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Friday, July 19

Gapers Block

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The important thing is not to panic.

My first Thanksgiving away from my family was four years ago. My eager volunteerism led to my cooking for five friends; two of them were vegetarians and one had a wheat allergy as well. I had never, ever cooked a turkey. Again, I must remind you that the important thing is not to panic.

Cooking a turkey is not impossible, but you must respect the boundaries of Thanksgiving. There are certain laws of chemistry, biology, and physics to be adhered to. There are only 24 hours in a day. There is only one stove and one oven in your kitchen. You can actually poison your family, and more importantly, you could poison yourself. These are just some of the important details.

OK, the nitty gritty of cooking a turkey. You need about 1/2 to 1 pound of turkey for each person who'll be dining. When you've just got a few folks coming by, your best bet is the turkey breast, which has no dark meat and is usually about half the size of the turkeys they roll out for Thanksgiving in the grocery stores. It's up to you what brand to buy, whether to go free-range or Butterball, and whether to get fresh or frozen turkey. However, at this point in time, if you're reading this article on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, it is too late for a frozen turkey. Nope, not gonna happen. You cannot successfully thaw a frozen turkey in your fridge (no, you can't just leave it out on the table for two days) in time for Thanksgiving dinner at this point. These are just the facts. Not to worry though, because fresh turkeys are plentiful. There's also no rule that says a turkey has to be in the oven when your guests arrive. I cook so many other things in the oven on Thanksgiving day that I always cook the turkey the night before. No worries about it being done exactly when everybody walks in the door, and you get to enjoy that turkey smell all yourself. Just make sure you wrap it up well and refrigerate it when you're done. Warm up those turkey slices right before you sit down to eat, and you'll be fine.

All right, are we ready? Now, you've got your turkey. It's thawed, unwrapped from its plastic, the bag o' giblets has been removed from the cavity and you've got a nice clean workspace set aside in your kitchen. Turn the radio on and wash your hands.

Step One: Clean your bird.
You'll need to run some cold water and get some paper towels. Rinse the outside and inside of the bird, taking care not to drop it on the floor of your kitchen. Pat it dry with paper towels (including the cavity!) and set it on a cutting board, on some paper towels or another clean dry space. Make sure that all of the feathers, etc. have been removed, especially on the wings. This isn't a very fun task, but you'll be glad you checked.

Step Two: Seasoning.
You'll need salt, pepper and slightly softened butter (or margarine, but darn it if butter doesn't taste fantastic on turkey). You can also dip into "poultry seasoning," which is sold everywhere this time of year (it's a combination of dried sage and thyme, usually), or fresh or dried herbs. Basic herbs that go well with turkey are thyme, sage and parsley. You might also like to use a little white pepper for a little more zing. This is up to you. At the minimum, grab your shakers, some butter and get sprinkling. You'll want to salt and pepper the outside skin, as well as the inside cavity. Use a butter knife and dot the outside of the skin. Be as liberal as you like. The seasonings can also be used under the skin of the bird, directly on the meat. To do this, just use a good knife to slide up the loose skin and gently cut away the stringy underside of the skin, so you can reach far under the skin without tearing the skin in the process. Again, use the salt and pepper and whatever seasonings you like. Be generous but thorough, and don't get carried away.

Step Three: Stuffing!
There's many different recipes for stuffing out there. Almost as many as for dressing (which is stuffing that's prepared outside the bird). Some things to consider when deciding which one to make include: time (it will take longer to cook with stuffing inside), oven reliability (you can really get sick from undercooked stuffing, so having a meat thermometer is key here, you'll want the center of the stuffing to reach 165° F), tools (you'll probably need some twine and some kind of skewers for stuffing, but only another pan or saucepot for dressing) and recipe reliability (how did mom get all those oysters shucked in time for dinner every year?). You'll need about 1/2 cup of stuffing for each pound of turkey. And always remember to remove the stuffing from the bird when it's finished cooking. You should never stuff a turkey before you're ready to cook it, and never refrigerate it afterwards with the stuffing inside.

