When it comes to Thanksgiving, kosher cooks are lucky. Most people complain that turkey, the traditional main course, can be dry and overcooked. But kosher turkeys are brined before we buy them, and brining, which involves soaking and salting, causes muscle fibers to swell and retain fluids, making the meat naturally moist and succulent.
That said, cooking a turkey can still be intimidating. What seasonings should you use? Should you stuff the bird? What about gravy?
Read on for some simple and easy steps to make the best Thanksgiving turkey and some suggestions for make-ahead side dishes.
First, buy the appropriate size turkey. Everyone in my family loves turkey meat so much that I always buy a bird with lots of leftovers in mind — about one to one-and-a-half pounds per person. But you can get by with 3/4 to one pound per person if you only want a small amount left for sandwiches or salad.
Equipment Needed for Roasting a Whole Turkey
- A heavy roasting pan. Aluminum foil discard-able pans are fine if you don’t have a regular roasting pan but they don’t hold the heat as well and they are flimsy and wobbly when you put a heavy turkey inside. The turkey can fall out and fluids can spill, which is messy at best, dangerous at worst
- A V-shaped roasting rack to keep the turkey above the pan fluids and keeps the skin relatively crispy
- A bulb baster to add flavorful basting liquids
- Meat thermometer to get the most accurate reading and know when the turkey is done
I prefer a fresh turkey, if only because I know it hasn’t been in cold storage somewhere for too long. But if you buy one that’s frozen (or you freeze a fresh one) allow about one day per 5 pounds in the refrigerator for it to defrost — it must be completely defrosted before you roast it. Rinse the bird inside and out and remove any pinfeathers. Place it breast side down on a rack inside a large, heavy roasting pan.
Some people think it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a beautiful stuffed turkey. Stuffing cooked inside a turkey will be moist and rich as natural fats that render inside the bird fall into the other ingredients. I can tell you this from years of experience, having tried it both ways: a stuffed bird takes longer to cook and it’s a bit of a hassle to remove the stuffing for serving. In addition, to be safe to eat, it is critically important that the stuffing reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees, so you need to check your meat thermometer for the stuffing as well as the turkey. After all these years I always opt for the un-stuffed version cooked in a separate casserole; it’s moist enough and a terrifically crispy top is a big bonus. If you prefer to stuff the bird, be sure to put the stuffing in just before you roast the turkey and do not pack it in tightly.
The seasonings and basting fluids you choose depend on your family’s personal preferences. Sometimes I use the simplest flavorings — black pepper, paprika and garlic powder (never use more salt) — and baste the bird with chicken broth or dry white wine. More often I douse the bird with juice (orange, apple, pineapple, or a mixture). Occasionally, just to mix things up a bit, I add mustard and maple syrup to the juice, which gives the turkey (and gravy) a sweet and pungent flavor. I’ve sprinkled turkeys with chili powder and cumin (for a southwestern feel) and used fresh herbs (a combination of thyme, rosemary and oregano) mixed with olive oil (rubbed onto the skin before cooking). My family’s favorite is this one though: I mix lots of chopped fresh parsley, garlic and ginger together, blend it with olive oil and smear it all over the turkey, (let it rest overnight if possible) and use sweet white wine as a basting fluid.
Roasting time varies depending on the size of the bird. The USDA has a good website (www.USDA.gov), that gives specific instructions but generally, it will take 15-22 minutes per pound. Add about 4-5 minutes per pound for a stuffed turkey.
This may sound heretical to some, but I never use a foil tent to roast turkey. It’s another benefit of using a kosher bird. The meat is so naturally juicy that “tenting,” which steams the meat for a while, is unnecessary. In fact I have found that tented turkeys can be unpleasantly wet rather than rich and truly succulent.
Before you roast the turkey, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Place a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the breast and roast the bird for about 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 325 degrees. Baste the bird every 25-30 minutes. About halfway through roasting, turn the bird breast side up to crisp the skin evenly. Cook the turkey until the meat registers 160 degrees on the thermometer. The temperature will rise another 5-6 degrees once you remove the turkey from the oven. Always let a turkey rest for at least 20 minutes (preferably 30) before you carve it.
To make gravy, remove the bird from the roasting pan to a carving board. Pour the pan fluids into a bowl, pitcher or fat separator. Spoon off as much fat as possible, but save about 3 tablespoons for the gravy (or use vegetable oil). Return the 3 tablespoons of fat to the pan and add 2 tablespoons of flour. Using a whisk or wooden spoon, mix the flour and fat together in the pan and cook over low heat for about 2 minutes. Adding liquid about a half cup at a time, pour in water, stock, juice, wine or other fluid and continue to cook, stirring the ingredients until the gravy is smooth. I always serve the gravy as is — we like all the bits and pieces that give it extra flavor — but you can strain it if you prefer a finer, smoother sauce.
Because I like to spend time with my family and not use the entire day to cook, I always serve side dishes that I can prepare ahead: baked cranberries, mashed sweet potato casserole and roasted Brussels sprouts or asparagus, in addition to the stuffing. Recipes are provided. Our favorite desserts are fairly standard: pumpkin and apple pies!
Ronnie Fein has been a freelance food and lifestyle writer since 1980. She currently writes regular features for the food and community sections of daily newspapers and has written articles for Newsday, Cook’s Illustrated, Consumer’s Digest, Connecticut magazine, and many other publications. She operates the Ronnie Fein School of Creative Cooking in Stamford, Connecticut and is the author of three cookbooks, the most recent is
Hip Kosher (DaCapo, 2008).
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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