just like your no-good father!” and the dog doesn’t pull the turkey off of the table is a good one.

This year we’ve themed our special section with strategies, recipes and tips for the T-Day novice. For help, we reached out to several local chefs.

-William Jolly is the restaurant operations management instructor at Clover Park Technical College.

-Brian Brozovic is a Fife-based butcher and meat scientist.

-Leanne Willard is the director of Olympia’s Bayview School of Cooking.

-Barry “CB” Martin is an Olympia-based writer of cookbooks, food blogs and recipes.

- Matt Stickle, executive chef of the Bite Restaurant at Hotel Murano.

- Eddie William is executive chef of JW Restaurant in Gig Harbor.

- Tom Pantley is the chef-owner of Toscanos Cafe and Wine Bar in Puyallup.

- Geoffrey Yahn is the executive chef of Dirty Oscar’s Annex in Tacoma .

- Joshua Corcoran is executive chef of Chambers Bay Grill in University Place.

PLANNING YOUR DINNER

“Thanksgiving is a time to enjoy family and friends. The more you get done ahead of time, the more enjoyable it will be,” Jolly said.

Jolly’s advice was the consensus of our chefs: Plan, prepare, cook and enjoy. They also advised newbies to not take on too much.

“Be traditional but have fun experimenting too,” Willard said. Her standard menu: turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green vegetable, sweet potatoes, rolls, fruit salad and pie.

“But, feel free to add and/or subtract — it’s your party,” she said.

Thanksgiving, a holiday that is older than the nation itself, is about tradition. And that includes the traditions of your own family.

“If your grandma always made the best rolls, your uncle the best pies and your mom the best dressing, ask for their recipes well in advance. Why reinvent the wheel?” Willard said.

Finally, the chefs say, try not to stress out. Jolly builds a few glasses of wine into his production schedule.

“Believe it or not, this holiday is more about the people than the food,” Willard said.

FIRST THANKSGIVING CHECKLIST

Planning: Willard gives herself at least two weeks in advance to choose her menu. Jolly decides on his menu a month out.

Schedule: Willard is big fan of lists. “Look at your recipes and figure out what can be done ahead of time and how far in advance you can do each task. Then put together your schedule. You cannot plan too much for this meal. Select serving dishes and plan oven times well in advance.”

Know your audience: “Some people like traditional Thanksgiving meals — whole turkey with all the fixings — and some families prefer non-traditional — turkey breast with limited fixings — or a mixture of the both,” Brozovic said.

Know how many people you will be feeding: Use your expected guests plus whatever leftovers you desire to calculate how much turkey to buy and prepare. Plan for approximately 1 pound of uncooked turkey per average adult and a half pound for children. Serving more sides will generally require less turkey. Less sides will require more turkey. Adjust where you see fit. “Always overshoot your number. It’s better to have a few extra servings than not enough. Ultimately, buying a more reasonable amount as opposed to a gargantuan turkey will save you time, frustration, and money,” Brozovic said.

Determine who wants to participate and how: People may want to help by bringing specific dishes. “If Aunt Beth always brings the sweet potatoes use this to your advantage. Because no matter what you say she will bring them,” Brozovic said. Willard agreed: “Don’t try to do it all by yourself!”

Get organized: “In our house we like to create a list of all items we plan to cook for dinner and organize what ingredients we will need for each dish and/or who is bringing them to help with meal planning,” Brozovic said.

Make a menu: Hand out a fancy looking menu to your guests. “They love this at our house because the family and friends feel like they are being served at a restaurant,” Brozovic said. It can also be used to ensure you don’t forget anything.

Storage: Never buy more than you can store. Gain more space by prepping ingredients and then storing them in zip-close bags, Jolly said.

The table: Think about what you’d like your table to look like (dishes, candles, centerpiece) and what your seating arrangement will be. “Don’t wait until the last minute — this is the perfect task to do at least a week ahead,” Willard said.

Get inspired: Pick up the special Thanksgiving editions of magazines. You don’t need to turn your home into a Broadway production. Just gleaning a couple of tips on centerpieces, decorating or food can make a big impact at your table. Brozovic suggests Food & Wine and Bon Appetit.

THE TURKEY

Vegans might cook a Tofurkey and pig lovers might roast a ham, but for the vast majority of Americans the turkey reigns supreme on the Thanksgiving table. But even for experienced cooks, turkey roasting is a once-a-year experience. That means not a lot of chances for “practice makes perfect.”