Here are two ways you can use one recipe:

Basic Bread Stuffing
For a medium to large turkey, you'll need:
1 package Pepperidge Farm herb stuffing (Any brand will do, but this is the one my mom used for years. Alternately, you can make your own bread crumbs by cubing your favorite bread -- day-old or stale works best -- and adding 1/2 tsp. dried sage and 1/2 tsp. dried thyme or poultry seasoning. You'll need about 6-8 cups of bread.)
1 medium onion, diced
3-4 ribs celery, diced
salt and pepper
1/2 stick of butter

1. Put your diced onion, celery, butter and salt and pepper in a saucepan with enough water to cover them. Bring this to a boil and cook the mixture slowly until they are soft (about 25-30 minutes), stirring occasionally.
2. Remove from heat and let cool another 15-20 minutes.
3. In a large bowl, put the cooked onion/celery mixture and start adding handfuls of the bread mixture. If you think you've added too much bread, you can always add a little warm water, but be careful not to make bread soup here. The final product should be moist but not wet (the wetter the mix, the longer to bake).
4. To stuff your bird, spoon the stuffing mixture into the cavity, making sure to leave room for expansion and thorough cooking. You'll want it to be full, but not packed tight as a drum.
5. Once you've stuffed the body cavity and the neck cavity of the bird, make sure to fold the flap of skin over the stuffing mixture, and you can either use metal skewers and twine to keep the flap closed, or use the wings of the bird to cover the flap. Butterball has a pretty nice video online.

Alternate route: Dressing
The same ingredients and cooking method apply for dressing, which my mom always made as patties on a cookie sheet. After adding your breadcrumbs and getting your mixture to its proper amount of moistness, form the stuffing into hamburger-sized patties and arrange them on a cookie sheet, not quite touching each other. Bake these at 325° to 350° for about 20 minutes, until the stuffing is no longer wet. Test these for doneness in your own oven, and be careful of letting them dry out! Two patties per person is about right. These can be cooked near the end of your day, close to dinnertime. I always cook the onions and celery mixture the night before to save time and my pots and pans, and to avoid that potent onion smell throughout the whole house.

Step Four: Baking time!
Preheat your oven to 350°. You'll need a strong pan that's bigger than your turkey. If you don't have one already, or if you doubt its size, go ahead and pick out a strong aluminum roasting pan at the store when you get your turkey. That way, you can be assured of a proper fit. You'll also need some large sheets of aluminum foil, so pick some of that up as well.

Once your oven is hot enough, place your turkey in the pan with the breast side facing up. Pour about 1/2 to 1 cup of water in the pan (use more if you've got an especially large bird). You can also use about 1/2 cup of chicken broth -- or turkey broth if you can find it -- in combination with the water. Create a tinfoil "tent" for the turkey using large sheets of aluminum foil, which you pinch together to form a big enough cover for the bird. You do not want the foil to touch the skin, because it will stick during baking. Crimp the foil along the edges of the pan as well, so steam cannot escape during cooking.

Before you put the bird in the oven, make sure your oven rack has been moved low enough to accommodate it. Slide it in, careful not to drop it on the floor on the way to the oven, and set your timer. Your turkey will have a tag on it, displaying the weight to cooking time ratios. Always allow more time, especially if you're stuffing the bird.

Butterball offers the following conversions:

Net weight (in pounds)

Unstuffed (in hours)

Stuffed (in hours)

10 - 18

3 - 3 1/2

3 3/4 - 4 1/2

18 - 22

3 1/2 - 4

4 1/2 - 5

22 - 24

4 - 4 1/2

5 - 5 1/2

24 - 30

4 1/2 - 5

5 1/2 - 6 1/4

You'll want to keep an eye on the turkey, taking time about every 30 to 45 minutes to baste the bird. This can be done with a handy dandy turkey baster (about $2 at the grocery stores these days) or with an even handier long-handled spoon. So far, I've done fine with a spoon. Take the turkey out of the oven, remove the foil, and use the juices in the bottom of the pan and spoon onto the top and sides of the turkey, being careful not to scald yourself on steam, burn yourself on the oven or (I'll say this again) drop the turkey.

