The Food Lab Answers All of Your Thanksgiving Questions, 2013 Edition

Robyn Lee

We asked you to send in all your Thanksgiving questions and you came through! Here are the answers to many of the questions that came in.

Turkey and Mains!

On Clay Turkeys and Crocked Hams

Thoughts about cooking turkey in a clay cooker and/or ham in a crock pot. Pros/Cons? —Oblivia

My only experiences with clay cookers and ceramic turkey cookers have been negative. There's no evidence or scientific theory behind the idea that cooking in a moist environment will keep meat moist—it's an almost entirely temperature-driven phenomenon—and all it does is prevent your turkey's skin from crisping as well. You want steam to escape when cooking!

A slow cooker, on the other hand, can be a great way to cook a ham, provided that very soft, almost broken-down ham meat is what you're after. Remember: a City Ham (most of the hams on the market in most regions of the country) is a pre-cooked product. All you really need to do to serve it is warm it up gently. Check out my ham guide for some more info on the different types of hams you can get and how to prepare them!

On Cocks, Spatched

Can you spatchcock a heritage turkey? Any concern with overcooking the considerably smaller-sized breast? —starchld8

Absolutely! So long as you've got a good thermometer, there's no real danger of overcooking. If you want total control, separate the legs and the breasts before cooking. That way, you can take out each part of the turkey from the oven as it comes to temperature.

Want some extra insurance against dry meat? I'd suggest dry-brining your bird to help it retain more moisture as it cooks.

On Cocks, Re-Spatched

Hi Kenji, I love the spatchcocked turkey I made last year but can't figure out why it cooked faster than the recipe called for.

1. What should factors (oven temp, elevation) should I check? I live in Los Angeles.

2. If I use my convection oven with spatchcocked turkey, how does that affect the turkey? The oven time and temp?

3. I read last year's answer on making turkey parts sous vide. Can I crisp up the skin like you suggest when rewarming parts so that I get crispy skin AND perfectly cooked parts?

Thanks! I really admire that you do this every year. You're the best. :) —ItsMeCoffeeGirl

The main factor that would affect how fast it cooks is how heat is delivered to it in your oven. Both temperature and convection will affect this. It could be that your oven is miscalibrated and cooks hot. Have you noticed it cooking other things faster than expected? As for convection currents, that's a harder question to answer, as it varies from oven to oven. Basically, the more air moves around inside an oven, the faster it'll cook things.

When you turn on the convection mode in your oven, all it does is switch on a little fan that gets the air moving. This can help skin crisp better and foods cook a little faster and more evenly, though what you don't want is for your food to burn on the outside before it finishes cooking through. I generally recommend lowering oven temperature by about 25°F when you use convection settings.

As for your sous-vide question, you can absolutely cook sous-vide, chill, and crisp the skin up straight from chilled while the turkey rewarms. It's a great way to get things done ahead of time!

On Turchetta, Keeping Warm

It's nifty that the turchetta only need 10 minutes to rest, but what if I have a couple of casseroles that need to bake off at ~350-ish after the turchetta comes out of the 275-degree oven? Will it be safe to let it sit for, say, 90-ish minutes? (I'll be doing a green bean casserole and the Cook's Illustrated stuffing that is topped with a turkey wing for flavor.) If the turchetta *is* safe to rest for that long, I'll probably need to re-heat it somehow before carving and serving, yes? Maybe instead of searing it before it goes in the oven, I should pop it in a 500-degree oven after its long rest for browning and reheating purposes? Have I answered my own questions? —emitch

Sous-Vide, Deep-Fried Turkey Porchetta (Turchetta)

You've almost answered your own question! I'd suggest cooking the turchetta as directed, then tenting it in foil at room temperature for the 90 minutes. Just before serving, flash it in a 500°F oven for about 10 minutes to reheat and you should be good to go!

On Freezer Bags, Alternate Uses For

Are heavy duty freezer bags suitable to sous vide a turkey porchetta or even a pork porchetta? —Phong623

I can't give you good advice on the actual safety aspects of it, as there is currently debate on whether or not the plastics used to make storage bags are safe at sous-vide temperatures and there isn't really enough evidence on either side to make a strong case.


That said, I do it and don't worry about it much. The one issue is that the bags are not particularly large—even in a gallon-sized bag a porchetta-style turkey breast or a standard porchetta will need to be cut down to size to fit.

On Turkey Legs, Sous-Vide

Thinking of sous videing a turchetta, and other parts. Since the legs need to go at a higher temp, any ideas other than two coolers? —Brando

There are a few ways to deal with this. The easiest is to start your legs in a 170°F cooler, let them come to temperature for about three hours, then add cold water to bring it down to 145°F to cook your turchetta, leaving the legs in there. They'll stay hot, and they'll be cooked through.

Red wine braised turkey legs.

That said, I'd highly recommend using this Red Wine-Braised Turkey Leg recipe, as the results are better than what you can get with cooler-style sous vide for a cut like turkey legs, which are better suited for low and slow cooking!

