To Cook a Turkey: Figuring Out Your Thanksgiving Holiday Meal

Cooked Turkey

Foodies have rushed in a new era of diversity and tastiness in the food world – but sometimes I think things have become way more complicated than they should be. Thanksgiving used to be a simple affair, with undifferentiated turkeys and pies being passed between sometimes bitter relatives. Ten years ago, would you have heard of habanero-brined turkey? Or twinkie stuffing? Or heritage-raised birds, and turducken, and deep-fried turkey? The most you would have to worry about is a broken heating element in your oven; you might have worried that you overcooked the turkey by an hour or two. But today, foodies have made us demand a higher standard for our turkeys, and it has changed the Thanksgiving world as we know it.

I ask you, the reader, if ten years ago, a flowchart for turkey cooking would have been necessary. Today it is. So here you go: the definitive step-by-step process for turkey-based Holiday meals. Whether you're forever alone or fighting for space in a house full of relatives, you'll find your bird right here. But be warned: not all choices are equal! If you make a slightly dried-out turkey, it could send your hard-to-please guests into a tailspin of despair and hunger. For everyone's sake, please get the turkey right.


1. Picking a bird:

Turkey Drumstick

How many people are you going to be cooking for? If you're not going home for Thanksgiving and it's just you, maybe you should give the sumptuous turkey burger a try. Top with traditional garnishes like gravy, cranberry sauce, and a slice of havarti, and try to enjoy the peace and quiet.

But if you're in charge of a real feast, try to keep the turkey size down by buying multiple smaller birds instead of a really big one. Not only does it keep cooking time down (by a ton!), these birds will cook more evenly, giving you tender white and dark meat. Fancy that.

2. What about stuffing?

There is no shortage of ridiculous options for stuffing, but that doesn't mean they're a good idea. Twinkie stuffing is probably the weirdest I've seen – and I'd be willing to bet that the gooey sweetness doesn't mesh well with the strong taste of turkey. Try something with serious savory kick to it – now's the time to bust out great aromatics, herbs, and spices – instead of a gimmick (although the White Castle burger stuffing sounds quite excellent to me).

If you really love stuffing, why not stuff a turkey with a chicken and a duck? Turducken involves deboning all three fowl and stuffing one inside the other. Awesome!

3. Cooking technique: from basic to bananas!

You've roasted a turkey before, no? You put it in an oven for a really long time with some veggies, stuffed with your preferred stuffing, and you take it out every so often to baste it in its juices. Chances are you've never really thought things could be otherwise, but, gosh darnit, they can. For starters, you can brine your turkey in order to retain more of the moisture in the meat, and that'll open up exciting new cooking methods like smoking and barbecuing. Heck, you can even get creative with the brine: thrown in a bunch of habanero peppers for an uncommonly spicy meal. Besides brining, spatchcocking is probably the easiest way to get moister, more sumptuous meat: you remove the backbone and sternum of the turkey, which lets you flatten out the bird, thereby making way more surface area and ensuring more even cooking (and moister flesh).

Perhaps the hottest (no pun intended) new way of cooking a turkey is by deep-frying it. There's affordable, safe equipment available to do so these days, which is a good thing, because it requires a ton of really hot oil. The trick is to take the turkey out of the fryer when the internal temperature hits 145* at the deepest point – let it sit for a while, and the oil retained in the meat will start to spread the energy throughout the bird, cooking it deep down and evenly. Leave it in too long and you'll have the usual turkey problem: dry white meat. While you're at it, you should probably read up on how to deep fry a turkey safely.

4. Drink pairings, sides, and dessert

Who do you think I am! There's only so much information about Thanksgiving that a person can digest before getting tired – and it's not just because of the high tryptophan levels in turkey. You've got a few days left until Turkey Day, so now that I'm leaving you to your own devices, I wish you luck in finding the optimal configuration of recipes, beverages, sides, and desserts from among the billions of possibilities. Or you could just do what people have done for years: get a turkey, a pie, and a family. It's worked pretty good so far.

5. Preparing the cookery

Now that you've got the menu planned out, how about preparing your kitchen for the task? Check out our article on Avoiding Holiday Disasters to make sure your Thanksgiving goes off without a hitch.

Thanksgiving Dogs

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