How to Cook Thanksgiving Dinner like a Professional Chef

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Although in Canada, we've already had our Thanksgiving, we should still pay tribute to our American friends and listeners as they stuff their bellies with turkey this week. Thanksgiving can be a truly exciting and fun holiday, but it can also be very stressful for the person who is nominated or designated themselves as the cook. Making sure that everything is timed out perfectly so nothing is served cold, having enough burners on the stove or space in the oven, finding enough room in the kitchen to be able to get everything done, or navigating a small kitchen with other people can be really challenging. We've all seen the Thanksgiving movies where Thanksgiving dinner ends up being an absolute disaster, but at the end it's fine because we can still grab some take-out and spend time with our closest friends and family to give thanks. And as happy of an ending as that might seem, the stress and nightmare in between can be extremely daunting. So today, we will focus on how to cook the perfect turkey, how to maximize your kitchen space, how to spend more time with your family and less time cooking, and generally, how to ease your stress this Thanksgiving. We're already way too stressed out as it is with this Pandemic, and I do hope that everyone stays safe and healthy and within their social circles and immediate family to do our part in preventing the spread. Wear your masks when needed, wash your hands more often than you think you need to, and do not be afraid to tell Aunt Karen that she cannot come to Thanksgiving dinner even though she went to Cuba and has "already self-quarantined for 10 days, it should be fine." Do your part, as much as you can this Thanksgiving to keep yourself and others safe.

We did a poll on the Kitchen Survival Guide Facebook group and our audience came up with some awesome suggestions for the biggest Thanksgiving dinner struggles. One of the ones that I struggle with the most, personally, is actually being hungry by the time I'm done cooking dinner, because I've been snacking the whole time or I start eating too much of a delicious appetizer before dinner. That one, I don't really have much of a solution for. But we do have some ideas and solutions for the rest of the challenges that come with Thanksgiving.

For those of you working will small kitchens at home, here are some tips for maximizing your space:

  • Place a plastic bag or garbage bag under a secured cutting board for scraps, that way your counter isn't filled with onion and carrot peels or what have you.

  • Prepare any items that you can ahead of time that can just easily be reheated on the day of.

  • A few days before Thanksgiving, you can chop or prepare pretty much anything. Cut up any veggies you need, some veggies may need to be stored in a bit of water to keep them crisp like celery or carrots. You can also pre cut your bread for any stuffing, make any sauces or dressings in advance like gravy, cheese sauce, salad dressing, etc. Prepare any garnishes or small annoying things so that you don't have to worry about them on the day. If you're going to be serving hors oeuvres, you can prepare anything you need for those too and just cook them quickly on the day of. Making any desserts ahead of time can also be super helpful, because then all you have to do is once the turkey comes out of the oven, just pop your pie in and it can heat up while you're eating dinner. If you set out some little snack platters or charcuterie boards throughout the day for people to snack on, you can prepare those ahead of time and you can even prepare salads, just keep the dressing separate and then all you have to do on Thanksgiving is toss it in some dressing or just leave the dressings on the side for people to choose their own.

  • Make sure you've properly thawed everything you need so that you're not wasting valuable sink space on Thanksgiving. It also leaves your sink available for dishes so that you can clean as you go, leaving you with additional counter space.

  • If you're short on space but you need an extra hand from someone else and can't stand trying to squeeze around each other in the kitchen, you can always setup an extra little prep station on the kitchen table or on top of a deep freezer or something.

  • When you're not using the sink, just place a cutting board on top and you can prep things right over top of the sink. You can also use this trick with drawers by opening a drawer and placing a cutting board across it for some extra prep space.

  • To truly maximize your space, don't forget that you can also work vertically. Put things in cupboards if you need to, use shelves to your advantage, anything you possibly can use.

  • Warming trays don't really keep food hot enough, but it can be useful for items where they don't need to be piping hot, just to clear some burner space so that you can heat up a gravy or other item that you've already prepared ahead of time, that you really do want to be extremely hot.

  • Always clean as you go. You will have so much more room without dishes hogging all of your valuable counter space. Sometimes it's helpful to even just have one person cooking and one person designated to dish duty if possible.

  • Only take out the items you need to prepare one dish at a time. Not only will this reduce the risk of food being in the temperature danger zone and possibly making someone sick, but it'll free up your counter space as well.