On Thanksgivings, Vegetarian

I was thinking of adapting your veggie burger recipe into something more like a main dish, sort of a veggie meatloaf. Do you think this would turn out okay, or would even cooking be a problem? Any suggested adaptations to the recipe? (It doesn't have to be vegan, but does have to stay vegetarian.) —RyanW2

Absolutely! I've done baked versions of that very recipe before!

If you want to make it into an even fancier centerpiece-style roast, I'd do what Jamie has suggested to me: cook it up Wellington style.

I'd follow these Beef Wellington instructions, omitting the ham and the beef, and replacing the beef with the veggie mixture. You'll end up with a stunning centerpiece that slices open to reveal layers of puff pastry, mushroom duxelles, and a grain and vegetable-based core.

The other option for a super-decadent vegetarian centerpiece is this Ultra-Creamy Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna.


It's creamy, it's spinach, it's lasagna, it's mushroom, and it's ultra. Who wouldn't want that?

On Duck, Porchetta-style

If you can make a turkey porchetta, how about one using duck? (In case you're wondering, this is definitely on topic: I always make duck for Thanksgiving.) —BostonAdam

Yes, you can! Though you'll end up with a lot of skin and not a lot of meat in there, unfortunately. Duck is a great, fatty meat, but it's not the plumpest of beasts, which this application is more suited for.

Peking-style roast duck.

Why not try it Peking style instead?

On Dogs and Turkeys Coexisting

Is turkey actually toxic to dogs? We've always kicked down a small bit for the pup with no ill effects.Burger365

I certainly hope not, because my dogs exist on a diet that is nearly 50 percent turkey meat! I've moved away a bit from the dog food recipe I wrote a few years ago. These days it's turkey, not beef, and they get a whole bunch of scrambled eggs and chickpeas tossed in there as well. It's so good that one time my brother-in-law who was staying at our house unwittingly ate it for dinner when we told him he could help himself to anything in the fridge. His verdict? "That stew was great, but it just needed a little salt."

On Alternative Meats

I think we're a bit sick of turkey for Thanksgiving, so we are going to try something really new (but still in the spirit of the early Americans): we're going to try elk.

I'm the farthest thing from a hunter, but friends who've tried it say it's their favorite meat. A farm in Colorado sells elk meat (and ostrich and bison).

Have you ever had elk, and would you recommend the tender cuts vs. the tougher pieces? We've got 3 immersion circulators, so I'm thinking of going for a more flavorful and less tender cut.

I love elk, though I would definitely recommend a more tender cut whether you've got a circulator or not. Game meat like elk and venison tends to be more strongly flavored than domesticated meats and much of that flavor is concentrated in the tough-working muscles that require long-cooking. Now I'm not saying that you won't like elk chuck or round, just that it has a distinct flavor that might not suit your palate, and the last thing you want on Thanksgiving is a tableful of meat you don't want to eat. I'd start with the leaner, faster-cooking cuts for now, then ease into the tougher cuts for Christmas!

Special Planning

On Big Crowds, Small Oven

I have 22 guests and one oven, so the plan is two spatchcocked turkeys. My two-pronged question:

1. Should I alter your spatchcocked turkey recipe at all to do two birds? Change the temp, plan for more time? Swap racks halfway through? Should I use convection at all?

2. Since the turkeys will take up the whole oven, I need to bake the stuffing (your sage sausage stuffing recipe) and roast brussels sprouts ahead of time. I think I'll just serve the sprouts at room temp, but how would you handle the par-baking and later reheating of the stuffing while the turkey rests? Want to make sure it ends up crispy on top but not dried out. —Jesse A

1. The only real changes you'd need to make to the Spatchcock Turkey recipe are in the time spent in the oven, and you've essentially answered your own question! Plan on about 15 minutes extra time, definitely use convection to promote browning and even cooking (two trays can wreak havoc on your convection currents in there), and swap racks half way through. If you notice that perhaps your turkeys are not quite as brown as you'd like them to be after coming up to temperature, remove them both from the oven, bang up the heat as high as it'll go, and throw them back in for a few minutes after resting to crisp up their skin.

2. In the meantime, a good casserole like the one above will help keep your stuffing warm while the turkey roasts. Just cover it in foil and throw it back in the oven for about 15 minutes while the turkey rests (covered) to reheat it. If you want it extra crispy, take off the foil for the last couple of minutes.

When cooking regular potatoes, do you prefer to put them in boiling water or cold water and let it heat up? —Utbildadninja

Great question! I always start my potatoes in cold water, which helps them to cook more evenly from edge to center. If you drop a large potato in boiling water, it takes a great deal of time for that heat energy to work its way from the outside to the very middle. By the time the center is cooked, the outer edges have overcooked, turning mushy or sticky. Starting them cold mitigates that.

On Feedbags, Large

I am cooking for more than 30 people. One turkey isn't going to do it. What other kind of protein would you cook to complement the usual side dishes? —JoelSG

There is no better cut of meat for feeding a large hungry crowd with minimal effort, minimal expense, and maximum deliciousness than a pork shoulder, and my favorite way to do it is to slow roast it until fall-apart tender.


Pork shoulder is so moist that you can get away with cooking this the day before, letting it cool, saving the crispy skin, picking and shredding the meat, and rewarming it in a slow cooker or in a casserole in the oven to serve. Crack up that crispy skin and place it on top of the meat just before serving.

