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How to Prepare Turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas Dinner
Copyright © 2003, 2008, 2012 - All rights retained by author
Written by: Jane E. Booth

Editor's Introductory Comments

Mrs. Jane Booth has been a wife and mother for well over 30 years, and an amateur food critic since before she could write. This article is extracted from her Booth Family Cookbook.

What follows is both serious and humorous. Jane desires to assist new wives with the sometimes daunting task of preparing successful holiday meals, even if they have never done so before. Jane, like many new wives, had to learn many of the basics of cooking "the hard way" (it is a little known fact that "the hard way" is often "harder" on the husband than on the wife). She passes along her own insights and opinions in a non-threatening and amusing way.

Finally, as a practical matter, Jane has learned how to consistently prepare the tastiest of Thanksgiving and Christmas turkey meals of anyone I have ever met or eaten with. It is our sincere hope that these recipes will result in your families saying the same regarding your own holiday fare. -- C.W.Booth

Obtaining the Perfect Turkey for the Perfect Dinner

First, find a time when your husband can go shopping with you to pick out the turkey. Husbands get enormous satisfaction from choosing the turkey with their own hands (this is probably a latent hunting instinct that God built into the DNA of men). After 30 years of shopping and choosing turkeys with my husband, I have yet been unable to restrain myself from saying, "We donít need a 25 pound turkey, there are only four of us!" My husband has yet been unable to stop himself from replying, "Think of the leftovers!" "But you donít like pot pie, turkey tetrazzini, turkey soupÖ" Quoting my husband, "I like the sandwiches."

Practical Hint: It is my opinion that the larger the turkey the more tasty it is. This does stand to reason, consider that the larger a fish is the stronger its taste, and everyone knows that poultry is just like a slimy fish. Still, our best meals have been with larger birds.

Anyway, after you ask your husband to please heft the obscenely large turkey into your shopping cart for you, check around the rest of the store. There are probably cheaper turkeys in another freezer somewhere, in which case you will have to go through the pricing per pound comparison yet one more time. Itís possible you may have to go to another store entirely; even so itís best to check out who has the lowest prices in the newspaper flyers beforehand so you can wave the flyer in front of your husbandís face when youíre deciding whoís going to drive to go get that turkey.

Acquiesce to your husbandís choice of bird; then you wonít get blamed later. Itís probably wise to write down whether that really fabulous turkey you cooked once in the past 25 years of marriage was a Norbest, Butterball, or fresh, or frozen. Be sure to include the name of the store you bought it at, and what the price was, because these things are difficult to remember only once a year and it is ever so much more difficult to win the discussion if you donít have documented evidence.

Practical Hint: It is my opinion that frozen turkeys do seem to have a consistently better flavor than fresh turkeys. It is always much better to not ask why, so donít.

 

Buying the Other Stuff

After the turkey has been carefully selected, and reselected, and reselected, go to find the stuffing aisle.

Practical Hint: For putting bread in the bird, we used to buy only Kelloggís Stuffing Mix, which used to be packaged in boxes under the name of Kelloggís Croutettes. Beginning several years back they were marketed in plastic bags which were slightly more difficult to open. For that kind of bag I recommend using scissors to open it, unless you have a dog who likes catching the flying stuffing in mid-air after you tear the top off. Sadly, as far as we can determine, Kellogg's discontinued the croutettes mix. Even back when they were still selling it we had trouble locating where in the store they had stocked it because they changed the shelf location every year just to enhance the thrill of the annual hunt.

Donít go to the big display of stuffing in the front of the store right by the checkout lanes. The good varieties of stuffing preparations are never there. Well okay, if you actually enjoy your powdered onions with a touch of dry bouillon and a sprinkling of breadcrumbs, go ahead and buy that stuff. Otherwise you will need to make your own croutettes made of bread cubes and poultry seasonings. You can always add onion if you so choose, and if your husband is not allergic to it. When Kellogg's still sold their suffing mix we would buy several boxes or bags of the stuffing, and I learned not to fight back when my husband added a few more to the cart "just in case." They used to keep for a long time, and I could stuff a chicken with it later on in the year (hmmmÖmaybe thatís what he meant by "just in case"). Later on I will provide a link to my YouTube video which shows how I make my own alternative to croutettes.