  • If you live somewhere that's cold, take advantage of the cooler weather if you run out of fridge space. You can even put food in a cool garage or in a cooler outside if you're living in warmer climates.

  • Before you start preparing anything - clean the counters. Get rid of any unnecessary little appliances like coffee machines, kettles, toasters, air fryers, etc. Put them in cupboards or in a different room or in the garage if you have to. Don't confine your own counter space if you're not going to be using the appliance that day.

  • Making use of the barbecue when you're working in a small kitchen is also great, if you have a barbecue. It can also take a load off of your to do list when half of the items can be cooked simultaneously outside, as well as inside. You can even barbecue the whole turkey, if you really wanted to. But even just some grilled asparagus, roasted potatoes wrapped in tin foil, grilled turnip or zucchini.

  • If you don't have room for a gigantic turkey, just buy some turkey breasts instead. Pound it out with a meat mallet, add a layer of stuffing or chopped cranberries and walnuts on top, then roll it all up into a little tube and tie it with some butcher's twine and roast that in the oven. Not only will these roulades take less time, less effort and less space, it's also much more resourceful for smaller families and kitchens and it also presents really well on your plate when you slice it.

  • Utilize prep bowls and tupperware. Store all of the ingredients for a dish in little prep bowls so that you can pull them out on the day of and just toss the dish together. Check out - There are some great little prep bowls, as well as a 4-Cup Prep Bowl, and all of them come with lids so that you can stack them in the fridge. The small ones come in a four pack, and they're honestly a lifesaver and have so many uses. You can use them to store just about anything and they're exactly one cup and there are little measurements on the side.

  • If you have one, you can always place a folding table in the centre of the kitchen like a kitchen island if you have enough space, which will give you an extra area to prep or even just put dishes out that are ready to go.

  • If your biggest struggle is that you find you don't have enough space on your oven or stove, you can use the barbecue like suggested previously, but you can also use an air fryer or instapot or any of these other alternative kitchen appliances to ease the stovetop and oven burden.

A lot of these tips will also help you spend more time with your friends and family, instead of spending all day cooking in the kitchen. Preparing as much as you can ahead of time will help you be able to enjoy the holiday with your loved ones. It'll also help you to be better prepared in terms of getting everything plated and ready to go at the same time, while all the food is still hot. Warming trays can be good for that, as well as insulated serving bowls, crock pots, etc. Having the proper cooking time to get everything ready at once can be kind of overwhelming and stressful, especially because it depends on how much food you're cooking, how many side dishes are cold, how many are hot, and your personal cooking skills, etc. A lot of understanding how long something takes to cook just comes with practice and the timing of things mostly comes with practice in a professional kitchen. It requires a lot of communication and other cooks involved. So don't be bummed out if your broccoli got cold while everyone was serving their plates up. You can just pop it in the microwave for few seconds if you have to. But for example, if you're trying to boil 8 large potatoes for mashed potatoes, it's going to take probably less than 30 minutes for them to be tender enough for me to be able to start mashing them. And while you're waiting for that, you can baste your turkey or start a sauce, etc. However, you don't want to start items too early, where they'll be cold by the time the turkey is ready to be carved. It's kind of a game of finding the perfect timing for everything. As the cook, although you may not be in control of the time, you are in control of the temperature. If you think you may have started something too early, turn down the heat or take it off the heat and reheat it closer to serving time. If you think you started something too late and the turkey is almost out of the oven - crank the heat!

One thing that everyone should be aware of and that most people don't know as home cooks, is that stuffing or "dressing," is a potentially hazardous food. All ingredients that are put into a stuffing should be at fridge temperature before mixing the stuffing together and these items should stay at this temperature while the stuffing is put into the poultry cavity. Stuff the turkey as close to cooking time as possible and ensure it is roasted to an internal temperature of 165°F by probing a thermometer deep inside the stuffing - not the turkey itself. Once the stuffing reaches temperature however, it is likely that the thigh of the bird will be at a temperature of about 185°F. This is why many chefs will recommend to cook stuffing separately, to avoid potential food-borne illness and to avoid over cooking the turkey to get the correct stuffing temperature. If you choose to stuff the bird, take the stuffing out as soon as the bird is done cooking because if it's left inside the cavity of the bird, the stuffing isn't able to properly cool and can end up at unsafe temperatures, causing a breeding ground for bacteria. Smaller poultry can be stuffed without issues, but because it is so difficult to control the temperatures inside the cavity of large stuffed poultry, it can pose a risk of food-borne illness. If you decide to stuff the turkey, stuff is loosely so that the stuffing is able to expand during the cooking process. Once the cavity is filled with the stuffing, the opening should be secured with butcher's twine or trussing.