Alternatively, pork shoulder and slow cookers are best friends. Try out this Filipino Pork Shoulder or this Dr. Pepper Pork Shoulder. Both are set-it-and-forget-it-type recipes.

On Leftovers, Planning

We always feed/house at least a dozen people for multiple days. You guys are pretty spot on with ideas for leftovers, but it'd be awesome to get advanced prep leftover ideas (i.e. lets get things planned and started and shopped for before thanksgiving). As an example, I'm going to start a large batch of no-knead dough on monday or tuesday for bread (turkey sandwiches) and - gasp! - thanksgiving leftover pizza. Basically, what can you suggest to get us ready to feed people not just for 1 meal, but for the 3 days after? —jebruns

Roast Turkey and Black Bean Quesadillas

That's a really tough question to answer, as it really all depends on what you like to do with your leftovers! For me, the advance prep is minimal—I like to make my leftovers into a simple soup, or perhaps some sandwiches or quesadillas, or my all-time favorite, morning-after Thanksgiving hash. None of those recipes require much advance work.

But it never hurts to have a well stocked pantry. Bread, stock, extra potatoes, pasta—things that will bulk up and round out a leftovers meal.

Take a look over at our Thanksgiving Leftovers Recipes page for some inspiration, and plan from there!

On Feeding Veg-Heads

I have to accommodate a vegetarian, and another person who can't eat dairy, wheat or eggs. Is there a way to do this without having lame stuffing and/or depriving the veggie of a main course? —innabrooklyn

See my answer to the question above about a great vegetarian main course for the vegetarian. Believe me, it'll be so good that even meat eaters will want a slice! If you want to accommodate the wheat-fearing vegan, you can make my absolute favorite vegan, wheat-free dish: this garbanzo and spinach stew, which I occasionally make with kale. It's, if I may be so bold, freaking fantastic. I fed a hungry crowd of 30 meat-eating skiers with this last year and not a single one complained about a lack of meat!

Ingredients and Techniques

On Brining

To brine or not to brine...Is it really worth doing? I could have sworn you did a food lab that showed it really didn't make a difference. And nowadays its hard to find a non-injected bird anyway. Better to just get the injected solution bird and forget about brining? Or get a kosher turkey and forgo brining? Or a natural turkey and brine? Thanks! —shawnbusken

First of all, brining does work. If wet turkey is what you're after, that is. It certainly helps turkey meat retain more moisture, but the problem is that it's very difficult to get things other than plain water and salt into the meat via a brine. Flavorings end up adhering mostly to the surface without penetrating very far.


A much better method is dry-brining—salting the turkey and letting it rest for one to three days. It performs the same function as a brine by helping the turkey retain more moisture as it cooks, and has the added advantage that it doesn't water down the flavor of the meat.

Of course, if you're using a pre-injected bird, neither of these methods is particularly useful or necessary. I personally buy natural birds and dry-brine them or cook them with no treatment (because I'm very careful with my thermometer). I find kosher birds and pre-injected birds to be less flavorful than a good high quality natural bird, but the choice is yours.

Read up a bit more on turkeys here to help you make that choice!

On Steaming

Brine or steam? Just learned of steaming this year. Your comments please! —sasamama

First of all, it's not a one or the other situation. That's like asking, "Super Mario Brothers or mashed potatoes?" The two things are not really related. Brining is a way of altering the protein structure of your turkey to help it retain more moisture as it cook (though I'd really recommend dry-brining in place of a traditional brine).

Steaming is a method of heat transfer that uses moist air to transmit energy from a heat source to the bird. It is really not all that different from any other form of cooking—simmering, roasting, or grilling, for instance—other than that it will deposit moisture on the outside of the bird.

Note that it will not prevent moisture from inside of the bird from being squeezed out. The internal structure of your cooked bird will come out exactly the same whether you steam it or roast it, so long as you take it to the same final temperature. All steaming will do is prevent the skin from crisping, and who wants non-crisp skin?

Short story: Dry-brine your bird and skip the steaming.

On Butter, Fake

I myself don't keep kosher, but my cousin who hosts Thanksgiving in our family does. So this means no dairy at Thanksgiving, and no pork. It's easy enough to sidestep the pork, and the meal is plenty indulgent without it, but I do miss all the butter. My question, then is about margarine and other butter replacements. What's your opinion of them? Are there times when margarine is acceptable, and times where it's totally out of the question? In this past I've just stuck with neutral and olive oils. I feel like the prevalent notion is that margarine is the worst, but maybe that's a myth? —Ben Fishner

From a health perspective, old fashioned margarine made with hydrogenated vegetable oils that often contain trans-fats are on the bad foods list (at least for the moment), though most modern butter replacements have found ways around the trans-fat issue.

From a culinary perspective, I personally can't stand the flavor of fake butter in any situation other than when Batman (or superhero of your choice) is on the screen in front of me beating up bad guys. It's a Pavlovian thing. That said, there are some good, non-fakey tasting butter substitutes out there that add the appropriate richness without the offensive flavor. When I was vegan last year, I had some awesome maple butter at Dirt Candy, which was made with Better than Butter-brand stuff.

