Editor’s note: A version of this story was posted in 2019.
Thanksgiving Dinner may be the most iconic meal in American culture. It also may be the most stressful to prepare. How big should your turkey be? How long should you cook it? How long do you thaw it? What about a brine? And the gravy? And sides?
Fear not, Bird Day chefs. NJ Advance Media talked to some of the biggest names in New Jersey cuisine to take the guesswork out of preparing your turkey.
Ryan DePersio of Battello and The Kitchen Step in Jersey City; Marc Budinich of 15 Fox Place in Jersey City; Gail Salowey, a longtime caterer based out of Northeast New Jersey; and Joshua Bernstein of Mountain Creek Resort in Vernon all weighed in on how to properly cook Thanksgiving Dinner.
We asked for their thoughts on an Associated Press guideline for cooking Thanksgiving dinner that has been circulating for years, as well as their general tips and tricks.
The Associated Press suggests your turkey should be about 1.5 pounds per person. Do you agree?
Budinich: “Only thing I would change is two pounds of turkey per guest. Leftovers on Friday are a must.”
DePersio: “1.5 pounds person is best, everyone craves leftovers!”
Salowey: “I never buy a turkey less than 20 pounds, but that’s because I like massive leftovers and sending people home with food. And that 10 p.m. turkey sandwich on Thanksgiving night is the best sandwich of the year.”
How about thawing a frozen turkey in the fridge? Does 24 hours per four to five pounds of turkey sound right to you?
DePersio: “I recommend running the water over it — the fastest way to thaw it.”
Salowey: “Of course a fresh turkey is the most desirable. With that being said, it’s very important to make sure your frozen turkey is completely thawed before the big day. Especially if you want to wet or dry brine it. It must be completely thawed before brining.”
The AP warns against brining a turkey for more than 10 hours. Is that good advice?
Salowey: “When I have wet-brined my turkey, I have always done it for 24 to 36 hours. No problem. If the brine recipe is accurate, it will be delicious. Use a recipe from a reputable chef, cook or blog, not some random website that you have Googled. Also, if wet-brining, take the turkey out the brine the night before. It’s a messy process that takes some time and cleaning up. The turkey will brown better if the skin has a chance to dry out overnight. If you don’t have the correct vessel or enough space, dry brining is excellent. The salt, sugar and spices will tenderize and flavor the meat and keep it moist.”
How long should you cook your turkey? The AP recommended cooking at 425 degrees, with a 15-pound turkey cooking for between four and four-and a half hours and a 20-pound turkey cooking between five and six hours.
DePersio: “I will go with the low and slow cooking approach. Avoid high temperatures, they could dry the turkey out even if it’s a short period of time. If you want to get fancy, slide slivers of truffle butter in between skin and breast.”
Salowey: “I’m a big fan of the low and slow. I heat the oven to 450 then turn it down to 325 as soon as I put the turkey in. Then follow the directions that come with your particular turkey. If you’re not filling the cavities with stuffing, make sure you put some onions and herbs inside to further enhance the flavors. And if you don’t feel like trussing the whole turkey, at least tie the legs together to keep it all snug. And don’t forget to season the outside. The simplest way is to rub it with butter or an oil of your choice, then season it aggressively with salt and any other herbs and spices of your choice. Throw a couple of sliced onions, a few carrots and some celery around the base of the bird to flavor the pan juices. Basting is good but don’t do it too often. The opening and closing of the oven will add time to the overall cook time.”
How long should you rest your turkey once it’s cooked? Twenty minutes?
Salowey: “Twenty minutes is the minimum amount of time, especially is it’s a large bird. Go for at least 30 minutes. But here’s the thing, the turkey can sit out for an hour, tented with foil, and still be hot.”
Any advice for sides or leftovers?
Bernstein: “Think ‘four to one,’ four people to one pound for each side. I try to usually have two starch sides and two to three vegetable sides for my guests. Don’t forget that stuffing should count as a starch side. And stuffing should never be cooked inside the turkey. It is dangerous!”
DePersio: “Make sure you keep the bones and carcass and make turkey soup the next day with leftover vegetables that you roast with the turkey. Add barley to make it more like a stew.”
Salowey: “I use this time (when the turkey is resting) to not only make the gravy from all the delicious pan juices, but also to cook and reheat the sides because my oven no longer has a big bird in it. The gravy is important here. It needs to be served really hot to go on the meat that has been sliced and sitting on the serving platter. My solution is a gravy vessel with a little candle under it. As long as the gravy is hot, all the food that has been sitting out and waiting for guests to dig in to, will be warmed up by that hot gravy. Also, keep the rest of the gravy in a saucepan on the stove, at a gentle simmer, to refill the serving vessel. Thanks, Mom.”
With these tips and tricks from our New Jersey food experts, you’re guaranteed to have a delicious and delightful Thanksgiving. Enjoy your turkey, your sides… and you’re tryptophan-induced nap. Happy Bird Day!
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