Look no further, we have the answers to all of your Thanksgiving questions here!
Should I cook at the last minute so everything is fresh?
Definitely NOT. Thanksgiving meals are, by definition, loaded with different sides and options, and take a very long time to cook. Almost EVERYTHING should be prepared the day or evening before, and then the turkey the day-of. Keep in mind it will likely take at least two to three hours to cook. Then while you cook the turkey, you can use the heat of the oven to reheat all of yesterday's cooked food.
When should I buy my turkey?
When you buy your turkey usually does not greatly influence the taste of the turkey; for the most part it is all the same. But if you buy fresh, buy it the day before, and if you buy frozen, keep in mind that to properly defrost a turkey it takes up to three days to properly defrost in the fridge. The reason why most people burned their houses down during the fried-turkey craze (which you should never do) is because they dropped turkeys in the hot oil that were still frozen. To avoid this fate, buy a frozen turkey at least four days in advance if you go that route.
What type of turkey is best? Fresh or frozen?
Again, there really is no best. You would think that a fresh turkey would have a fresher taste, but they are cooked for so long and so slow that it usually doesn't influence the taste very much so long as you cook it properly. Duration of cooking, spices, and style are the main taste influencers. The only other differences that exist are between "heritage" turkeys, which are organically raised and free-range versus the others which can sometimes be caged turkeys. Both morally and in terms of taste, organic free-range is always preferred if possible.
How often should I baste the turkey?
Really, as often as possible. There's no such thing as a turkey that is too moist. But remember every time you open the oven door you are losing heat, so the turkey will take longer to cook. About once every 30 minutes (or four to five times) is generally best. What is most important for maintaining moistness is to avoid overcooking.
What steps should I take to prevent my turkey from drying out?
One method we sometimes use is to cook the turkey is under a gently placed aluminum foil tent, which helps the bird retain much of the moisture. We can still baste by simply lifting one side of the foil, then re-covering when we are done. For the last 30 minutes of cooking, remove the foil tent to allow the turkey to brown and crisp on the exterior. But again, the most important thing is to avoid overcooking. Know the exact weight of your turkey before cooking, and a good rule of thumb is to do about 20 minutes of cooking per pound unstuffed, and a few minutes longer per pound if stuffed.
Any carving tips?
Don't use an electric knife, as it tends to shred things. The best way to actually carve is to remove the breast from the bone, then slice on a carving board.
Should buy just enough food to last the meal?
Wrong. Thanksgiving leftovers are generally some of the best and easiest to use in the days after the meal. You can make a delicious fresh turkey sandwich with cranberry on challah toast, a turkey vegetable soup, or even a Tex-Mex turkey casserole with poblano sauce.
Should I store all my leftovers together or separately?
Separately. In fact, they should be stored in as many individual bags / containers as possible, and even the stuffing should be taken out of the turkey and stored separately. This is mostly because you want to cool the foods as quickly as possible in the fridge, and the more separation, the more surface area, which means faster cooling. It will also help to preserve individual flavors.
Does the meal need to have a theme?
Not necessarily. Thanksgiving is theme enough. However, it is great to get inventive with a particular ingredient and make that the "theme" of the meal, like cinnamon and cranberry. Infuse your special ingredient into cocktails and mulled wines, and into lots of your different sides!
Two small birds, or one big?
In terms of taste, it really shouldn't make a difference. Whether it is fresh or frozen it is ingredients, cooking time, and temperature that all influence taste much more than size. But think about the size of your oven and cooking space! If you have to re-heat six pans of side dishes in addition to a turkey and you live in a small Manhattan apartment, maybe two small turkeys will be easier. But try to have some sides that can be served room-temperature, so the oven isn't overloaded (string beans or snow peas work well, as does corn).
Ricky Eisen is the President and Founder of Between the Bread, one of Manhattan’s most love cafés and renowned corporate catering and event companies for the past 35 years, whose café is located at 145 West 55th Street.