But if you want to know what I personally would do in that situation, I'd use chicken or duck fat. Have you ever had duck fat mashed potatoes or chicken fat stuffing? I'm assuming not, because otherwise you wouldn't be asking this question.

On Crusts, Cut

Do I really need to cut the crusts off of the bread for stuffing? Why? (I'm assuming you said yes and it seems like a lot of extra work) —Ben Fishner

Ben, you don't have to do anything that you don't want to do.

Classic Sage and Sausage Stuffing (or Dressing)

No, seriously, you don't have to. My sister doesn't like me to do it. I do it because I like my stuffing to be extra custardy and moist, and I find those bread crusts get in the way.

From what I hear, that's how you like your stuffing too. It's the same reason I use regular supermarket sandwich bread instead of something heartier.

But here's a trick: use a sharp carving or chef's knife, not a serrated knife, to cut the crusts off your bread. With a sharp knife, you can stack your bread slices 6 to 8 at a time and get all of the crust off with four easy strokes rather than having to go a single slice at a time.

Here's another trick: get someone else to do it. That's why picking herbs is my favorite job in the kitchen: I never do it myself.

On Thanksgivings, Small

I'm having Thanksgiving alone this year (with my cat). I would like to make some turkey and plan on buying a couple turkey thighs or a single turkey breast. How do you recommend cooking a turkey dish for one person? I don't like how turkey meat dries out during baking and would like a way to cook it that retains it's moisture. Thanks! —qubegirlsf

Check out this Easy Skillet Turkey Dinner recipe for a scaled-down, single-skillet Thanksgiving meal, or stay tuned for Monday, when we'll pull up a brand new recipe for a similar small, easy turkey dinner.

On Milk, Sweetened Condensed

What are your favorite uses for sweetened condensed milk? —qubegirlsf

Sweetened condensed milk is a key ingredients in my Real Ice Cream Without an Ice Cream Machine, and it's really cool how it helps the ice cream keep a nice smooth texture even without churning. So from a "hey, that's awesome!" standpoint, I'd say that.

From a pure, "this is easy and delicious, make it" standpoint, I'll have to go for my wife's 10-Minute Lime Cracker Pie, a sweet and savory icebox cake that uses crackers, condensed milk, heavy cream, and lime juice.

10-Minute Lime Cracker Pie

My favorite favorite use for sweetened condensed milk coincidentally also involves my wife, but I'm afraid that the rules of decorum and decency will not allow me to share that particular recipe.

On Chestnuts, Peeling

What is the best way to prepare roasted chestnuts so that they peel easily? We can never peel ours for some reason; the fuzzy layer under the shell simply refuses to come off cleanly. —pwtpwns

That fuzz layer really is a pain, isn't it? And unfortunately I don't really know of a 100 percent foolproof way to get rid of it. That said, there are a few things that help.

  • Cut an "X" into their base (the flat, discolored part of the shell) with the tip of a small paring knife in order to allow pressure from inside to escape.
  • Roast them in a hot oven—400°F—until they're completely cooked through, about 30 minutes.
  • Let them rest, but peel them while they're as hot as you can handle. That fuzzy skin slips off better while they're still warm.
  • Use a wooden skewer of the tip of a knife to get the extra fuzz out of cracks if it remains.

On Cookers, Sous-Vide

Is there a definitive winner between the Anova and the Sansaire? I know Anova can be purchased now, but I'm in no hurry since I don't think I'll be doing anything sous vide this Thanksgiving. —hlmarr

No definitive winner yet—I've been waiting on getting my hands on a finalized version of the Sansaire, which...I just received in the mail yesterday! I'll be doing testing over the next few weeks and will have a full report some time in December. Unfortunately, the Sansaire is not out in time for Christmas, so if Christmas gifts are your goal, you'll have to select the Anova or the Nomiku. I haven't finalized any testing yet, but my early results and overall impressions are leaning in favor of the Anova. That all might change after more rigorous testing is completed.

How do you clean chicken livers? I've seen recipes call for soaking them in cream or wine. And which parts, if any, do you cut off? (When I get them at the store, there always seems to be stringy parts holding pieces together.) —emwasser

There's no real need to soak chicken livers unless they're coming from really large, old chickens and you want to get some of the stronger flavor out. Most livers sold in supermarkets are from young birds and are very mild in flavor. As for cleaning them, just pull out the stringy bits

Side Dishes

On Vegetables, Mobile

How about vegetable side dishes that hold well? I'm taking part in an office potluck, so I need something that is portable, will taste good at noon the day after I make it, and can either be served room temp or kept hot in a crock pot. —Dina

If this is an office pot-luck, you should be going for the knock-their-socks off approach, because if it's one thing office drones need, it's a good bit of sock-knocking. I'd go the upgraded-classic route and make The Ultimate Green Bean Casserole.


It looks like a lot of work, but it's all relatively easy stuff. Once you've got the elements made, you can keep the beans and the creamy mushroom sauce warm in the slow cooker, then serve the fried shallots in a bowl on the side for people to sprinkle on themselves. Just make sure you either post a guard or make WAY more fried shallots than you need, because they're insanely crave-worthy. I have to hide mine behind the fridge whenever I make a batch because when my wife finds them, they're gone faster than a cellphone camera at a crime scene.