Another common issue that comes with Thanksgiving is the turkey being too dry. And we won't try to give you "the best recipe ever for thanksgiving turkey" because there isn't one and the goal of this entire podcast series is to help people learn to cook without having to use a recipe or a cookbook. Because as we continue to gain experience in the kitchen, the more we are able to adjust our own personal recipes, cooking techniques and seasonings to be the best they can be. It's a continuous learning curve. So to combat this whole dry turkey issue, if you place the turkey on a bed of mirepoix in the roasting pan, it can promote even cooking and prevent the skin from becoming scorched. The mirepoix will also make sure that the fat from the turkey collects in the pan, as opposed to it dripping into the cavity of a stuffed bird, making for greasy stuffing. If you don't know what mirepoix is, it's basically just a fancy French culinary term for two parts chopped onion, one part chopped carrot, and one part chopped celery. We will end up doing an episode on that down the road.

Here are some of the best turkey cooking tips and techniques to help it retain moisture:

  • Always let the bird rest for at least 20 minutes! Do not carve the turkey until it has been able to evenly distribute its juices. Use this resting time to make a pan gravy or work on another side dish.

  • Trussing a turkey will help it to keep a more compact shape and will promote even cooking and moisture retention. Here is a video tutorial from Alton Brown on how to truss a turkey.

  • Legs and wings that haven't been trussed to the bird will cook too quickly and most likely, the wings will burn at the high temperatures.

  • Turkeys that are being roasted at high temperatures should not have the outside of the bird seasoned with herbs since they will burn. It is better to season with salt and pepper on the outside, then put any herbs, spices or aromatics into the cavity directly. Adding a mirepoix into the cavity of the bird as opposed to stuffing, or even a bouquet garni will enhance flavour tremendously. A bouquet garni is just another fancy French culinary term for a bunch of whole herbs/spices/aromatics tied into a bundle with butcher's twine. Some herbed butter or garlic butter under the skin of the breast makes all the difference.

  • Turkeys should be started for 30 minutes at a temperature of 400-425°F to brown the skin, then turned down to 325°F to promote even cooking and to retain moisture.

  • When roasting any poultry, it should be basted every 15 minutes.

  • You can brine your turkey (brining is basically just a water and salt combination and the salt will help to break down the connective tissue and the water helps it retain moisture). The only issue with brining is time. You need to have it brining for at least 24 hours or so for it to have any noticeable effect on the bird, so that means you'd then have to thaw your bird a day earlier, and comes with other pains, but it can definitely be worth it and is probably one of the most effective ways to retain moisture within the bird. If you choose to go that route, try to get a turkey that isn't frozen, so you don't have to deal with thawing and you can just focus on brining. The other big issue is space. For most poultry, you'll use a 5% salt brine, but since turkeys are so large and you'll need enough water to cover the entire turkey, unless you have some bus bins at home or a large and super clean laundry sink or something you can put the turkey in, it can prove fairly difficult. Essentially, you take the weight of that water and multiply it by 0.05 and that's the amount of salt you need to dissolve into the water to make a brine. So if you don't feel like doing turkey math, here are some more turkey tips:

  • When taking the temperature of the turkey, insert a thermometer into the thigh, but do not ever touch the bone. For an unstuffed bird, it should reach a temperature of 165°F.

  • You can also tell that the turkey is done when the thigh and leg move freely in the sockets and the juices have run clear.

The light meat of a turkey refers to the breast and wings of the bird. This meat contains less fat and connective tissue, and cooks faster. The dark meat is from the legs of the bird, which contains more fat, connective tissue and takes considerably longer to cook. The darkness of the meat it from a protein called myoglobin, which stores oxygen for muscle use. Although turkeys have wings, they don't really fly, so the breast muscles don't need myoglobin. Because dark meat takes much longer to cook than light meat, due to the extra connective tissue that needs to be broken down by dry heat, people will often overcook the breast meat unintentionally. Cooking the breast meat to a perfect doneness, while getting the legs to a proper doneness can be difficult. Here are some techniques to help:

  • Do not baste a turkey with water or stock. Baste with butter or oil. Moisture will wash away fat, whereas fat will protect the bird from drying out.

