A Thanksgiving without a big turkey just doesn’t do it for me. There’s something so celebratory about a big bird, bronzed and beaming and reflecting the glow of the dining room lights and candles off its golden skin, resting on your table as you all give thanks. I think it’s a natural affinity with our picturesque holiday ideals—it makes us all feel like we’re at Norman Rockwell’s table or something. If I could only convince everyone of having a goose at Christmas I would be set for true holiday triumph.
I love cooking a turkey, even if there aren’t many of us coming to dinner. You could certainly get a whole turkey breast for a smaller crowd, and when it was just my aunt and me one year that’s what we did, but I love the sight of a full bird. Last year I got a little carried away and ended up getting an 18-pound turkey for 7 people, but I justified by reasoning that it was the first American Thanksgiving for two of the people at dinner so a little opulence was in order.
One of my favorite flavor combinations for turkey—or chicken, as you’ll see—is apple and sage. The two alone are a match made in heaven, but when paired with the deeply nuanced flavor and languor-inducing calm of the turkey, the spry crispness of the apple and grassy autumnal scent of the sage are amplified to an ethereal level. Last year I brined my monster bird in apple cider, fresh sage, crushed garlic and, to guild the lily a little, some smashed juniper berries. I chopped a few apples to go in the bottom of the roasting tray along with my usual onions, carrots and celery to act as an aromatic wrack, along with stuff some extra apples up its backside. Some cider in the bottom of the pan to use for basting the bird, and we had a turkey that was juicy, crisp-skinned, and plump with the sweet and sharp crispness of cider. This year, I think we’re knocking the turkey off the wagon and putting him in a bath of hard cider—we’ll see.
But this recipe here is where this cider brined turkey evolved from, and it’s so good. It started out life as a chicken dinner, and if you have a very small crowd, or aren’t turkey lovers, this is the perfect thing to prepare for a cozy Thanksgiving dinner. That said, this would work extremely well with a turkey, too, so don’t be put off by this being a chicken recipe. Also, don’t feel like this should be exclusive to the holidays—I love making roasted chicken, basically from the moment the AC gets turned off until it gets turned back on again, and this is by far one of my favorites. You’ll see just how it easy it is to make a homemade gravy that you’ll never reach for a packet of the stuff again.
(Don’t stuff the bird with “stuffing”–you have to essentially overcook the chicken or turkey in order to cook the stuffing through. Stick to stuffing it with flavorful aromatics!)
Now, for an aside: Thanksgiving can be stressful. Making the dinner for the family, trying to maintain the balance of everything, dancing the choreographed ballet that is the holiday meal when you have two left feet—it can be enough to leave you rocking back and forth in the corner. So here are a few general rules or tips I have to share that help keep you sane when you’re just verging on the brink.
- Plan on 6 hours of thawing per pound of turkey. Save yourself the trouble and panic by not attempting a last minute sink thaw. Just do your self a favor and put the turkey in a roasting pan or something that it can fit in comfortably, breast side up, and leave it in the fridge. Just drain any water that collects in the pan as the days go by (yes, days).
- To make sure the turkey’s skin gets perfectly crisp leave it in the fridge, uncovered, for a day. Obviously, do this after you brine it—if you’re going that route—and before you smear it with butter and/or oil.
- Figure 1 ½ pounds of turkey (whole) per adult, and about ½ – ¾ pound per child. I think that quantity feeds everyone comfortably, but if you’re big or light eaters, or want left overs adjust accordingly. I usually go for 2 pounds per adult to be on the safe side and just count 3 kids as one adult if there will be any, though I not only don’t mind leftovers—in fact, I require them—but I also like to have as big of a carcass as I can left over for stock.