On Slow Cookers, Stuffing

It's possible this has been covered (I did a spate of searching on it last year but don't remember the results very well), but I'd love to get Food Lab's take on making stuffing in the slow cooker. I've done it once and it was actually great - not only did it free up the oven, but it came out crisp around the edges/bottom and very moist within. —monopod

It's a great way to do it! I heartily recommend it if you've got a cooker and/or your oven is otherwise occupied.

On Hors D'Ouevres, Advanced Preparation of

I am making some hors d'oeuvre and wanted to know how far in advance I can prepare the fillings. For example sausage stuffed mushrooms.. if i want to cook the sausage and make the mixture, but not stuff, when can I? Or a butternut squash, leek and porcini filling for mini turnovers? And lastly how soon can i make a tomato-basil dip (not dairy based, evoo)? —downtownstef

Without seeing the specific recipes, I can't tell you exactly, but I can tell you that most fillings of the kind you're referring to can be made well in advance—a couple of days at least. Things to look out for: don't add fresh herbs until the very end, particularly if the fillings are acidic. The herbs will discolor. Fresh tomatoes also don't do very well in the fridge—they get mealy—so I wouldn't make that dip until the last day.

On Stuffing, Vegetarian

Ideas for vegetarian-friendly stuffing/dressing that won't be too disappointing for the meat eaters? Eggs and dairy are ok. —ipsiad

The key to a great stuffing is plenty of butter and a great stock to flavor it with. If I were making a vegetarian stuffing, I'd start with my Classic Sage and Sausage Stuffing, omitting the sausage and replacing it with mushrooms that I've chopped very finely in a food processor, cooking them down in the butter until their moisture is mostly gone.

Hearty Vegetable Stock (Vegan)

Then, when it comes to adding the chicken stock, I'd replace it with some homemade Vegan Stock, which is leaps and bounds tastier than any pre-made vegetable stock you can get at the supermarket.

Want to add a bit more meaty texture? Some roughly chopped chestnuts or cashews, or perhaps some dried apples and cranberries would go very nicely in there. You don't need the meat to have full flavor.

On Vegetables, Recycling

With your spatchcocked Turkey, how palatable are the vegetables underneath once they're done? Are they good enough to serve as a dish by themselves? If not, if one put a separate pan of vegetables to roast in the oven at the same time as the Turkey, would the temperature and/or cooking time need to increase? —Hassouni

They end up tasting like the vegetables you strain out of a long-simmered stock. Shadows of their former selves. Spent. Busted. Edible? Yes. Great? No.

As for cooking other things at the same time, it really depends on your oven. I'd definitely recommend placing the turkey at the top and anything else on a rack underneath, as a tray above the turkey can prevent it from browning properly. I'd also turn on convection if your oven's got it.

Most likely you'll have to increase cooking time by 20 percent or so, but again, it really varies from oven to oven. The thermometer is your friend!

On Vegetables, Bright

I love all the savory buttery fried yummy Thanksgiving food--but would love one bright veggie-based dish to serve with the meal too. Most of the veggie sides I see are delicious but pretty heavy. Ideas? —atxdori

Are you opposed to salads? I find that a good salad can often be the brightest spot on the Thanksgiving spread. A great way to take a break from all the buttery goods. We've got a few of our favorites right here.

Roasted Pear Salad with Endive, Pomegranate, Blue Cheese, and Hazelnut Vinaigrette

This winter greens and roasted pear salad with pomegranate, blue cheese, and endive in particular is on my table every year. My mom insists on it.

On Potatoes, Sweet

what is a good recipe for sweet potatoes/yams? I have yet to find one that stands above the rest. —wallywombat


Might I humbly suggest my own recipe?

Ok, that photo is pretty darn terrible (does anyone ever look at their old work and think, OMG, who is this embarrassment and why do they have the same name as me), but the recipe works. It utilizes the fact that sweet potatoes contain enzymes that will break down their starches and complex carbs into simple sugar, enhancing their sweetness. By heating them gently in water before roasting them, you can give this sweetening effect a jump-start. The end result is the sweetest sweet potatoes you ever did meet. Ain't that something?

On Potatoes, Mashed and Moved

I'm going to a Thanksgiving potluck and want to make mashed potatoes ahead of time, could mashed potatoes be kept in the crockpot on warm and not suck? That way I could keep them ahead of time and have them warm on the potluck line. —bakinggirl415

Yes indeed! But here are a couple of pro-tips: bring a small container of milk with you so that you can adjust the consistency just before serving. And if you want to really up your game, smooth off the top of the potatoes and cover them with melted butter during transit. When ready to serve, stir that butter in. Not only will it prevent the potatoes from drying out, it'll also add an extra kick of buttery goodness to the whole shebang. And who couldn't do with more buttery goodness on Thanksgiving?

On Potatoes, Lots!

What's the best way to make mash potato for lots of people (double figures) without doing yourself an injury?

