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Thanksgiving Wisdom

  • Photos by Marcus Nilsson
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Thanksgiving is such a great holiday, but we know cooking the meal can be a monumental task. Luckily, the experts in our test kitchen know how to make it easier, having prepared versions of the classic turkey-centric feast both at home and at work for decades. Here, they unveil their prep secrets, time-savers, modern updates, personal favorites, and paradigm-shifting surprises.

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All About the Turkey

Cooking the bird is the biggest single part of creating the Thanksgiving feast. And it's something that's hard to reinvent every year, but we think we've nailed it with our Roasted Turkey in Parchment with Gravy (below) and Roasted Dry-Brined Turkey (above).

Roasted Turkey in Parchment

To ensure super-moist meat throughout, we wrapped our bird in parchment, creating a cozy steam packet. Then we ripped it open and cranked up the oven to brown the skin until crackling‐crisp. Watch how Jennifer Aaronson creates an easy parchment-paper roasting bag.

Get the Roasted Turkey in Parchment Bag with Gravy Recipe

Two Steps Toward the Juiciest White Meat

Treat your turkey breast like a great steak and cut it against the grain.
Follow these steps:

  • 1
    Remove the breast halves

    Remove each breast half from the bird with a deep slice down both sides
    of the breastbone.

    Remove the breast halves

A Buyer's Guide to Turkey Terminology

This time of year, home cooks are faced with an array of turkey choices. Here’s the lowdown.

  • Fresh

    According to the USDA, a fresh turkey has never been chilled below 26 degrees or frozen. The organization recommends that you purchase a fresh turkey no more than two days ahead. Supermarket meat departments start taking orders for fresh turkeys a few weeks before Thanksgiving.

  • Self-Basting

    Conventional turkeys -- an industrially raised breed called the Broad‐Breasted White is what you find most often at the supermarket -- produce more white meat than dark and grow quickly, so they don’t have time to fatten up and develop flavor and juiciness. That’s why the carcasses are plumped up with “basting” solutions that may include butter, broth, sugar, and salt or sodium phosphate.

  • Heritage

    Old‐fashioned breeds such as Bourbon Red and Narragansett (which have less white meat than conventional birds do) are raised with care and plenty of access to the outdoors. Most are sold online through companies such as Heritage Foods USA and Mary’s Free Range Turkey and shipped fresh overnight. Heritage turkeys can be far more expensive than those found in the supermarket, and because availability is limited, they sell out quickly.

  • Frozen

    Every four or five pounds of meat requires 24 hours of thawing in the refrigerator, so a 12‐ to 16‐pound bird will take three to four days to thaw. (Place it on a rimmed baking sheet to corral any dripping juices.) Once thawed, it can stay in the fridge up to two days before roasting.

  • Kosher

    These conventionally raised or free‐range birds are processed in accordance with Jewish dietary law. They’re salted, which improves flavor and texture, then rinsed in cold water, which tightens the skin; that’s the reason some quills remain. Allow time to remove them with needle‐nose pliers. Don’t brine a kosher bird, as the result will be too salty.

  • Fresh

    According to the USDA, a fresh turkey has never been chilled below 26 degrees or frozen. The organization recommends that you purchase a fresh turkey no more than two days ahead. Supermarket meat departments start taking orders for fresh turkeys a few weeks before Thanksgiving.

  • Frozen

    Every four or five pounds of meat requires 24 hours of thawing in the refrigerator, so a 12‐ to 16‐pound bird will take three to four days to thaw. (Place it on a rimmed baking sheet to corral any dripping juices.) Once thawed, it can stay in the fridge up to two days before roasting.

  • Self-Basting

    Conventional turkeys -- an industrially raised breed called the Broad‐Breasted White is what you find most often at the supermarket -- produce more white meat than dark and grow quickly, so they don’t have time to fatten up and develop flavor and juiciness. That’s why the carcasses are plumped up with “basting” solutions that may include butter, broth, sugar, and salt or sodium phosphate.

  • Kosher

    These conventionally raised or free‐range birds are processed in accordance with Jewish dietary law. They’re salted, which improves flavor and texture, then rinsed in cold water, which tightens the skin; that’s the reason some quills remain. Allow time to remove them with needle‐nose pliers. Don’t brine a kosher bird, as the result will be too salty.

