Ham is great, chicken is even some people’s favorite, but let’s be real: On Thanksgiving, there’s got to be turkey on the table.
But between buying the right turkey to knowing how to prepare it, it’s not the easiest dish to get right, and Thanksgiving is not the time for experimenting. So we got some advice from someone who’s handled thousands of them: Ricky Eisen, founder and president of the Manhattan cafe and caterer Between the Bread.
Eisen has been cooking up Thanksgiving meals for 35 years; follow her tips, and you won’t be daunted by the turkey.
What type of turkey is best, fresh or frozen?
“There really is no best,” says Eisen. “You would think that a fresh turkey would have a fresher taste, but they are cooked for so long and so slow that it usually doesn’t influence the taste very much.” Duration of cooking, spices and style are the main taste influencers.
The only other differences that exist are between so-called heritage turkeys, which are organically raised and free-range, versus other birds which may have been raised in cages. So if you want a guilt-free Thanksgiving, make sure you read the labels.
When should I buy my turkey?
When you buy your turkey usually does not greatly influence the taste. “But if you buy fresh, buy it the day before; and if you buy frozen, keep in mind that to properly defrost a turkey it takes up to three days in the fridge,” says Eisen.
Most Thanksgiving kitchen fires happen while preparing a fried turkey, when a frozen bird is dropped into the hot oil. Buy a frozen turkey at least four days in advance if you go that route, Eisen advises.
How often should I baste the turkey?
“Really, as often as possible; there’s no such thing as a turkey that is too moist,” she says. But remember, every time you open the oven door you are losing heat, so the turkey will take longer to cook. About once for every 30 minutes of cooking time is generally best. What is most important for maintaining moistness is to avoid overcooking.
What steps should I take to prevent my turkey from drying out?
One method that Between the Bread sometimes uses to cook the turkey is under a gently placed aluminum foil tent, which helps retain much of the moisture: “We can still baste by simply lifting one side of the foil, then re-covering when we are done.”
For the last 30 minutes of cooking, remove the foil to allow the turkey to brown and crisp on the exterior. “But again, absolute most important is to avoid overcooking,” Eisen says. “Know the exact weight of your turkey before cooking, and a good rule of thumb is to do about 20 minutes of cooking per pound unstuffed, and a few minutes longer per pound if stuffed.”
Any carving tips?
Don’t use an electric knife, which tends to shred things. Eisen recommends removing the breast from the bone, then slice on a carving board.
What about the rest of the meal – should I cook at the last minute so everything is fresh?
“Definitely NOT,” says Eisen, given how time-consuming it will be to assemble the many components of a Thanksgiving meal. “Almost everything should be prepared the day or evening before, and then the turkey the day of.” Because the bird will take hours to cook, you can rotate in the prepared dishes to reheat all of yesterday’s cooked food.