Also what's your favorite candy bar? —Piers JA

Want to know a super-duper-duper secret? I'm a fan of instant mashed potatoes. Now, hold your horses. I'm only a fan of specific brands, and only when used in very specific ways.

Alice Gao

First off, you want a brand that contains nothing but dehydrated potatoes. The second and third place winners in out instant potato taste test fit that criteria.

Secondly, you do not want to follow the package instructions. Cook them with more butter, more cream, more salt, and more pepper than you think is reasonable.

Finally, don't serve them on their own. Use them to add bulk to a batch of real mashed potatoes, which will add the necessary chunky texture that folks are looking for.

I'm not joking about this, by the way. It's a trick I pull on people all the time, and I've never been called out on it. True story.

Do I get a candy bar for my honesty? If so, I'll go with a Whatchamacallit please.

And ok, if you really don't want to use instant potatoes to bulk up the real ones, get yourself a potato ricer and double this recipe.

On Bread, Corny

So, every year I make everything at my Thanksgiving table from scratch using the finest ingredients. My annual menu is pretty consistent except a few changes here and there. The only dish that I still don't have a grasp on is cornbread. I'm not talking about the traditional stuff. I want the sweet, moist, buttery type (To lowbrow it, I'll be the first to admit that Boston Market's cornbread is actually pretty delicious). Any tips, or a recipe? —capricho

We've got a couple of recipes for you!

This simple cornbread uses maple syrup as flavoring, which not only sweetens and flavors it, but also helps it to stay extra moist. Perhaps that's what you're looking for?

Brown Butter Cornbread

If not, then this Brown Butter Cornbread might suit you better with its extra-moist, rich texture and nutty flavor.

On Pâtés, Appropriate

Can you suggest a pate or terrine recipe that might be particularly appropriate for thanksgiving day while dinner is cooking? —cods12

Cook the Book: Pork Shoulder Rillettes

Forget the pâté, they're fiddly and a pain in the butt to make. Instead, why not make pork rillettes? They're tasty, last forever, are nearly foolproof, are really inexpensive, and did I mention they're tasty? I make a batch of rillettes very similar to that recipe every year and jar it up to give to relatives as inexpensive Christmas gifts.

On Macaroni, Cheesed

Thanksgiving macaroni and cheese Martha's bechamel sauce or Patti LaBelle's custard style? —fldhkybnva

Custard style FTW, but not just any custard style, specifically John Thorne's. It's easy, it's awesomely gooey and cheesy and shiny, and it's simply the best macaroni and cheese recipe I know.

If you miss that casserole-style appeal, you can transfer it into a casserole dish, cover it and bread crumbs, and bake it briefly just to crisp up the top.

On Latkes, Magical

I really really want latkes, either sweet potato or made from cauliflower mash, but the idea of frying right before serving is giving my mother palpitations. What's the best way of making them ahead, and crisping them up while the turkey rests? —CityMinx


I'm no latke expert, but resident Jewish food authority Max claims that "you can reheat latkes, but you lose some of the magic."

When I asked him what magic I was met with dagger-ish stares from multiple directions. Note to visitors: do not speak ill of latkes in this office.

Max's advice: lay them out in a single layer on a cooling rack set in a baking sheet in a hot oven (around 375 to 400°F, and if you've got convection, use it!), and let them cook until crisp. It'll take a few minutes.


On Chocolate, Tempering of

When making desserts that involve chocolate -- my chocolate is never smooth enough. What oil/ how much do you use to make the chocolate smooth but still able to harden at room temperature? —ccavaluzzi

Ah, this is a difficult question to answer. It's not got much to do with the specific oil or other bases you add to your chocolate, but more on the temperature you cook it to and how it is cooled. Depending on how it is heated, chocolate can form several different types of crystals, and it's these crystal formations that determine its smoothness.


Short answer: heat your chocolate slowly in a double boiler, stirring occasionally, and aim for a temperature between 110 and 115°F before cooling it, then don't let it rise above 92°F again when you're working with it.

Long answer: read this very detailed guide to tempering chocolate.

I wanted to make rolls from scratch for dinner, using the overnight recipe on this website, but I'll be traveling (about 90 min by car) to my mom's house. Do you think it would be ok to fully bake the rolls and then just reheat in the oven at my mom's house? Maybe par-bake them? How long/what temp would you suggest? —coppertone24

Yes, you can absolutely reheat rolls! Bake them off in advance (if you are going to let them sit for more than a day, cool them, wrap them in foil, and freeze them), then reheat them wrapped in foil in a 350°F oven for about 15 minutes, remove the foil, and let them crisp up for a further 5 minutes.

On Desserts, Make-Ahead

Any suggestions for Thanksgiving desserts that can be made way ahead of time (2+ days)? —jenl

Perfect Apple Pie

Are you kiddin' me? Pretty much any pie can be made ahead! I like the classic apple and an extra-smooth pumpkin, but really, any pie on this page will do you just fine. Store it in the fridge, then serve at room temperature, or if you'd like, crisp it up in a warm oven for half an hour before serving.