Make sure you buy enough Potato Buds and/or real potatoes, and by now I think youíre tired of arguing, so just buy both. I donít know why, but guys really seem to like the taste of Potato BudsÖand no, I have no clue why. [Editorís note: Potato Buds are never lumpy.]

Get a large can of yams or sweet potatoes, a couple of packages of frozen corn, some actually fresh Brussels sprouts, a package of rolls (the kind they sell for 39 cents apiece two days before Thanksgiving) and a can of cranberry sauce for your Dad, if heís coming. Also, since there are no merit points given for overworking, you might as well use canned fillings for the pies: cherry, pumpkin, and apple. Get a large bag of pecans and some light corn syrup, also sugar, flour, and lots of butter (hey, itís Thanksgiving!) and some chicken broth for the stuffing. If you want to make your own chicken stock, itís easy, except for figuring out how to find room in your freezer, because it doesnít last long in the fridge.

 

Thawing the Turkey

When you get home from the grocery and your husband has carried the groceries inside (including the massive ball of turkey flesh he bought), move a bunch of leftovers and pickle jars out of the bottom of the fridge so youíll have room to thaw the turkey. If you bought a fresh turkey, it should also be kept refrigerated and then used within one to two days after purchasing. If you bought frozen, make sure you went shopping early enough to have at least two days to defrost it. I really doubt if you can fit that bird in your microwave, so its not going to help you defrost that frozen winged marvel. Never thaw food on your counter at room temperature, because though the center of the package may still be frozen, the outer layer of the food is in the "danger zone," and at room temperature harmful bacteria multiply rapidly.

According to various materials I have read, there are three ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave oven. According to the FDA, frozen turkeys should not be thawed on the back porch, in the car trunk, in the basement, or in the dog's kennel.

To thaw in the fridge, most books tell you to allow 24 hours of thawing time for every 5 pounds of turkey. So if you went shopping without your husband and bought between 8-12 pounds, thatís one to two days. If your husband went with you and you got 16 to 20 pounds, itís 3-4 days, and if he went by himself and youíre looking at 20 to 24 pounds, itís 4-5 days. So plan accordingly.

If you donít have enough time to thaw it in the fridge, you might try thawing the turkey in cold water the night before (not your husband, the bird). Allow about 30 minutes per pound when thawing a turkey in cold water. Make sure the turkey wrapping has no tears in it, to minimize bacteria transfer. Submerge the wrapped turkey in cold water. You will probably have to use your kitchen sink, if you can find the drain plug. Change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Do NOT use hot water. For an 8 to 12 pounder, this takes 4 to 6 hours; for a 12 to 16, 6 to 8 hours; for 16-20, 8-10 hours; for 20 to 24 lbs., 10-12 hours. So if you choose to stay up all night changing the water, well, itís up to you. Just remember, turkeys thawed by the cold water method should be cooked immediately because conditions were not temperature controlled and you really want to avoid giving your family food poisoning as this takes much of the fun out of the day; for most of us anyway. Sterilize the sink after using the cold water thawing method.

Cooking the Turkey and Stuffing, or, "What Pan Do I Use?"

Now for the argument (whoops) discussion about how to cook the turkey. Finally!

Practical Hint: Donít ever use an aluminum foil roasting pan, no matter how shiny they look at the grocery store. They are cheap, very flimsy, have been known to collapse, and when poked inadvertently with a large fork, they leak. Anyway you would still have to cover the turkey with aluminum foil to try to prevent it from burning or drying out since these things donít come with a lid. And worse, the flavor of the gravy never seems as good from an aluminum pan. I recommend highly a stainless steel roaster with a lid. These can be purchased for a huge amount of money at a bake ware store at the mall, or, for a tiny amount of money at Walmart. Your choice.