Our experts have all their slightly different techniques. The bottom line: all produce consistently good gobblers.

Buying the turkey: Ditch the bargain turkeys, Brozovic said. “If you’re going to make turkey the highlight of the meal, why would you shortchange yourself and get the cheapest possible? Get in between those couch cushions and find some extra change lying around and buy a turkey worth highlighting.”

Brozovic recommended purchasing a fresh turkey at a local butcher shop. There you are more likely to find specialty birds that carry qualifiers such as natural, sustainable, organic, free-range and local.

“These do not necessarily mean that it will taste better in and of itself, but a bird that has foraged on pasture eating the things it was meant to eat versus a corn-based feed mixture do tend to taste better,” Brozovic said.

A heritage turkey is as close as you can get without a bow and arrow, but those birds are pricey, Brozovic said. He doesn’t recommend that the first time turkey chef get “protein creative.” In other words: skip the Turducken.

Cook two smaller birds: If feeding a large crowd, Martin recommends cooking two 12-13 pound birds instead of one big turkey. Each bird will yield about 5-6 pounds of meat — the same as one big one. But, he said, the smaller sizes cook faster and more evenly, and they can be cooked sequentially with other food in the oven. “I believe the smaller birds are a bit younger and I like the meat better. I also find with smaller birds there is less chance of over cooking the white meat in the breast whilst taking the time necessary to cook the dark meat in the legs and thighs to the correct temperature of at least 165 degrees F.”

Thawing: The safest way to thaw a frozen turkey is in the refrigerator. You’ll need about 24 hours per 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. For speedier thawing, put the turkey in a sink of cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes, and plan for about 30 minutes per pound.

Brining the bird: To brine or not to brine? That seems to be the question that Thanksgiving chefs ask themselves every year.

“The battle between brining (and not brining) the bird is tense and heated. Each side can give you umpteen reasons as to why one or the other is best,” Brozovic said.

Brozovic brines all of his birds at least three days in advance. “The scientific principles behind osmosis help add moisture and flavor to the bird,” he said.

Willard is also a fan of brining. “It’s a wonderful way to keep your bird moist and add flavor all the way through.”

Brozovic makes his brine by sautéing a mirepoix (celery, carrots, and onion) and then adds water, chopped apples, salt, sugar, black peppercorns, bay leaf, rosemary, sage, and thyme. He brings the mixture to a boil making sure the sugar is dissolved. Once the brine is cooled, he adds the turkey and lets it soak for three days, making sure the mixture stays cold.

“I like to stir up the liquid twice a day to make sure the flavors are evenly distributed,” Brozovic said. When it is cooking time, he pulls the bird out and discards the liquid. He rinses the bird inside and out, and pats it dry.

“Always pull the bird out of refrigeration at least an hour before you go to cook it. That way it can start to adjust to room temperature and you’re not shocking your oil, oven, etc. with a cold bird which will slow down the cooking time,” he said.

Martin brines his birds as well. At least two days in advance of cooking he will soak a completely thawed bird in a basic salt water brine for about one hour for each pound of bird. “You may certainly add more flavors to the brine in the form of brown sugar and/or herbs like rosemary or sage too,” he said.

Martin removes the bird from the brine and rinses away excess salt. He places the bird in the refrigerator to continue drying off the skin. “Poultry skin is like a sponge and needs to be as dry as possible to ensure it browns and crisps during cooking,” he said.

However and whenever you cook your turkey it’s imperative the bird is thawed in advance. “Trying to thaw a turkey at the last minute can create much undue stress and ultimately jeopardizes the meal,” Brozovic said. “Try cooking a frozen turkey and come dinner everything else will be ready to eat but your raw turkey.”

Cooking the bird: First time cooks might want to stick to traditional oven roasting over deep frying, smoking and other methods. Brozovic advised removing the plastic temperature plug and instead investing in a quality digital thermometer. “It will come in handy for items other than turkey the rest of the year,” he said.

Brozovic likes to cook his turkeys at 325-350 degrees F. Plan for approximately 15 minutes per pound at 325, but ultimately, he said, the thickest part of the thigh should reach an internal temperature of 165. That temperature isn’t just for flavor, but for food safety as well.

“No one will be impressed with your turkey if they are all hunched over a toilet,” Brozovic said.

Checking the temp: Use an instant thermometer inserted at the innermost part of the thigh (without touching bone) to determine when your turkey is done. The meat needs to hit 165 for safe eating, though some people say thigh meat tastes better at 170 degrees F.