On Cherpumples, Sweet

Any tips for a sweet thanksgiving cherpumple? A friend is planning to make one. I see you took honors for a savory but the sweet looked really challenging —Fluffy1

The classic cherpumple is cherry, pumpkin, and apple pies baked into white, spice, and yellow cakes respectively before being stacked and frosted. And you're right, it is a pain in the butt to make and to be quite frank, an endeavor that is not worth the trouble in terms of flavor. But if wow factor is what you're after, then you're going to have to put in the effort.

You start by baking the cherry, pumpkin, and apple pies at least two days in advance of serving and letting them chill in the fridge.

Then, the day before serving, you place each pie in a springform cake pan and cover it in cake batter—white, spice, and yellow. (And I just realized we don't have a basic white cake recipe on the site, d'oh!).

After baking, it's another day of chilling before stacking and frosting. I'm afraid there's no real easy way to do it other than it.

One big tip: don't overstuff your pies. Not only will it make it harder to fit them in the cake pans, it'll also make it more likely that a tip-over or a squash-out will occur when you stack 'em.

On Pies, Cheesy

I'm looking to add cheddar (or more suitable cheese if you recommend) to an apple pie crust. I've read cheddar-crust recipes but I don't trust them as much as you. How do you think the cheese/extra fat will affect the crust's composition and flakiness, and then how would you adjust the "Easy Pie Dough" recipe (in terms of proportions and timing for adding cheese)?

Or should I not mess with the science going on in the dough and just add cheese on top of the crust as in your skillet apple pie? —alyssaz

Cheese can be incorporated into my perfect pie dough recipe quite easily, actually! Just replace a portion of the butter in the initial blending phase with double the amount (by weight) of an easily blendable cheese. A sharp cheddar should work just fine.


And if you want to go extra cheesy, do both: incorporate cheese into the crust, and add a layer of grated cheese above the apples before sealing the pie.


On Cocktails, Mock

what's a good Thanksgiving mocktail? I would like to sample the wines, but I'm pregnant and my in-laws don't drink. —animalcracker

Why, I'm glad you asked that! It just so happens we've devoted considerable time and effort on some mocktail recipes, many of them seasonally appropriate. To me, this Pomegranate Americano looks like it'd hit the spot. I'm a strong-and-bitter kind of guy, but you might find some others more to your liking.

Pomegranate Americano

And if you're the studious type, read up on mocktail science!

On Beverages, Narcotic

Which is chemically proven to be more effective in drowning out the in-laws, whiskey or wine? —ESNY1077

Depends on what you're asking. Are you trying to keep them from bugging you by chemically inducing slumber in them? In that case, feed them wine. Are you trying to get through the night by inebriating yourself to the point that you won't notice what's going on? Well then, wine is fine, but liquor is quicker.

Storage, Freezing, and Leftovers

On Freezing

I have two questions about freezing.

1 - can you freeze unbaked stuffing and then bake it straight from the freezer?

2 - I made pie crust and froze it, but now I'm thinking about making the pie ahead of time and freezing the pie whole. How would the pie crust hold up if I thaw it, make the pie, freeze the pie, and bake the pie from frozen?

Thanks! —PeanutButterPusher

For the stuffing, I would let it thaw before baking if you don't want the outside to dry out before the middle finishes cooking.

As for the pie, you're far better off preparing the crusts and fillings separately, then assembling just before baking. Depending on the type of pie, you'll either overbake the edges of the filling, or you'll burn the crust by trying to bake it when it's frozen solid. An alternative would be to bake the pie, let it cool, then freeze it. Then all you'd have to do is let it thaw out, and perhaps re-crisp it in a warm oven for a half hour or so before serving.

Eating Out

On Chinese Families, Entertainment Of

I need to take my Chinese family (10-12 people) out to dinner on Thanksgiving. They're restauranteurs prone to saying "I can make that better myself," and "Aiyah, so expensive!" Chinese/Asian food would be preferable, especially if I can show them something new or different. Last year, we went to Fu Run and they loved the cumin lamb chop and candied taro. Where should we go this year? —ladyparmalade

My two current favorite Chinese restaurants in Manhattan are both Sichuan-based. Café China is the better of the two, but might be a bit pricier and more fancy-pants. Sounds like you're looking for something a bit more inexpensive for your family, so I'd hit up Legend. You'll have to call the restaurants to make sure they're open on Thanksgiving.

If you're willing to make the trek outside of Manhattan, then I'd recommend Biang!, the nicer cousin of Xi'an Famous Foods out in Flushing. The food is stellar and different, the atmosphere is nice, and the prices are insanely low.


On Rings, Mine

Kind of a personal question, but I've noticed that you wear your wedding ring on your right hand instead of your left and I was just wondering why. —Jim-Bob

Actually, I was born with a rare form of disfigurement that caused my right hand to grow where my left hand should be and my left hand to grow where my right should be. As if that weren't bad enough, I had another horrible disfigurement: both of my hands were mirror images of what they are supposed to be! So my right hand that looks like a left hand is actually attached to my left arm, while my left hand that looks like a right hand is attached to the end of my right arm. You follow?

Ok, truth is: my left hand is my food-handling hand and my violin/guitar fingering hand, so the ring gets in the way when it's over there. Plus, I just like people to ask so I can tell that ridiculous birth defect story.