  • Covering the breasts of the bird with a layer of pork fat can prevent the breasts from drying out. This process is called "barding." You can also just lay some strips of bacon on top of the breasts since the bird does already have some fat content to protect against drying. Here is an example of barding a turkey by Gordon Ramsay:

  • Butcher the turkey into separate pieces. You can cut off the breasts and legs to cook the meat separately, and you can even tunnel the bones out of the legs to then pound out and create roulades. This is where the meat is stuffed with either dressing, rice, berry and nut mixtures, cheeses, root vegetable purées, etc. and then rolled tightly, tied with butcher's twine and baked.

  • Roasting a turkey with the breasts down briefly during the roasting process will allow gravity to draw moisture and fat to the breast, but it will cause a less crispy breast meat or marks from the roasting rack.

  • Placing a piece of tin foil over the breasts will help to deflect heat away from the breasts. Tin foil is an excellent conductor of heat, so always make sure to place it shiny-side up so that the heat is being deflected away from the breasts.

Since no one really tends to eat the wing meat for the most part, and the tips of the wings tend to burn with the high heat exposure, it is possible to cut the wings off entirely to braise them, which during the cooking process will release enough gelatin to make an excellent sauce. The legs can also be stewed or braised for dishes, if you choose to butcher the turkey and cook the pieces separately.

Never store poultry for more than 4 days and keep it well chilled, since poultry can carry salmonella. Always properly wash and sanitize all equipment or surfaces after handling poultry. If the bird is frozen, allow it to thaw in the fridge for 2-4 days. If you're in a pinch, you can thaw it under cold, running water, but do not ever refreeze poultry that has already been thawed, unless it has been cooked first.

Since turkeys are so large, once it is removed from the oven, it will continue to cook. This is what is called carryover cooking time, so it is best to remove a turkey from the oven when the thigh meat is measuring at 165°F, which should allow the bird to rise to a temperature of 180°F after the carryover cooking. The dilemma with turkeys is that because the legs are so filled with connective tissue, either the breast meat is overcooked and dry, while the legs are perfectly cooked, or the breast meat is perfectly cooked and the leg meat is still gristly. Some cooks will try to expose the thigh joint more, some will even place a wet cheesecloth on the turkey breasts or use the barding technique we talked about with bacon. Most people simply just rely on frequent basting, and some go as far as letting the turkey sit out at room temperature with an ice pack on the breast to allow the legs to begin cooking at room temperature, while the turkey breasts are still cold when the roasting begins. Some will brine their turkey to help it retain its moisture. But the most effective technique is to butcher the turkey and cook the breasts and the legs separately.

Roasting times can obviously vary, depending on the size of the bird, whether it was properly thawed, the age of the bird and the amount of connective tissue in the more exercised muscles. There's no mathematical equation that can tell us exactly how long to cook a turkey within our own specific kitchens, but by monitoring and using time and temperature to our advantage, we can approximate when to end the cooking process.

One of the best features we look forward to when eating turkey is succulent meat with crispy skin. The crispy skin of a turkey can make or break the entire meal. The skin is pretty much equal parts fat and water, along with a little bit of connective tissue. To achieve a crispy skin on the bird, you need to dissolve the connective tissue collagen into gelatin, which then permeates the water content of the turkey skin. Then, that water needs to be evaporated out of the skin so that it can become crispy. Using high heat methods like roasting at high temperatures in an oven or searing the turkey in a hot pan will accomplish this, however, it is much easier to achieve desired results with a turkey that is kosher or halal, since the turkey is dry-processed and the bird isn't pumped with any excess water. If you can't get your hands on this type of turkey though, you can let the bird air dry in your fridge uncovered for a couple of days, then baste the skin of the turkey with oil before putting it in the oven. Oil is best since it provides a better heat transfer between the heat of the oven and the meat. Crispy skin can reabsorb moisture from the meat underneath that is still hot, so the turkey should be served as soon as possible.

After resting your turkey, it's time to carve. Cooling the bird will make the meat easier to carve and prevents moisture loss during the carving process since the structure of the meat itself is more firm as the temperature begins to decrease. The meat should be carved across the visible grain of the muscle fibres. This will make the meat not only easier to chew, but it will provide a much better texture. Make sure your knife is sharp so that you're not just hacking and sawing at the meat, which will cause a lot of moisture loss. We will be releasing an episode and blog post soon about knife skills and how to properly sharpen a knife.

