It’s so exciting, isn’t it? After days of reading the advice and recipes on the internet and in all of the cooking magazines, and mentally tasting your  favorite recipes as you ponder them, you have a plan. Some of your choices are familiar favorites you know you can depend on, and some are new items you’re curious to try—or maybe you’ve already done a test run of some new recipes last week, just for safety’s sake. In your mind, you can see the fresh appeal of your appetizers, the hearty satisfaction of all of your sides, and the memorable decadence of your dessert choices. Did you choose your favorite bubbly to toast your blessings? Don’t forget that. Remember, it’s all about gratitude.

Before you put the apron on, I thought it might be helpful to share a few strategies and practices that have worked for me over the years. You don’t need to change a thing about your menu. But you still have a few major decisions ahead of you. And in order to be successful, you need to be informed.

The bird
Figure about a pound to 1 1/2 pounds per person. Having leftovers is a bonus with turkey, so it’s usually better to err on the higher side. And compared to other main course proteins, turkey is relatively inexpensive — so this is no time to pinch pennies. Don’t worry about matching the weight of your bird to the weight of the recipe you’ve chosen; just buy the size bird that you want to and find roasting guidelines online or go to The Joy of Cooking. The temperature of the meat should guide you.

PSST! Let’s have the meat thermometer talk right now.
Of course, if you don’t yet own a meat thermometer, now is the time to buy one. There are lots of different kinds out there. Most of them are digital now—they can range from $20 to $200, but some still have have a small dial (those are $20 or less). What I have is a Thermapen model Mk4 thermometer from ThermoWorks. There are also thermometers that are outside the oven, and have a thin cord that goes inside the oven, which you stick it in the turkey breast. You can look at the temperature right on the counter. That item is ChefAlarm by ThermoWorks, which sells for $95 on Amazon. It is a timer, too. And it’s pretty cool!

I always order a fresh turkey from a reputable farm or meat market. Just so you know, the USDA allows “fresh” turkeys to be held at temperatures a few degrees below freezing (forming what is called a “crust” in the trade), so no need to be alarmed if your fresh bird feels a little frozen on the outside. It’s best to pick up your turkey a few days ahead and let it sit in the fridge. Even more so for a frozen turkey, which is best thawed slowly under refrigeration — allow at least three days for a 20-pounder.

You’ve always assumed brining wasn’t worth the trouble? You’re so wrong!
Brining the bird overnight before roasting is well worth the trouble. You’ll end up with much juicier white meat, even if (and especially if) you are racing around and end up checking the turkey ten minutes after the timer has popped. (Brining is sort of like an insurance policy. In a 350-degree oven, it takes a turkey only about 15 minutes to get from 155 degrees to 160, so you need to be vigilant.) I recommend Alton Brown’s recipe for roasted turkey, a five-star recipe with 5270 glowing reviews,  with just a few adjustments: I would 1) use water instead of vegetable stock (no need to spend that much money on stock) for the brine; 2) omit the allspice and ginger seasonings; and 3) use a roasting pan instead of the stated sheet pan.

Embrace the dark side.
Out of respect for those who prefer the dark meat (myself included!), please make an effort to cook the thigh meat until it’s falling-off-the-bone tender. My method is to remove the roasting pan from the oven when the pop-up thermometer pops–or, better yet, use a thermometer to determine exactly when the thickest part of the breast registers 155 degrees. Next I use a chef’s knife and tongs to remove both breast halves, following the breast and rib bones as closely as possible, and wrap the breast halves in heavy-duty aluminum foil and hold in a warm place. I then get rid of the rack, place the remains of the bird back in the pan, add water as needed to come up about an inch in the pan, and tent well with foil. Continue braising–not roasting– for 20 to 30 minutes longer, until the thigh meat is perfectly tender. After transferring the turkey to a sheet pan and allowing it to cool a bit, the whole legs should come off the carcass easily, and you can then separate the thigh meat from the bone.

Instagram-ready!
As for presentation, you may want to try the following: Criss-cross the drumsticks at one end of a large platter. Next slice one breast and half of the other, keeping the slices together. Place the unsliced breast piece next to the drumsticks, then lay the breast slices along the sides of the platter, and lastly fill the center with thigh meat cut into slices or bite-size chunks. Garnish the platter with whole scallions or rosemary branches tucked under the meat. If you run out of breast slices, slice the whole piece; if not, the whole piece will be easier to slice thinly when it’s cold the next day for turkey sandwiches. (Yum!)

Here’s a stuffing recipe I like. 

Stuffing is the highlight of the day for many people. If you’re open to trying a different recipe for stuffing, check out the Serious Eats website for their “Classic Sage and Sausage Stuffing Recipe” — it sounds fabulous, and I’m going with it this year.

I’m sharing my battle-tested mashed potato recipe.

Now is not the time to worry about calories. There is nothing more depressing than lumpy, tasteless, dry mashed potatoes. This is a holiday! It’s a feast. Everything matters. Your objective is an unforgettable, joyous experience. That means cream and butter. I’ve have a family member who is IRISH, and she claims to hate mashed potatoes, because she’s been served them so often—except mine! In my catering business, people would eat very elegant meals, and then ask me about the mashed potato recipe. Trust me.

PURE AND SIMPLE MASHED POTATOES
Yield: 4 servings

2 lbs. russet baking potatoes
2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 stick (2 oz.) butter, room temperature
1 tsp. salt
30 turns of a pepper mill (freshly ground is essential)
1 tbsp. finely sliced chives (optional)

DIRECTIONS:

  1.  Peel potatoes and cut into two-inch pieces. Place in a bowl of cold water. Pour cream into a coffee mug and microwave on high heat for 40 seconds to take the chill off.
  2. Bring 3 quarts water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add 2 tbsp. salt. Drain potatoes and add to boiling water. Bring back to a boil and cook at a low boil until a paring knife slides easily into potatoes (total boiling time about 20 minutes). Promptly drain cooked potatoes into a colander and allow steam to escape for about 1 minute.
  3. Return potatoes to saucepan, heat for another minute on low heat, then add butter and mash thoroughly with a potato masher. Add half the warm cream and stir gently with a wooden spoon. Add more cream gradually until you get the desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper, and add more if desired to taste.
  4. Fold in minced chives, if desired, or wait until service to sprinkle on top. Cover and keep warm. Just before service, check the consistency and add a bit of milk if necessary. Transfer to a serving dish and keep warm. Enjoy!

NOTE:
What could be so hard about mashed potatoes? There are only a handful of ingredients, and you’re just boiling them, right? Wrong! It is crucial to achieve a light, fluffy, and dry consistency to end up with a rich potato flavor. I prefer Idaho russets over Yukon golds. Make sure you boil the potato chunks long enough so that they are thoroughly tender–but not longer–since they quickly begin to absorb water and lose flavor. Letting steam escape after draining, and briefly dry-cooking on top of the stove both matter a lot in achieving the best possible consistency and taste. For a printable version of this recipe, click here.

CRANBERRY SAUCE in 15 minutes

You may have family members who adore canned, jelled cranberry sauce. Or you may have a relative who always brings you her orange-cranberry relish, which zings itself into sugary tartness in a blender in a few minutes. All well and good. Still, you owe it to yourself to try Julia Moskin’s recipe for Classic Cranberry Sauce from New York Times Cooking, which is ready in 15 minutes with or without alcohol–and is just the right consistency to make a perfect addition to those  next-day turkey sandwiches.