Watch the color: If the outside of the bird gets too dark before the center reaches the proper temperature, cover it with foil.

Basting: “I like basting just because it’s a traditional thing,” Brozovic said. “But by brining the bird in advance, all you’re doing anyways is keeping the skin more moist.”

Martin, by contrast, is a non-baster.

“Growing up I remember watching my mom open up the hot oven and use a glass turkey baster – essentially a large eye dropper – to suck up fat and juices in the roasting pan and squirt them over the skin of the turkey. When the meat thermometer told her the turkey was done and she’d wiggled the leg joint to confirm that to her satisfaction – she’d always remark how disappointed she was the turkey didn’t brown very nicely,” Martin said.

It was only years later that he learned about the Maillard Reaction and how his mother was thwarting it by basting. Louis-Camille Maillard was a chemist who figured out the science behind the browning of food and how it enhances flavor.

“The rule is this: ‘Dry and slightly saline.’ I’ve modified that for my students to ‘Dry Browns and Wet Steams.’ Every time my mom basted the skin with juice and fat she temporarily halted the browning process until the hot air in the oven dried off the skin and it could begin again – at which time she would halt once again with more basting. The basting served only to make the skin wet and did not moisten the meat,” Martin said.

Resting: Once done, pull the turkey from the oven and tent with foil. Start working on your side dishes while the bird rests for about an hour, Brozovic said.

STUFFING

Most chefs don’t cook their birds with stuffing inside. It’s just too tricky to get both the bird and the stuffing properly cooked without one being under or over cooked. Brozovic practically begs cooks not to serve stuffing that has not reached the proper temperature. “That is the only documented case of food-borne illness that I have ever received in my life and to this day, because of it, I never eat stuffing that came from inside of a bird,” he said.

Instead, bake stuffing in a casserole dish while your turkey rests.

MASHED POTATOES AND GRAVY

Along with the turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie there is one other staple that no first time cook should be without: mashed potatoes and gravy. The good news is that mashed potatoes are easy to make and if you are roasting a turkey you’re already half way there to a delicious gravy.

First, the potatoes.

If feeding a crowd, a 5-pound bag of potatoes makes 10 to 12 servings.

Chef Corcoran has a basic method he uses. This will serve 4-6. If feeding more, double the ingredients.

Whipped buttered potatoes: Peel 7 Yukon Gold potatoes and boil until soft. Strain and set potatoes aside, let dry for 2 minutes. Put potatoes through a ricer or food mill and into a bowl. While potatoes are still hot slowly incorporate 1 pound cool butter and whip with rubber spatula vigorously. Fold in 1/4 cup cream until right consistency and add salt to taste. Potatoes should be smooth and buttery. Salt and pepper, to taste.

Chef Jolly takes an unconventional approach to Thanksgiving potatoes.

“I am not a fan of mashed potatoes,” Jolly said. “I prefer to roast red potatoes with olive oil, salt and pepper and rosemary.”

That doesn’t mean Jolly’s table goes without a mashed starch. He makes a blend of beets, yams, sweet potatoes, parsnips and turnips in equal proportion. He then tosses them with olive oil, salt, pepper and the juice of one orange. Jolly then bakes the root vegetables at 425 degrees until done with occasional rotations and stirring. The vegetables can then be mashed like traditional potatoes.

GRAVY

Plan for 1/3 cup of gravy per person. Cookbook author and Thanksgiving dinner expert Rick Rodgers advises using 1 1/2 tablespoons of fat and flour for every cup of liquid. Plan on 1/3 cup gravy per guest. If you’re making dinner for 12, you need about 4 cups gravy.

The easiest way to make gravy is to simmer the giblets (and the neck, if desired) from the turkey cavity in a stock pot filled with water for a few hours as your turkey cooks (add herbs, carrots and celery to deepen flavor).

A roux method is the easiest way to flavor and thicken gravy. Use the fat and drippings from the turkey roasting pan — so make sure they never dry out or burn while the turkey is roasting. After your turkey is finished, transfer all liquid to a measuring cup, let stand five minutes, then separate the fat from the drippings.

If making 4 cups gravy, return 6 tablespoons of fat and add an equal amount of flour to the turkey roasting pan set over a burner. Whisk vigorously and cook the roux for a few minutes. Slowly add the 4 cups warm giblet broth, whisking continuously until the gravy is smooth and an even consistency. For more flavor, add the turkey pan drippings to the mixture or add chopped fresh herbs. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Like thicker gravy? Add more fat and flour. If you run short on pan drippings, fortify the drippings with butter.