  • Heritage

    Old‐fashioned breeds such as Bourbon Red and Narragansett (which have less white meat than conventional birds do) are raised with care and plenty of access to the outdoors. Most are sold online through companies such as Heritage Foods USA and Mary’s Free Range Turkey and shipped fresh overnight. Heritage turkeys can be far more expensive than those found in the supermarket, and because availability is limited, they sell out quickly.

Stuffing Versus Dressing

Technically, the only difference is where you bake it: Stuffing cooks inside the bird; dressing bakes in a dish.

1. Sausage Pear Stuffing -- This is great for traditionalists: a bread stuffing full of sausage, herbs, and pears. The bread gets moist and flavored when cooked in the bird.


2. Dried-Fruit and Nut Cornbread Dressing -- Get ahead by baking the cornbread with nuts and dried fruit mixed right in, then freeze it up to a month. The day of, just combine with a few more ingredients and bake in a buttery dish. (Vegetarians will thank you.)

 
3. Oyster and Cracker Dressing -- This crunchy dressing, cooked in a shallow layer, never inside the bird, is made with saltines; it’s a must‐have on many tables.


Watch How to Make Dried-Fruit and Nut Cornbread Stuffing

"A lot of cooks forget that the neck end of the bird holds stuffing too. My house is divided when it comes to stuffing, so I make two kinds and stuff one into each end of the bird."
Lucinda Scala Quinn

Superb Sides

From sweet potatoes dressed with brown butter and Brussels sprouts in sherry-thyme vinaigrette to bechamel and greens and olive-oil mashed potatoes with garlic and sage, these delicious vegetable dishes round out the festive menu and are simple to make.

Three Easy Ways to Dress Your Sides

Don’t fret over complicated side dishes. These three simple sauces will embellish just about any steamed green or roasted vegetable.

  • 2
    Brown Butter

    This is a one‐ingredient wonder sauce. Cook butter until the milk solids brown and the flavor becomes nutty and nuanced. Spoon over vegetables.

    Get the Brown Butter Recipe

    Brown Butter
  • 3
    Vinaigrette

    Dress just‐roasted vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, or steamed vegetables, such as green beans, as you would a salad and serve warm or at room temperature for an instant classic.

    Get the Sherry Thyme Vinaigrette Recipe

     

    Vinaigrette

Squash Sublime

Rethink your winter squash; it'll mean less prep and less waste.

  • No Peeling Required
    No Peeling Required

    We’ve been eating our squash skins for a while now. Delicatas started us in that direction, since they’re commonly cooked with their skins on, but now we’re doing it with lots of other varieties, too, like acorn squash, right -- plus sweet potatoes, carrots, apples (of course), and even beets. There’s a lot of flavor and vitamins there, so give the peeler the day off.

  • Roast Seeds, Flesh and All

    Save yourself all the sorting and rinsing usually associated with cooking squash seeds, and roast the whole lot together. The fibrous pulp surrounding the seeds is sweet and nutty, amplifying the flavor of this addictive snack. -- Greg Lofts

    Get the Roasted Squash Seeds Recipe

  • No Peeling Required
    No Peeling Required

    We’ve been eating our squash skins for a while now. Delicatas started us in that direction, since they’re commonly cooked with their skins on, but now we’re doing it with lots of other varieties, too, like acorn squash, right -- plus sweet potatoes, carrots, apples (of course), and even beets. There’s a lot of flavor and vitamins there, so give the peeler the day off.

  • Roast Seeds, Flesh and All

    Save yourself all the sorting and rinsing usually associated with cooking squash seeds, and roast the whole lot together. The fibrous pulp surrounding the seeds is sweet and nutty, amplifying the flavor of this addictive snack. -- Greg Lofts

    Get the Roasted Squash Seeds Recipe

Classic and Not-So-Classic Cranberry Condiments

No Thanksgiving table is complete without cranberry sauce (or relish or chutney), and it's the easiest part of the holiday meal.