Using a stainless steel roaster with a lid takes a little longer (okay, it takes me at least 2 hours longer given the behemoth bird my husband selects) but you will retain every bit of the delicious juice, and the turkey will still stay moist. Itís fairly easy to clean afterwards. It comes with itís own built in rack. Okay, itís pretty heavy, but your husband will be there to help you lift the gargantuan turkey out (we use four forks stuck in strategic places as we lift the hot bird after its cooked). They actually have these little string turkey lifters that you can place under the turkey to lift it out. These work better than using forks, but you will still need your husband, and, since he bought such a monster in the first place itís only fair that he help lift whether you need him to or not.

Practical Hint: Whenever financial resources permit, buy a small set of all stainless steel cookware and baking sheets. Farberware Stainless Steel is a nice sturdy inexpensive set which I have used for years. Stainless steel just seems to last for years and for some odd reason seems to capture the taste of the food better than aluminum. Prepare the entire meal in stainless steel cookware when possible.

 

Preparing the Turkey

If youíre planning to eat the turkey between noon and four oíclock on Thanksgiving Day, you should still get up about five or six a.m. Itís just required. If you used the cold water thawing method, hey, youíre up anyway, and if you thawed it in the fridge, you can always go to bed again after you get it in the oven.

So stagger to the fridge, early, and take out the turkey, which has been thawing the required amount of time on some pieces of newspaper or in a very large container. Carry it to the kitchen sink and proceed to rip off the covering.

Practical Hint: Be careful removing the wrapping, they have great instructions printed on the side of the packaging which you will have to use if you decide to quit reading this article here. Seriously!

My sister says she rinses the turkey in cold water several times to be sure it is really clean. Fine. Itís your choice as to whether you want a dirty bird or not.

Examine the place on the turkey where the two legs are crossed together. It is usually held together with a weird looking plastic thing which is generally impossible to pull off. I usually end up cutting it off with my handy Ginsu knife. You could use scissors, and, since itís so early in the morning you are less likely to remove one of your own fingers if you use scissors.

Once you wrestle that tie thing at least mostly off, you can tell if the turkey is really thawed. If you can stick your hand inside the cavity behind the place where the two turkey legs were crossed, itís probably thawed. If you encounter a rock solid piece of ice instead of a gooey package of giblets, it isnít fully thawed yet. Do not despair. You can still resort to the cold water thawing method. Remember, you got up early, right? I did say that it was required.

Chances are, though, you have a mostly thawed turkey. Go ahead, pour a little lukewarm water down the hole just to see if you can pull the frozen ice out.

 

Neck and Giblets

Now, if the turkey is finally thawed, or if it was thawed in the first place, stick your hand back into the turkey and remove the neck. No, donít throw it in the trash, regardless of what your husband says. Put it in a 2-quart pot along with the giblets, throw a couple of pieces of celery in, and cover it with water. Let this come to a boil, skim it if you must, and then cover and simmer until the turkey is done. You can use this broth in the gravy or for soup, or just eat the giblets if you are so inclined. If you donít know what giblets are, see the next paragraph.

Giblets are the inner parts of the turkey, like the liver and heart (the most tender part of the whole bird) and gizzards. If you donít know what gizzards are, go consult a bird manual. My Dad liked to cut them all up and add them to the gravy. You can set aside a little gravy and do this just for him if your husband and kids gross out at the idea (and mine do). Usually the frozen giblets are found in a paper bag, and stuck back in the cavity of the turkey. Sometimes they are in the "other cavity" which you will find if you flip your turkey over and lift up the flap there. At any rate, remove them. Add the giblets to the pan with the neck in it, or throw the whole thing out if your Dad isnít coming. Like all organ meats, theyíre pretty high in cholesterol.