On Questions Three

Favorite color? —Mr. Nick

Easy. That's be blue... no, yelloaaaaaaaauuughhhhhhhhhhh!

On Beatles, Extra

Who would you say is/should be the 5th Beatle? —ag3208

There have been many candidates for this title. Some folks say it was Stu Sutcliffe, their early bassist (though most report that he didn't actually know how to play the bass). Certainly he was instrumental in their early years and their reputation as bad boys in Hamburg.

Others claim it to be Brian Epstein, the manager who "discovered" the boys, cleaned them up, slapped boots and suits on them, gave them matching haircuts, cut their sets from 18 hours to 18 minutes, and made a brand out of 'em. The original boy band manager, if you will. Undoubtedly the Beatles never would have become what they became if it weren't for Brian.

Others would call a number of regular guest musicians the fifth Beatle, with Billy Preston—the guest keyboardist who helped make Abbey Road the fantastic album it is and shaped many of the songs that landed on Let It Be—leading the pack.

For me, the fifth Beatle is undoubtedly Sir George Martin, who not only produced the band through most of their recording career, but was the man who really defined their sound, challenged them as musicians, and fine tuned the songs to the mind-blowingly tight pieces of pop architecture that they became. He and his son are also the only people who continue to do original work with the Beatles' collected works that are genuinely inspirational.

On Dead, Walking

If Daryl dies, will you riot? —AcaciaWildwood

Only if you're riot there with me.

On MIT and Me

Not thanksgiving related, but I was wondering how you ended up in this sweet gig running a food blog after graduating from MIT (with a degree in architecture?). Any chance of story-time? —wxisx

Long story short: I was a science student, then an architecture student, then a Knight of the Round Grill, then a fraternity cook, then a line cook, then a chef, then a test cook, then an Editor, then a Senior Editor, then a Science Adviser, then a freelancer, then a Managing Editor, and now a Chief Creative Officer. It's been a pretty sweet gig and crazy ride all along.

That's the details of it. If you want to know the overarching theme, it comes down to this: I know myself and know that I do my best work when I really enjoy it, so I made a vow to constantly evaluate whether I'm learning new things and am excited by them, and if the answer to that question is ever "no," to figure out how to turn it into a "yes." That has led me to produce what I believe is some good, valuable work, and more importantly, has made me excited to do my work pretty much every day for the last decade and a half.

From the "I Don't Know" File

On Recipes, Archaic

TO continue the kashrut questions, are there any good milk substitutes for custards/puddings? I'm particularly thinking of eggless puddings like Amelia Simmons' Indian Pudding #3, but I'd also like hearing what adjustments could be made to recipes with eggs like recipe #1.
Also, while I have you and can't think of anything else, any ideas for shabbat-supper-friendly (that means 24-hour untouched cooktime) recipes? Also what do you think of the claims in the NPR article "The Secret To Georgian Grilled Meats? Grapevines And Lots Of Wine?"
Oh, and how does one make rye-and-indian (50/50 rye and corn flour/meal) without chemical leavening? I know the stuff predates even potash, but I can't find any recipes for back then, so I'm not sure if it's yeast of whipped eggs, although references suggest the former.
Actually, speaking of potash, how should I convert it to sane leaveners if I ever find my copy of American Cookery so I can use it for thanksgiving dinner? —scalfin

Er... I'm awfully sorry, but I must admit that there's a serious hole in my knowledge when it comes to archaic American cookery, particularly in the dessert arena. I've also not had Amelia Simmons' Indian Pudding #3 (nor do I know who Amelia Simmons is), haven't heard the NPR article on grapevines, have no idea what rye-and-indian is, and have neither made nor eaten potash in my life. So sorry!

On Casseroles, Onion

Got a good recipe for onion soup casserole? I've heard about this recipe but can't find anything reliable on the internet that I trust. Basic idea - cook down a bunch of onions (french onion soup style), then cheese, toasted bread. Looking for guidance. Thanks! —shawnbusken

I'm afraid I'm not completely familiar with this recipe, but what I can help you with is caramelizing those onions faster.


Check out this recipe for a technique that will help you achieve caramelized onions in about a quarter of the time they traditionally take!

On Wives, Pregnant

My wife is pregnant with our first child. I don't want to over cook our breast meat obviously; but some books / sites are recommending taking poultry to 180 to serve to pregnant women. Do you know of any science that suggests this meat would be any safer? From my read on your food safety stuff I'd say no and take it to 150. Any thoughts? —Martin Bowling

First of all, congratulations! Secondly, I'm afraid I'm not qualified to give that kind of advice here and I don't want to be responsible for any of the safety implications of what I might tell you.

That said, I can give you some basic facts. The safety implications are up to you to decide.

According to the USDA, there are multiple ways to pasteurize meat. at 165°F, you'll have a 7.0 log10 reduction of bacteria nearly instantaneously (that is, 99.999999 percent of all bacteria present will be destroyed). At 150°F, the same degree of bacterial destruction will take about 7 minutes.

The question is, is that level of pasteurization enough for a pregnant woman? My gut tells me yes, but like I said, I'm not qualified to make that call, so you'll have to make that assessment on your own.