In the next week, social media and news stories will try to stir you into a panic over that big meal on Nov. 24. Before you give in to fear, let me play grandmother for you.
Yes, it is a big meal, something many people don’t cook that often. And yes, there’s a lot of expectation, anticipation and tradition. But really, it’s just one meal. Your whole life probably won’t hinge on whether you make oyster stuffing or sausage dressing.
The recipes are mostly basic, whether you use the vegetable casserole that’s been on the table every year since you were a kid or dig into some new trend. Mostly, people just want it to feel cozy and home-like.
Before you decide on your menu, what you really need are the basics: The times. The temperatures. The sizes. A quick guide to making turkey broth and gravy.
Why do you need to pay attention to food handling? Thanksgiving is a big meal, sometimes cooked by people who’ve never done it before, and there may be a variety of ages and health conditions around the table. Keeping it safe isn’t hard, though, if you remember these basics:
Cross-contamination: It’s a big word that just means don’t get raw stuff on the cooked stuff. If you’ve had raw meat (poultry, sausage, oysters, eggs) in one place like a cutting board, don’t put anything cooked or anything that will be served raw (like vegetables) on it until you wash it well with soap and hot water. That includes your hands, your knife and your mixing spoons.
Contain those juices: The current recommendation is to not wash your turkey before cooking so you don’t splash raw poultry juice all over. It’s OK to pat it dry, though, or to rinse and pat dry if you’ve brined it. Don’t use dish towels or sponges to do that. It’s safer to use paper towels and discard them.
Stuffing: If you make stuffing or dressing in advance, don’t mix wet ingredients — especially raw eggs, cooked sausage or broth — with dry ingredients until just before you cook it (that can give bacteria a chance to grow). Never stuff a turkey in advance. If the stuffing is refrigerated, let it come to room temperature before you put it in the turkey. Stuffed turkeys cook more slowly, and cold stuffing will take too long to get hot. Use an instant-read or meat thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches at least 165 degrees.
Leftovers: Don’t let turkey and other cooked foods sit longer than two hours between 40 degrees (refrigerator-cold) and 165 degrees (oven-hot). Cooked turkey can be refrigerated up to four days and frozen four to six months. Dressing and gravy will keep one to two days. Cooked side dishes will keep three to four days. Reheat all leftovers to at least 165 degrees.
Cool it quickly: When you’re putting away leftovers, cut the turkey meat off the bones and wrap it well. Put the other leftovers into shallow or smaller containers so they cool faster.
Handling the turkey
Fresh vs. frozen: If you go with a fresh turkey, try to wait until Nov. 22, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, to bring it home. Fresh poultry doesn’t keep as long in a home refrigerator. If you go with frozen, thaw it in the refrigerator for 24 hours for every four to five pounds (four days for a 16-pound bird). Or completely submerge the wrapped turkey in cold water for 30 minutes per pound (eight hours for 16 pounds).
Turkey size: 1 to 1.5 pounds per person will allow for leftovers. Turkeys smaller than 12 pounds have a lower meat-to-bone ratio, and turkeys larger than 18 pounds can be hard to handle. Try a bone-in turkey breast for a smaller group, and two 14-pound turkeys for large groups. (Yes, even if you have two turkeys in the oven, they’ll cook in the same amount of time as one.)
Wet brine: It adds moisture and flavors, but it can make cooking juices and stuffing inside the turkey salty. Wet brines are good for grilled or smoked turkeys, though, because those tend to get drier. For a 14-pound turkey, dissolve 1.25 cups kosher salt or one cup table salt in one gallon of cold water. (If you add sugar, herbs and spices, you’ll need to heat the brine to dissolve the sugar, then chill it before using). Mix the brine in a large stock pot, then add the turkey. Refrigerate eight to 18 hours. Discard the brine, rinse the turkey and dry thoroughly. You can also do it in a large, clean cooler filled with brine and ice.
Dry brine: This adds flavors and juiciness without requiring a big container of liquid. It’s a great approach for roasted turkey. For every pound of turkey, combine one teaspoon kosher salt, 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and any dried herbs or spices you like (grated orange zest is particularly good). Rub it all over the turkey, including inside and under the skin. Place in a large, resealable plastic bag on a large tray and refrigerate 24 to 36 hours, turning every 12 hours. About 12 hours before cooking, remove from the bag, pat it dry and return to the refrigerator, uncovered, to dry the skin before roasting.