 

Stuffing

To prepare the stuffing, follow the directions on the side of the box or package. This year I am leaving the butter out, because I plan to have lots of gravy since I used a stainless steel roaster. Also a lot of gravy juice and fat gets into the stuffing anyway and makes it delicious even without butter. You can even just use water if you forgot the chicken broth. Adding celery is good, but my husband is allergic to the onions. What you add is up to you. Hey, I canít decide everything for you. By the way, for safety reasons, donít stuff the turkey and then stick it back in the fridge. Only stuff it immediately before roasting.

To stuff the bird, stir the stuffing around a bit until itís not so hot, and you can handle it with your clean hands. Yes, I said hands, because thatís the way "all" the chefs do it. If you really hate the idea, wear a pair of clean disposable gloves or use a big spoon.

Practical Hint: Just mash all the stuffing mix you can into that thing. I know the cookbooks say not to overstuff, but I like my stuffing moist, and lots of it. Yes, I know it expands as it cooks. So? That bird is plenty big enough to hold it, and itís not like itís going to feel anything during the cooking process. My mother-in-law has always had to feed a large family and has been mashing the mix in there for years, and we still havenít seen the down side of doing so. You can also stuff some mix inside that flap on the underside of the turkey. I can fit nearly half a package in there.

Assuming you're using a stainless steel roaster with a fitted lid, donít worry if some of the over-stuffed stuffing falls out into the pan as it expands during roasting, you can skim it out later and add it to the stuffing bowl. A fully stuffed turkey can take up to a couple of hours longer than an empty one. (My cookbook says 3 minutes longer per pound longer.) Keep that in mind, but donít let it discourage you. It is merely "dressing" if you make it outside of the turkey; it's only realy stuffing when it is stuffed into and cooked inside the bird. Well, you get the idea.

 

Roasting the Turkey

Stick the whole turkey, breast side up (just like all the pictures you see of beautifully browned turkeys on a platter with a smiling Mom behind it) into the stainless steel roaster; be sure to use the rack which is in the bottom of the roaster (it provides air flow inside the roaster for even cooking on all sides of the bird). Cover it with the roaster lid (that would be the big curved part with the handle on top--and I really hope your roaster is big enough to fully enclose that giant fowl or you may experience juice dripping into your oven, which is not a good thing).

Before you insert the roaster into the oven, remove one of the oven racks and stick it in the garage or somewhere where you canít trip on it, and put the other rack on the bottom shelf of the oven. Place the roaster in the oven and close the door, set the oven for 325 degrees, and this is important--turn the oven knob to ON. Make sure there are no oven mitts left on the burners and that the stove top burners are off, and then go back to bed for a couple of hours.

Roast the turkey with the lid on for as many hours as it takes. Here are some estimates: 6-8 pounds for a stuffed turkey will take about 3 Ĺ hours; 8-12 pounds, 4 hours; 12-16, 5 hours; 16-20, 5 Ĺ hours; 20-24, 6 Ĺ hours. You may have to add some more time to that because of the stainless steel roaster.

Practical Hint: WARNING--not all oven thermostats are manufactured or calibrated equally. You need to keep a vigilant eye on your bird to prevent burning the house down, or worse, drying out the bird.

 

Side Dishes

About an hour before you think the turkey will be done, you need to start preparing the mashed potatoes, corn, brussels sprouts, and other side dishes. Actually I make the sweet potato casserole the night before and just reheat. I also make the pies the day before, but if you have two ovens and a martyr complex, you can do it all that day. Follow the recipes for the side dishes below. Keep them warm on top of the stove until the turkey is done.

 

Setting the Table

Get your kids or someone available to set the table while youíre waiting for the bird. Use all your best tableware. When else will you use it? Seating arrangements are up to you but I would suggest setting up tables the night before and figuring out where everyone will sit. Now back to the turkey.

