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Harold McGee's Top 10 Thanksgiving Tips
"Ask yourself: am I a turkey man, or a stuffing man? Because you can't have it both ways."
We were joined this morning at Serious Eats world headquarters by Harold McGee, author of On Food And Cooking and the newly released Keys to Good Cooking. He's a food science legend, and one of my idols.
In cased you missed this morning's live webcast, here are the top 10 pieces of useful, brilliant, or just plain duh-why-didn't-I-think-of-that? tips we learned today to help make your Thanksgiving just a little bit more delicious.
1. Get a Thermometer
Harold stresses the importance of relying on temperature when cooking a turkey. Do not rely on the little pop-up thermometer—by the time it comes up, your turkey will be well beyond dry. Instead, get a good instant read thermometer like the Thermapen from Thermoworks. Not only is it more accurate than the cheap ones (those guys can be off by as much as 20°F!), it's also faster. Sure, it costs 10 times more, but it'll last a lifetime, and unlike the $10 models, it actually works.
2. Check the Temperature Early and Often
When cooking your turkey, check the temperature, check early, and check often. The final moisture level in the turkey is directly related to the temperature you cook it to. For breast meat, aim for 150 to 155°F (despite what the government says, this temperature is perfectly safe so long as you let your turkey rest for at least 15 minutes or so). For dark meat, 165°F is the goal. Check the temperature well before the expected finishing time, as any number of factors can affect how fast the turkey cooks.
3. Separate the Light From the Dark
Since both parts of the turkey need to cook to different temperatures, it's best to separate them before cooking the take them out of the oven as they finish. It may not give you that perfect Norman Rockwell moment at the dinner table, but your family's stomachs will thank you in the end!
4. Brining Is a Trade-off
Brining a turkey by soaking it in a tub of salty water (our basic brine is a cup and a half of kosher salt per gallon of water) will definitely get you moister results—up to 20% moister, says Harold—but it comes at the expense of flavor. "You've got a nice turkey with lots of turkey flavor. When you brine it, you're basically diluting that flavor with salty tap water," says Harold. A better route may be salting the bird for a couple nights. It gets some of moisture retention qualities of brining, without diluting flavor.
5. Briners: Brine for at Least Two Days
If you do choose to brine, make sure you do it for at least two days. Turkeys are large. It takes a long time for the salt to work its magic all the way through the center of the bird. Give it time. If you don't have room in your fridge, the best way to do this is to use a large cooler to hold your turkey and brine. Use several large ice packs to keep the water below 40°F, changing out the ice packs a couple times a day.
6. Don't Bother Flavoring the Brine
"Salt molecules are tiny—it's just two ions, and they work their way into turkey meat relatively fast," explains Harold. "Aromatic molecules from things like herbs and vegetable, on the other hand, are very large"—relatively speaking, that is. This makes it difficult for them to penetrate into the turkey, so aromatics added to your brine won't have much more than a superficial effect.
7. Important Question: Are You a Turkey or Stuffing Person?
Ask yourself: am I a turkey man, or a stuffing man? Because you can't have it both ways. Stuffing a bird will get you supremely flavorful stuffing as it collects the juices from the bird, but you'll inevitably overcook the meat as you try to get the stuffing up to temperature. Bake your stuffing separately outside of the bird, and you'll get a perfectly roasted turkey, but less flavorful stuffing. Which do you prefer? Harold suggests a tradeoff: "I like to pour the drippings from the turkey over my stuffing to get some of the turkey flavor in there." Sounds just fine to me!
8. Use a Scale!
Measuring things like salt or flour by volume is remarkably inconsistent. A teaspoon of Morton's table salt, for instance, weighs about 20% more than a teaspoon of Morton's kosher salt. That means if you substitute table salt for a recipe that calls for kosher, your food will be 20% saltier! For salt, make sure you always use the type specified and taste carefully for seasoning. For flour, measure everything out on a scale, not in a measuring cup.
9. On Pie Crusts
Use a mister to make your pie crust. One of the big problems with pie crust is adding the liquid. Pour it in, and it all gets absorbed in one spot. Your crust bakes and rolls unevenly, coming out tough in some spots, tender in others. Harold prefers to use a spray bottle to mist his dough with water. It applies the water much more evenly. Just make sure you know in advance how many sprays it takes to get the right amount of liquid in there.
10. Choose Your Apples Wisely
When making a pie, different apples have different cooking quality—make sure you know which is which in order to get the desired finished results. Harold points out that "fluffy" varieties like McIntosh will break down readily in a pie. Firmer, crisper varieties like Granny Smith will stay solid. It all comes down to personal taste. To test your apples before baking, cut a couple thin slices and microwave them for 30 seconds. This'll give you a good idea of how well they'll break down in the pie.