Thermometers: A meat thermometer can stay in the turkey throughout cooking; an instant-read is used to take readings in different spots and then removed. (Don’t trust plastic pop-up indicators: They’re often inaccurate.) The meat thermometer goes into the thickest part of the inner thigh, near the breast, but not touching bone.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture bases its recommended cooking times on basic turkey roasted at 325 degrees. Adjust if you’re following a recipe that calls for a higher temperature or for starting the turkey at a higher temperature and reducing the heat later in the cooking time. Let the turkey stand at room temperature at least 20 minutes before carving. If you need to hold it longer, wrap it in heavy-duty foil and a towel, then place in an empty cooler for up to an hour.
▪ 8 to 12 pounds: 3 to 3.5 hours stuffed, 3 hours unstuffed.
▪ 12 to 14 pounds: 4 hours stuffed, 3.5 hours unstuffed.
▪ 14 to 18 pounds: 4 to 4.5 hours stuffed, 3 to 4.5 hours unstuffed.
▪ 18 to 20 pounds: 4.25 hours stuffed, 4.25 to 4.5 hours unstuffed.
Basic broth: When you get your turkey ready, remove the giblets and neck from the carcass. Discard or save the liver (the soft, dark red piece) for another dish and refrigerate the giblets (everything else that was in the cavity). Place the neck and any other chicken or turkey parts you want to use (you can buy a package of turkey wings for this) in a large saucepan and cover with about four cups water or chicken stock. Add about one teaspoon salt, half a teaspoon black peppercorns and any other dried herbs you like (such as bay leaves or crumbled sage). Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover with the lid askew. Simmer until the meat is coming away from the neck. Strain the broth and chill until ready to use. Pick the neck meat from the bones if desired and refrigerate that, too. You should have about three cups broth.
Gravy: While the cooked turkey is sitting, pour the cooking juices into a measuring cup and refrigerate just until the fat rises to the top. Spoon about two tablespoons of the fat (add butter or oil if you don’t have enough) into a saucepan or skillet. (If you want to use the giblets and/or the neck meat, add them here.) Heat until sizzling, then whisk in three tablespoons all-purpose flour. Stir several minutes to dissolve and cook the flour. Add the rest of the cooking juices to the broth to make about four cups liquid. Whisk the liquid into the cooked flour. Bring to a simmer and cook until thickened. If it isn’t as thick as you’d like, make a paste of one tablespoon soft butter and one tablespoon flour. Whisk in, in small amounts, until gravy gets thicker.
There’s a reason they’re so traditional: They add a bright pop of color to the table, and the tart flavor balances all those sweet fall vegetables. One tip: It can be hard to find fresh cranberries the rest of the year, so grab an extra bag to toss in the freezer for later in the winter. If you really prefer canned cranberry sauce, we’ll leave that to you.
To use fresh cranberries, rinse them in a strainer, then pick over and discard any that are very soft or mushy. Then choose your style:
Fresh cranberry relish: Place a 12-ounce bag of rinsed, picked-over cranberries in the food processor. Trim off the top and bottom of a whole navel orange, then cut into wedges. Remove any seeds you see with the tip of a knife and add the wedges, peel and all, to the cranberries. Pulse several times, until chopped. Scrape into a bowl and stir in one cup of sugar and half a cup chopped pecans. Change it up: Swap walnuts for pecans, add a cored apple, a little peeled fresh ginger or half a teaspoon diced jalapeno, stir in a little Grand Marnier or Chambord. Can be made 24 hours in advance, covered and refrigerated.
Cooked cranberry sauce: Place the rinsed cranberries in a saucepan with one cup sugar and one cup water. Bring to a boil and adjust heat to a steady simmer. The cranberries will start to pop, so watch for splashes. Cook about 10 minutes, until all the cranberries are soft. Stir in the grated zest of one orange. Can be made 24 hours ahead and refrigerated. Serve hot or cold. Change it up: Swap orange juice for half the water. Use lemon zest instead of orange zest or stir in a little chopped candied ginger.
If you need last-minute advice, try these:
▪ The USDA Meat & Poultry Hot Line: You can submit questions on safe food handling online for the “Ask Karen” chat at www.fsis.usda.gov anytime. Or call toll-free (888) 674-6854 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 24.
▪ The Butterball Turkey Talk Line: Answering turkey questions since 1981. Call (800) 288-8372 or find it online at www.butterball.com/turkey-talk-line.