Jolly advises to take one’s time when making gravy. He occasionally uses his immersion blender and then strains the gravy through a fine mesh strainer. “There is no shame in using a strainer,” Jolly said.

SIDE DISHES

How many sides do you need? Here’s a handy guide to help you with the basics:

Carrots: a 1-pound bag makes 4 to 5 servings

Cranberry sauce: a 12-ounce package of fresh cranberries makes about 2 1/4 cups of sauce; a 16-ounce can has 6 servings

Green beans: 1 1/2 pounds of beans makes 6 to 8 servings

Stuffing: a 14-ounce bag of stuffing makes about 11 servings

For a first-time cook, the best strategy is to easy. Start with simple recipes that you already know.

Side dishes to avoid for a first dinner: The universal plea from chefs: Don’t try a souffle. It’s guaranteed to be a flop. Don’t make a recipe for the first time on Thanksgiving day — take the recipe for a test run a week before your dinner.

Don’t saute vegetables in advance: Advised William, “Veggies will get soggy and potatoes will get starchy if cooked in advance.” If you must cook vegetables in advance because of the timing of other side dishes, Stickle recommended blanching the vegetables in boiling water for a few minutes to partially cook them, then shock in cold water and hold in the fridge until right before dinner. Saute quickly on the stovetop, they’ll be ready in minutes.

Prep work: Chef Stickle gave the advice to prep and chop all vegetables — such as the celery and onions for stuffing — a day in advance and store in the refrigerator until needed. Label the containers so any kitchen helpers will know what to get when you need it.

Plan your oven space: Have a game plan for what is cooked and when. Remember that your turkey will take up valuable real estate in the oven for hours. What can you cook on the stovetop while the turkey is cooking? And consider in advance what you will need to bake while the turkey rests for 30 minutes, advised Stickle.

What are the easiest dishes to execute: Stick with roasted or sauteed vegetables. Chefs gave recipes below for vegetable side dishes, but the easiest side dishes to pull off are the basics -—carrots, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower or root vegetables. Just roast vegetables tossed in olive oil in a baking dish as your turkey rests. Add fresh herbs, such as sage or thyme. Salt and pepper to taste. That’s it.

What can be cooked in advance? Yams, salads and desserts are the easiest to make ahead.

Desserts in advance: “I would always make the desserts the night before,” said Corcoran. “Pies are going to hold great overnight. To refresh the pies, heat in the oven for five minutes, and serve warm. Guests will think you were up early baking fresh pie.”

Basic side dish recipes:

Caramelized Carrots: From Chef Eddie William. “Cook one pound carrots with one cup water in a medium saucepan for 7-8 minutes. Remove carrots from pan and drain. To the same pan, add 2 tablespoons butter, 1/3 cup packed brown sugar, a pinch salt and pepper to taste. Mix and warm these ingredients in the saucepan, then add carrots and cook over low heat for about 5 minutes until carrots get glazed and hot. Simple and easy. Plus, it’s inexpensive and can feed 6-8 guests.”

Cauliflower Gratin: From Chef Matt Stickle. “Cut two heads cauliflower into florettes. Heat 2 quarts cream in a saucepan and simmer cauliflower until it is tender. Add 1 cup grated parmesan, salt and pepper to taste and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage. Stir to melt cheese. Use a slotted spoon to transfer cauliflower to a baking dish. Add enough of the heated cream to fill the dish until cauliflower is halfway submerged. Top with 2 cups grated parmesan. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes, or until cheese is melted and brown.”

Sauteed peas: From Chef Tom Pantley. “Cook a bag of frozen peas (about 2 cups) in a heated skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Thinly slice a green onion. (1 stalk for 2 cups of peas). Cook uncovered on medium high heat. The oil and the water from the frozen peas will keep the dish from drying out. When the onions have gone from sharp to sweet, the peas will also be perfectly cooked. Nothing goes better with mashed potatoes and gravy.”

Garlic and honey mashed sweet potatoes: From Chef Tom Pantley. “Peel and boil about 3 pounds of sweet potatoes. When they are soft, drain and add a pound of butter, a cup of milk, (or better yet, cream) garlic powder, 2 tablespoons of honey and a dash of allspice. Mix together adding salt and pepper to taste. Add the allspice a little at a time. A little is wonderful. Too much is inedible.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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