  • Paean to Canned Cranberry Sauce
    Paean to Canned Cranberry Sauce

    I grew up on canned Ocean Spray and hated the few Thanksgivings I spent away from home -- and away from my beloved (ridged) sauce. I’ve since come to like quite a few chunky homemade versions, but nothing will ever replace my fondness for that silky, jellied sauce. -- Jennifer Aaronson

  • Paean to Canned Cranberry Sauce
    Paean to Canned Cranberry Sauce

    I grew up on canned Ocean Spray and hated the few Thanksgivings I spent away from home -- and away from my beloved (ridged) sauce. I’ve since come to like quite a few chunky homemade versions, but nothing will ever replace my fondness for that silky, jellied sauce. -- Jennifer Aaronson

The Relish Tray, Revisited

Growing up, I steered clear of the relish tray at my family’s Thanksgiving table: carrot sticks, baby corn, black olives, and canned beets. But this modern version has something fresh and briny for everyone. The kimchi, for instance, brings the heat, while pickle-dressed acorn squash and baby beets are earthy and mellow. In the dead of summer, I put up green cherry tomatoes with Thanksgiving in mind (you could use Tomolives). For crunch, I like fresh baby daikon and the tender inner stalks of celery -- and the caper berries are just fun to eat. -- Shira Bocar

Perfect Pies

The grand finale comes in a pastry case. For some it's just not Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie, others must have apple, and some like a new dessert every year. We don't play favorites; a thin slice of every pie rounds out the meal in grand style.

Pie Crust Upgrades

The possibilities for edging a pie are endless. These are some of our go-tos.

A. Pinch dough to crimp, then use a fork to mark edge.


B. Use a fork to crosshatch marks.


C. Braid three strips of dough and adhere them with egg wash.


D. Flatten with a fork.


E. Pinch to crimp.


F. Cut tabs and alternate folding forward.


G. Mark twice with an inverted spoon.


H. Cut out leaf shapes, mark veins with a knife, and adhere with egg wash.

Pie-Prep Tricks to Live By

We’ve made thousands of pies in our test kitchen. Here, our must-do steps.

  • Egg Wash
    Egg Wash

    A beaten egg brushed onto a double‐crust pie adds a gorgeous sheen to any dough.

  • Docking
    Docking

    When a single crust requires prebaking, dock (prick it all over) with a fork to prevent puffing in the oven.

  • Sanding Sugar
    Sanding Sugar

    Coarse sanding sugar is the secret to a crunchy, sparkling crust.

  • Blind-Baking
    Blind-Baking

    Completely prebake single shells before pouring in any loose filling.

  • Egg Wash
    Egg Wash

    A beaten egg brushed onto a double‐crust pie adds a gorgeous sheen to any dough.

  • Sanding Sugar
    Sanding Sugar

    Coarse sanding sugar is the secret to a crunchy, sparkling crust.

  • Docking
    Docking

    When a single crust requires prebaking, dock (prick it all over) with a fork to prevent puffing in the oven.

  • Blind-Baking
    Blind-Baking

    Completely prebake single shells before pouring in any loose filling.

Martha's Brown-Butter Apple Pie

Take apple pie a notch higher with the tantalizing additions of browned butter and vanilla bean. Martha says it's the best apple pie you'll have ever tasted.

Get the Brown Butter Apple Pie Recipe

The Beauty of the Slab Pie

It’s hard not to love a slab pie -- that great big expanse of dessert prepared in a rimmed baking sheet. The crust-filling-topping ratio is perfect in every one of its 24 slices. (Wasn’t there enough squabbling over the drumsticks?) And since the pie is open-topped and shallow, it can be cut into and eaten warm, with the juices remaining in each slice rather than pooling in the pan. Best of all, this single dessert feeds a crowd and still leaves you with leftovers.

More Secrets to Great Pie

  • Better in the Can
    Better in the Can

    We’ve peeled and scraped; roasted, steamed, and mashed; pureed; and even reduced. And in the end...the cooked fresh pumpkin still couldn’t hold a candle to the smooth, dense puree from the can. So take a pass on all that prep work -- especially when there’s plenty of other scratch cooking going on -- and just open a can.

  • Perfect Pies from the Freezer
    Perfect Pies from the Freezer

    Double-crust pies should be frozen for 30 minutes to an hour before baking to preserve edges and avoid a collapsing top crust.
    Single-crust pie shells must freeze in their dish at least an hour (or up to one week) before filling or blind‐baking to keep their shape.
    Pecan pies can be baked fully, then frozen for up to a week. Thaw at room temperature for at least four hours before serving.

  • Better in the Can
    Better in the Can

    We’ve peeled and scraped; roasted, steamed, and mashed; pureed; and even reduced. And in the end...the cooked fresh pumpkin still couldn’t hold a candle to the smooth, dense puree from the can. So take a pass on all that prep work -- especially when there’s plenty of other scratch cooking going on -- and just open a can.