 

Back to the Turkey

When the little red thing [editorial note: that would be the turkey vendorís self-popping thermometer] thatís stuck in the breast pops up, itís probably done. Itís better to actually take its temperature with a meat thermometer though. Stick the thermometer in the thigh area but donít touch the bone. It should be 180 degrees. Check the stuffing. It should be at least 165 degrees.

Now to make it look pretty, you should take it out of the oven and remove it from the rack onto a cutting board or huge platter. Pour all the juice out of the bottom of the roaster into a pot. Put the turkey back in the oven without the lid for about 15 minutes to brown the skin.

While the skin is browning you can make the gravy. Follow the recipe for gravy attached to the end of this article. You can keep gravy warm for a long time in the frying pan, just keep stirring it to keep it moist. You can add a small amount of water if it gets too dry.

Presenting the Turkey (again, I mean the bird, not the the husband)

When the turkey is a nice rich color, declare it done and take it out of the oven. You will have to clear some space on the counters for this operation. Some people put the whole turkey on a platter and let their husband or father carve it right at the table. Itís kind of fun to do this, and it does make a very festive presentation. At any rate, make sure you have a good carving knife. Let the turkey sit for about 15 minutes first and it will carve more easily. First remove the stuffing. If itís too moist for you, you can always add some dry stuffing mix that you made separately. Now youíre ready to carve.

 

Carving the Turkey

Practical Hint: Use a quality carving knife. We use a 25 year old Ginsu. I may be wrong about this, but over the years Ginsu may have become Quickcut which may have become the Miracle Blade which may have become the Miracle Blade Titanium, or something like that. Anyway, they all appear to be the same knife which works great. Itís nice to see a product that is close in delivering against the expectations and hype. And everyone will be impressed when you drop a raw tomato on the blade and it cuts itself in half--thatís party fun!

You should be able to find complete carving instructions in a cookbook, but this is what I do: gently pull the leg away from the body, cut through the joint between the thigh and body. Cut between drumstick and thigh, and slice off the meat. You can leave the legs intact if someone wants to eat the whole thing. Put this on the platter designated for dark meat.

Now for the real fun: Make a deep horizontal cut into the breast just above the wing. Insert a fork into the top of the breast, and starting halfway up the breast, carve thin slices down to the cut, working upward. This is the coveted white meat. Wings also classify as white. You donít have to carve the whole thing at once, just enough to feed the hungry horde or the small group as required.

 

Let's Eat

Now appoint someone to pour drinks, get out the serving bowls and spoons, line up a bunch of people and put the food onto their plates and send them to the table(s). A few years ago I bought four gravy servers and placed them in strategic spots on the table. Place a small saucer underneath them and they wonít make such a mess of the tablecloth. Donít forget to take the rolls out of the oven where you put them at the last minute or theyíll burn!

 

Give Thanks

Finally, remember to thank God for His incredible blessings. If you have been able to afford the simple fixings described above you are immeasurably rich compared with much of the world. Praise God for His mercy and kindness. Above all, express gratitude for His great salvation in Jesus Christ. There is just so much to celebrate! Enjoy!

 

RECIPES:

STUFFING


1 large loaf French or Italian Ciabatta Bread
2 teaspoons ground sage
1 teaspoon celery flakes
1 Ĺ teaspoons ground thyme
1 teaspoon ground marjoram
Ĺ teaspoon ground rosemary
Ĺ teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon dried parsley
Pinch of salt (or 1/4 teaspoon)

Cut the bread (one large loaf) into slices, then into small Ĺ inch cubes. Place cubes on 2 baking sheets and drizzle with peanut oil (or olive oil or butter). Mix all spices together, then sprinkle over top of bread. Bake about 10 minutes at 350 degrees F; when they come out of the oven baked they are now called "croutons." Store croutons in a plastic bag in freezer, or for a maximum of one day on counter. To make stuffing, heat 2 cups of chicken broth (home made or pre-packaged), add Ĺ stick melted butter, pour mixture over the croutons, and thoroughly mix all together.
(Note: If desired, you can also add ľ cup chopped onion and Ĺ cup finely chopped celery, but the addition of onions radically changes the flavor profile of the stuffing which is why I never do it.)