About 15 minutes before the turkey's done, remove the tinfoil tent. This allows the skin to get nice and brown. But this also can lead to drying out of the turkey, so baste well before you put it back in the oven for its final browning. Your meat thermometer should read 180° when inserted in the fleshy part of the thigh (careful not to touch the bone). Trust that little popper if you want, but a double check is always smart. You can poke into the thick part of the meat with a long fork, and there should be only clear juices running out of the turkey. If you cut into the meat to check once you've taken it out completely, the meat should not be pink, and the drumsticks should come away easily from the turkey.

Now, carefully lift the turkey out of the pan and onto a cutting board or serving platter. Allow the turkey to rest at least 15 minutes before carving, and be sure to cover the bird up with aluminum foil to prevent it from drying out.

Step 5: Gravy.
You can now make the gravy, but don't do this until you're almost ready to eat -- gravy skin is not pleasant. Collect the pan juices in a bowl first. Use a colander or sieve to strain out any extra herbs or fatty bits, pouring the good juices in a medium saucepan. If it seems like you have too little, you can add some warm water or chicken or turkey broth to the juices in the pan, but not too much. Bring the stock to a boil. Meanwhile, put 2 to 3 tablespoons of flour or cornstarch (for that kid with the wheat allergy) in a small bowl or measuring cup. Add enough COLD water (cold water = no lumps) to the flour to make a nice paste. When the stock has reached a boil, add the flour mixture, one spoonful at a time, stirring and/or whisking as you do so, stopping when the gravy has thickened to your preference. Salt and pepper to taste, being careful not to over season the stock, as it will already have plenty of seasoning coming off the turkey. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook it for about 5 minutes, careful to continue to whisk the gravy to avoid congealing.

If you've got vegetarians coming to dinner, don't fret. You can make easy vegetarian gravy too. Use 1 can of vegetable stock or 1 cube of vegetable bouillon dissolved in 2 cups of water in a saucepan. (For that kid with the wheat allergy, who's also a vegetarian, make sure to use the canned stock, as it has no gluten in it.) You can also make up some packaged vegetable soup (Knorr makes a pretty good one, as does Lipton) and strain off the vegetables before starting the gravy, but again, this has gluten, so be aware. Once your stock has come to a boil, follow the same directions as with the meaty gravy, by adding your cold water and flour (or cornstarch) paste into the vegetable stock, whisking steadily. It will thicken up just the same as your turkey gravy, and it tastes great! Keep these two gravies separate, with different serving pieces, and everybody'll be very happy and well attended to.

One trick to avoid the rapid gravy cooldown and subsequent gravy skin is to heat up your serving dishes before adding your gravy. You can run them under warm/hot water, or fill them with hot water, and let them soak in the heat a bit.

Hey, look at that, you just roasted a turkey, stuffed it, and made gravy! You definitely deserve a glass of wine.


Cooking a turkey should not be considered some kind of solemn personal quest that one takes on Thanksgiving day. The first year I cooked Thanksgiving turkey, I think I called my mom about a dozen times with last-minute questions, and I'll probably consult her a few times this year. Communication is not to be considered a defeat, merely a good display of information gathering. For this reason, Butterball has tons of people available on the phone during business hours this week (and 6am to 6pm on Thursday) at 1-800-BUTTERBALL and online to help you out. They even have online tutorial videos this year.

Make sure you have all of your ingredients on hand before Thursday morning, have some great music playing, give yourself plenty of time and a little bit of wine, and everything will work out great. Always remember, the important thing is not to panic.

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