- Plan on around 15 minutes per pound of roasting time for a whole, unstuffed bird (at 350°). Fresh birds tend to take a minute or so less, and if you’re doing it at 325° go for around 17 – 20 minutes per pound. However, because ovens do vary and they’re not things of exact science, much to our disappointment, make sure to check the bird as it cooks. And just to preemptively bear bad news, even brand new ranges do not guarantee perfectly calibrated oven temperatures. As someone who has bought two new ranges in the last few years (due to moves), I can attest that being brand new does not mean that the temperature on the display and the temperature in the oven are the same thing. So, essentially, when you think your 12 pound turkey will be done roasting at 350° after 3 hours, it could actually be over or underdone when you check on it because your oven temp. This leads me to…
- Get a digital thermometer. It’s the best way to ensure that the turkey is cooked perfectly. If you can, get one of those probe thermometers where a little display sits on the counter, with a long cord that goes into the oven with a probe on the end, pierced into the bird. You can even set the display to sound off an alarm when it reaches a certain internal temperature. Stick the probe into the thickest part of the thigh (towards the bottom, running it parallel with the wing).
- If you’re anything like me—a menopausal woman on the inside—the first thing you should do in the morning before you set foot in the kitchen is turn the thermostat down. This is essential for standing near a hot oven for several hours. It doesn’t help with the violent mood swings but that’s what the Ginger-Orange Cranberry Sangria is for (make a larger batch and nobody will ever know).
- I know we’ve all heard it before but it bears repeating: don’t stuff your turkey, at least not with a traditional “stuffing” or “dressing”. You do want to put some aromatics in it so the turkey has some flavor to it, other than its own, but by the time the bird has cooked to a safe temperature the stuffing inside is still very underdone, meaning you have to overcook the turkey so you have perfectly cooked stuffing. Now, think about that—does that make sense? You’re better off cooking the “stuffing” all in a separate dish and then, after the turkey comes out of the oven, take a little of the pan juices from the turkey and spoon over the dressing so some of the flavor seeps in.
- Make sure the turkey rests after it’s out of the oven—20 minutes on average. And since it will carry-over cook as it rests, pull the turkey out when the thermometer reads 160° so it doesn’t dry out.
- Keep your oven space in mind. It’s going to only add to the stress if you realize the oven is full and you still have to put the biscuits in.
- If you can do anything the day before, do it. I’ve got a Pumpkin Pecan Cheesecake recipe I’m getting ready to post—it’s not that its able to be made ahead, but it has to be! Also check out my Smashed Red Skin Potatoes recipe, too. Those can be made ahead and reheated in the oven. Make it easier on yourself!
And, a few suggestions, if I may:
- If you’re family/friends are doing a big holiday feast and everyone is bringing a few dishes, make sure to bring plenty of storage containers and bags for everyone to distribute leftovers (so you don’t all end up stealing every storage container your host owns).
- Have bread readily available at home. You do not want to stumble into the fridge in the middle of the night for a late-night fridge raid and there not be any bread for a quick-n-dirty turkey, smothered with mayo or mustard. Whether you prefer something artisanal and rustic or plastic white bread (both of which are perfectly and indulgently satisfying, be it midnight or any time of day) make sure you buy beforehand so it’s ready when you are.
- Don’t let anyone throw away any turkey carcasses. How else are you going to make Turkey Stock? The turkey carcass can be simmered in water with some roughly chopped onion, carrot, celery, garlic and herbs until you have a flavorful, but still somewhat lightly brothy stock, after which you remove all the bones and veg, strain through a sieve or colander lined with cheese clothe, before, while still hot, decanting back into the pot and dropping in some shredded turkey meat, chopped fresh green beans and either dumplings, egg noodles, small pasta (think macaroni or ditalini) or a scant amount of rice for a Turkey Soup. I keep it a bit light and brothy because, while you want something substantial and filling, you don’t need to relive the full Thanksgiving heft in a bowl in the coming days. You could also use it for a riff on the classic biscuits and gravy by making Turkey Biscuits & Gravy (make a roux of butter and flour, pouring in equal amounts of stock and half and half and plopping in shredded turkey just to warm through with a generous bit of black pepper before pouring over piping hot biscuits. Frankly, I think there are few things as comforting as some al dente pasta, simmered in some warm holiday-laced stock; its restorative, comforting, cleansing and affirming all at once.
So, for Thanksgiving, here are two recipes for two different birds (but, again, don’t feel that the chicken recipe is limited to chicken, and the turkey recipe to turkey. You’ll obviously need to adjust the quantity of a few things, and the timing, but other than that the ideas are interchangeable). Both are equally delicious, filling and cozy. If you want a meal to impress you can’t fail with either of these.
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