Jane's Video on Home Made Stuffing: "Home Made Stuffing Mix"



MASHED POTATOES

6 Idaho potatoes
2 teaspoons salt
1 Ĺ cups whole milk
1 stick butter

Peel potatoes, slice thickly, put in pot, cover with cold water. Add salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and let simmer for 20 minutes. Drain into colander. (My Mom says to save a little potato water for the gravy. Whatever, it's your choice.) Mash with a potato masher or whip with a mixer in a stainless steel bowl. A famous cook on TV says to use a ricer, but I donít have one, much less know what it is. Place bowl over simmering hot water. Add 1 Ĺ cups scalded whole milk, 1 stick butter. Add pepper and salt to taste and whip the whole thing a bit. You can keep it warm over simmering hot water or put it in a crockpot on low.

If some people donít like "real" potatoes, thereís always the Potato Buds you bought. [Editorís note: they are not lumpy.] I like them lumpy.

 

SWEET POTATO CASSEROLE

3 cups mashed sweet potatoes
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs beaten
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter

Topping:
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup ground pecans
1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup melted butter

Mix sweet potatoes, milk, vanilla, eggs, sugar and butter with a mixer and pour into casserole dish. For the Topping: Mix brown sugar, pecans, flour, and melted butter. Sprinkle over top of sweet potato mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

 

BRUSSELS SPROUTS

1 lb. Brussels Sprouts
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons Butter
1 teaspoon Salt

For about a pound of fresh Brussels sprouts, wash sprouts in cold water. Remove the bottom and outer layer of leaves with a sharp knife. Cut an X into the bottom of each sprout. Cover with water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil about one minute to make sprouts greener. Add 1-2 tablespoons of sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt and stir. Reduce heat to low and simmer covered for about 30 minutes or until tender. Add 2 tablespoons butter just before serving.

 

CORN

Bring Ĺ cup water to boil in 1 quart saucepan. Add frozen corn, stir. Reduce heat to low and simmer corn for 4 minutes.

 

TURKEY GRAVY

2 tablespoons turkey fat
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup turkey juices

Separate fat from juices with a fat separator. (They look like a measuring cup with a big spout. The fat rises to the top; you pour the juices out the spout from the bottom until you reach the fat level. Pour juices into a large measuring cup, and the fat into a small dish). For one cup of gravy, measure 2 tablespoons fat into frying pan over medium heat. Add flour, stir quickly using a fork or whisk. Add broth slowly, stirring constantly. Add salt to taste. If you want to increase the recipe, remember flour and fat quantities should always be even. If you add too much fat, the gravy will be oily, if too much flour it will be too thick. If you use a whisk, you shouldnít have a problem with lumps. If necessary, pour it into a blender and blend until smooth. [Editor's note: Yes!!! Use the blender!!!] Keep the gravy on simmer until serving, stir occasionally so it wonít dry out. Add water, milk, or broth if necessary to thin it. Milk provides a creamier texture but lessens the meat flavor.

 

PECAN PIE

1 stick butter, melted
1 cup sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup chopped pecans
1 9-inch frozen unbaked pie shell

Mix butter, sugar, and corn syrup. Add eggs and pecans and mix. Pour into pie shell. Bake at 350 for one hour.

 

PUMPKIN PIE

1 unbaked 9 inch pie shell
2 eggs
1 16-ounce can pumpkin
ĺ cup sugar
Ĺ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Ĺ teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk

Prepare pie shell. Preheat oven to 425. Beat eggs in large bowl; add pumpkin, sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and milk--mix. Pour into pie shell. Bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees. Cover edges of pie crust with aluminum foil so they donít brown too much. Reduce temperature to 350, bake 40 to 50 minutes more (until knife inserted in center comes out clean).



Jane's Video on Home Made Stuffing: "Home Made Stuffing Mix"



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