Carve the entire turkey at one time and cool the meat by placing it on a flat tray in the fridge or freezer briefly. Then it can be placed in separate containers, covered and stored for leftovers. Always cool anything that has been cooking properly, prior to putting it into a container with a lid and no way for the heat to escape. This can become a breeding ground for bacteria. Save the internal organs, neck and carcass to make a delicious stock or stew to use up any leftovers. You could even make some turkey pot pie.

Canned cranberry sauce: the jello of the thanksgiving world. Honestly, it kind of tastes awful, is likely awful for you and filled with preservatives, and is basically only good for making Grandma Helen's dry turkey palatable. With a properly cooked turkey, a homemade cranberry sauce can make all the difference and can really enhance the flavour of the meat. The best part is, it's so simple! You don't even need to use fresh cranberries either. Frozen cranberries are frozen just after being picked, so they can be equally as "fresh," technically. All you need to do is dump a bag of frozen cranberries into a sauce pot, add some water, a decent amount of white sugar, maybe a pinch of salt and let it simmer and reduce. If it gets to a certain point and you feel like it hasn’t reduced enough, add some more water and let it keep cooking. If it's too tart, add more sugar. If it's too sweet, add some lemon juice. You can dice up some red onions or shallots and add them to the sauce, and you can also season the cranberry sauce however you'd like, which is the best part. You could add some rosemary or thyme, or maybe you want it a bit warmer to give you more of an autumn feel, so you could add a cinnamon stick or some nutmeg. The best part about making your own cranberry sauce, is you're able to experiment and find a recipe that you really like, while avoiding the jiggly canned jello stuff.

A favourite Thanksgiving appetizer at the Kitchen Survival Guide is Cranberry Jalapeño dip. It's basically just cranberry sauce folded into cream cheese with diced red onion and jalapeños, but it's so insanely delicious and you have to try it.

A lot of people don't really think of salads when it comes to Thanksgiving, but it's good to have options, especially for cousin Sarah, who you always forget went vegetarian again. A good go-to soup is a pumpkin and cream squash soup with a little maple syrup drizzle on top, garnished with some crumbled blue cheese and chopped pecans or walnuts. A go-to salad, since it's nice to take advantage of seasonal fruits and vegetables (which, in Canada, our Thanksgiving is much closer to the actual fall harvest than the American holiday, but whatever, they have football I guess), try making a peach and tomato burrata salad with a cranberry vinaigrette with a little balsamic drizzle. Most people wouldn't think that peaches and tomatoes would go well together, but honestly, try it. It would also make an awesome bruschetta too. You can use goat cheese as a substitution if you can't find any burrata at your local grocery store. Obviously, most of the common side dishes are turnip, honey or brown sugar glazed carrots, parsnips, mashed potatoes, roasted green beens, etc. However, if you're looking to do something adventurous this Thanksgiving, try making some hasselback beets with a dill vinaigrette.

Here are some fun facts about turkeys and Thanksgiving:

  • The turkey was first spotted by the Spanish in Mexico in 1518, and was named pavo, meaning "pea fowl."Turkeys were known as uexolotl to 16th century native Central Americans. Turkeys were brought to Europe by the Spanish explorers in the 1500s and Turkish merchants visiting spain brought the turkeys to England. The English called them "turkie-cocks," which was shortened to "turkeys". The Turks ended up calling turkeys "hindi," thinking that the bird was from India, which seemed to be similar to the French belief, since they call turkeys "coq d'Inde," but nowadays they call it a dinde or dindon. The Germans called it indianische Henn or Kalikutische Hahn, meaning "hen of Calicut," which is a port in India, and then Italians named it galle d'India or pollo d'India. But in India, they had named the bird a peru, which is much closer to the true origins of the bird. The turkey was definitely in India by 1615, so it could've travelled through Asia to Europe. But the English connection with Turkey might have been derived from the English thinking the bird came from an outpost of the Ottoman Empire, which in 1540, identified with Turkey.

  • Chicken and turkey have become very popular as a healthier alternative since they are lower in fat and cholesterol than things like steak or pork. The flesh of turkeys that we eat is comprised of muscle tissue. Most of these muscle tissues are made up of about 75% water, 20% protein, up to 5% fat and can also include things like carbohydrates. This muscle tissue is comprised of fibres that are held together in small bundles by connective tissues. The tenderness of meat relates to connective tissue and i