Q: This is my first year cooking a turkey. Any tips?
A: First bear in mind that a turkey is just a big chicken. If you’ve roasted a chicken—or even if you haven’t—there’s no need to be intimidated by the turkey. Three simple tips will guarantee success every time.
1. Pick the right bird: The first important decision happens when you purchase your turkey. For best flavor and texture, opt for a fresh (never-frozen) turkey. Organic is best; mass-produced and frozen birds are often “marinated” or injected with saline solution. You can often order from food emporiums, like Whole Foods, or from local farmers.
2. Cook to the perfect temp: Take all the guesswork out of the cooking process and invest in an inexpensive probe thermometer. Insert the probe into the meaty part of one thigh, and set the monitor to sound at 165˚F. The turkey is now done, so pull it from the oven.
3. Let it rest: Allow the turkey to stand for half an hour at room temperature while you ready all the sides and trimmings. Do not carve the turkey before it has rested, so the juices will redistribute and remain in the meat—if you carve too soon, the precious juices will be lost on your cutting board, leaving one dry turkey.
Q: What’s the difference between stock and broth?
A: In traditional chef-speak, stock is made from bones, and broth is made with meat. But this distinction does not always hold true among products available in the supermarket. The main problem with many commercial stocks and broths is they’re too salty. Sometimes specialty stores will sell homemade (unsalted) stock, but the best product that’s widely available in supermarkets is unsalted chicken stock (such as Swanson).
Q: What can be made ahead? And what should be cooked Thanksgiving day?
A: The smartest approach to preparing for the big day is to think through your menu in terms of tasks: Some dishes can be entirely prepared ahead and simply reheated on Turkey Day; others can be broken into components and finished just before serving. For instance, sweet potato and most casseroles, stuffing, and mac and cheese can all be fully cooked ahead, chilled, and reheated before serving. With sides like salads, you can prepare many components (wash and chop lettuce and veggies, toast nuts, make vinaigrette), but store them separately and toss together just before serving. There are others still, like mashed potatoes and the bird (see turkey question below), that need to be done from start to finish just before you plan to serve them.
Q: Can I cook the turkey the day before and just reheat it?
A: Technically speaking, you can cook the turkey ahead and reheat, but quality will suffer, and reheating lean meat is a tricky business. The bird is at its best when it’s fresh out of the oven and fully rested. If you want to get a jump-start on your turkey prep a day ahead and guarantee juicy, flavorful results, consider brining the bird. Here’s a fantastic Cooking Light recipe: Apple Cider-Brined Turkey with Savory Herb Gravy.