We gather together, then what?
Chef Michael Hirst to the rescue. Here, he offers top tips to keep the turkey moist and the rest of the meal worthy of giving thanks.
It’s one of those moments that’s not on the list of things wanted as the family sits down to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner: everyone realizing that their slice of turkey has a moisture level approaching hot sand from the Mojave desert.
Dried out turkey is one of the most common banes of the annual feast.
Chef Michael Hirst, the head of the Culinary Arts Program at Iowa Central Community College, said there are ways to avoid this problem.
“Brining helps that a lot,” he said. “Immerse the bird for 24 hours in a salt water solution in a five-gallon bucket. Add enough water to cover and about two cups of salt.
While most birds have water injected during their processing, Hirst said much of that oozes out as the bird is thawed.
“It gently permeates the bird. The salt acts like a clotting agent. You’re adding the moisture just before you cook it,” he said of the brining process.
The bird can also dry out in the oven.
“Cover it for about three-quarters of the cooking time,” he said.
After that, it’s on to some serious basting.
“Then, I’m going to baste it with butter and turkey fat,” he said. “Don’t use margarine. I baste with a lot of butter.”
Hirst is not a fan of stuffing the bird — with stuffing.
“My chef brain says to make your stuffing outside,’ he said. “I would do the stuffing in advance.”
That doesn’t mean he he cooks an empty bird. He instead puts a variety of ingredients to help flavor the bird.
He suggests a mix of onion, garlic, sage, rosemary and thyme.
“Roughly mashed and placed inside,” he said.
He also suggests sticking with the tried and true oven. He doesn’t recommend the oil-filled turkey fryers.
“I tried it twice,” he said. “I found it overcooked on the outside and it was pink in the middle. There are so many variables of thickness. Some overcook and some are not done. I don’t know a man in a white jacket that would recommend it.”
One other option that he does recommend, and uses regularly, is to debone the turkey before cooking and then preparing the individual pieces.
“It’s a lot more time-friendly,” he said.
Carving the bird can be made easier, he said, if the legs are removed first.
Also, the bird needs a bit of time to “rest” before letting Uncle Joe fire up his electric carving knife.
“You really need to have it rest a good 30 minutes,” he said. “It keeps it from drying out. The bird must relax and rest before devouring.”
One mystery that has eluded many family cooks over the years is how to make sure all of the various dishes arrive table side at more or less the same temperature.
So how does one avoid serving lukewarm turkey paired with mashed potatoes that are the same temperature as molten lava?
“If you’ve taken out the turkey,” Hirst said. “your oven should be empty. All your veggies should be 90 percent done then. The easiest thing to do is put all that in the oven, covered, for about 20 minutes and then crank it up. Everything will warm up nicely while your turkey is resting.”
Hirst has one final suggestion for Thanksgiving dinner.
“Set an extra place. We’re making enough for everybody. If you know someone going without, invite them. If you know someone that’s a shut-in, go get them.”
• Side dishes for the Thanksgiving meal, ranging from the traditional mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes or yams, string beans to cranberry sauce can be improved with just a few simple tips.
Whatever one is mashing, Hirst said, the extra ingredients must be hot.
“It must be mashed when it’s hot,” he said. “Add hot butter, milk or water. It helps avoid lumps.”
• Brussels sprouts are often on his own table — the veggie so many love to hate is actually delicious when prepared properly.
“The iconic Brussels sprouts,” he said. “Lets just call them baby cabbages. Sautee them in butter with bacon and salt and then finish them in the oven. You can even add some chestnuts.”
• Green beans can be improved on a lot over simply boiling them.
“Use fresh beans,” he said. “We sautee our beans nice and gently with bacon and mushrooms. If you want some of the casserole flavor, a ladle of fat from the turkey.”
• If you want to ruin Chef Hirst’s Thanksgiving dinner, serve him a slab of cranberry sauce with the can rings intact.
“My demeanor would slide down my chair a bit,” he said. “It’s just a jelly. It doesn’t enhance the experience.”
This year, the cranberry he and his students are preparing follows a different recipe.
“We mulled wine first. We added a variety of spices, including cloves, nutmeg, mace and juniper,” he said. “The cranberries are then stewed with the wine and some orange juice and orange zest.”
“It’s cranberry with a boozy twist,”
The cranberry is important for balancing the plate’s flavor profiles.
“With a turkey,” he said. “The cranberry is the only acid. It’s a cleansing flavor.”
• Dessert at Thanksgiving is usually pumpkin pie — it is, after all, traditional.
“I much prefer to go the fruit route. I’d rather have fruit than more pureed pumpkin,” Hirst said. “A pear or apple pie or a nice apple crisp. I like the acidity of the fruit at the end of the meal.”
That pumpkin spice thing that’s currently trendy in almost everything? He’s not a fan.
“Too many things have that,” he said. “When I saw an ad for a pumpkin spice deodorant I knew we had taken it too far.”
• So, no pumpkin spice latte to drink with the meal.
Hirst offers some other pairings.
“A big, bold chardonnay,” he said. “I would definitely go with a white. I suggest a lighter beer or a cloudy Belgian. Blue Moon is good. Its fruitiness will work well with a bird.”
For the under 21 guests?
“A sparkly cranberry cocktail with soda and orange peel,” he suggested.