  • Perfect Pies from the Freezer
    Perfect Pies from the Freezer

    Double-crust pies should be frozen for 30 minutes to an hour before baking to preserve edges and avoid a collapsing top crust.
    Single-crust pie shells must freeze in their dish at least an hour (or up to one week) before filling or blind‐baking to keep their shape.
    Pecan pies can be baked fully, then frozen for up to a week. Thaw at room temperature for at least four hours before serving.

The Ultimate Pumpkin Pie: Three Tricks in One Recipe!

1. Use pumpkin seeds in the crust: We swapped out some of the flour for chopped toasted pumpkin seeds to create a crust with great flavor and texture.


2. Make your own evaporated milk: We replaced that often‐called‐for can with milk that’s been reduced and infused with whole spices.


3. Brulee the top: Taking a cue from creme brulee, we topped the creamy pumpkin filling with a crunchy caramelized‐sugar crust.

Get the Bruleed Pumpkin Pie Recipe

Tool Talk

Having the right supplies and knowing how to use them will get you to the finish line with a lot less hassle.

  • One You Don't Need to Buy: Turkey Lifters
    One You Don't Need to Buy: Turkey Lifters

    A few layers of paper towels act as disposable pot holders for moving the bird from pan to carving board nick‐free.

Getting It Done Days in Advance

Thanksgiving is a multifaceted meal, usually anchored by a big bird with many side dishes and a pie (or three). That’s why it’s nice to get as much prepared ahead as possible.

  • One Week (or More) Before
    One Week (or More) Before

    Turkey Stock -- There’s no need to wait until you get your bird to make it. Pick up some turkey wings and turn them into a wonderfully flavored stock. (It can even be frozen up to three months.)
    Squash Seeds -- A favorite for day-of snacking, seeds stay crisp after roasting for up to a week.

  • Two to Three Days Before
    Two to Three Days Before

    Pies -- Start by making pie doughs three days ahead of time (or make them a month in advance and store in the freezer). Bake all pies at least a day before they will be served to develop flavors and set fruit-pie juices (at room temperature) or custards (in the refrigerator).
    Mashed Potatoes -- Go ahead and make them completely and refrigerate them. To reheat, place them in a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water; stir until warm.
    Vegetables -- Chop all ingredients for stuffings and sides, then combine and label them in containers in the fridge.

  • One Week (or More) Before
    One Week (or More) Before

    Turkey Stock -- There’s no need to wait until you get your bird to make it. Pick up some turkey wings and turn them into a wonderfully flavored stock. (It can even be frozen up to three months.)
    Squash Seeds -- A favorite for day-of snacking, seeds stay crisp after roasting for up to a week.

  • Two to Three Days Before
    Two to Three Days Before

    Pies -- Start by making pie doughs three days ahead of time (or make them a month in advance and store in the freezer). Bake all pies at least a day before they will be served to develop flavors and set fruit-pie juices (at room temperature) or custards (in the refrigerator).
    Mashed Potatoes -- Go ahead and make them completely and refrigerate them. To reheat, place them in a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water; stir until warm.
    Vegetables -- Chop all ingredients for stuffings and sides, then combine and label them in containers in the fridge.

The Final Countdown

ANY TIME THE DAY OF
Cranberry Sauce -- Open the can, slice, and arrange in dish. Refrigerate until serving.
Green Beans -- Steam, pat them dry, and toss with vinaigrette. Transfer to a platter; hold at room temperature.
1 HOUR BEFORE EATING
Turkey -- Once the turkey is out of the oven, it needs to rest. Factor in 45 minutes before carving.
45 MINUTES BEFORE
Stuffing -- Transfer any stuffing from the turkey to a baking dish and put it back in the oven to finish cooking and crisp up. Dressings can be baked once the turkey comes out of the oven.
30 MINUTES BEFORE
Squash -- Roast trays of squash alongside the stuffing in the oven. When you’re ready to serve, toss it with brown butter.
20 MINUTES BEFORE
Mashed Potatoes -- Reheat them, adding more milk if needed to thin. Keep them warm until ready to serve.
Béchamel and Greens -- Reheat, stirring, over medium heat.
5 MINUTES BEFORE
Gravy -- It should be the last thing to leave the stove. Make it any time after the turkey comes out of the oven, but give it a final reheat in the last minutes before sitting down.

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