For most, the holiday season — and we’re marking Thanksgiving as the official start of the holiday season here — is a time of family, warmth, joy, and nostalgia. We have honored and beloved traditions and spreads of well-prepared food, the components of which have coddled us since childhood.
But for those who actually manage the preparation of the food and the throwing of the parties, the holiday season can be hellacious. Unless you’re a true type A who handles stress impeccably well and actually likes the chaos of cooking Thanksgiving dinner and dessert for a ravenous tribe of relatives (in which case, carry on in the kitchen where we can’t see your perfect/neurotic self), chances are you could use a few tricks, tips, and shortcuts to the best Thanksgiving dinner you’ve ever made.
Enough stress. Enough worrying about — or worse, eating — dry turkey, thin gravy, gummy stuffing, and gluey mashed potatoes. No more crying over onions. Let’s take back the holidays.
The cure for dry turkey
Imagine your usual Thanksgiving turkey. Chances are, it’s either dry, so basted that its skin is flabby, or steamed in its own bag. You can do better. You can plate and carve a bird with crisp, crackly skin and deeply flavored, juicy meat. You can make turkey the star of the show again. However, as this is an article about kitchen science, we should really set things straight right from the start: this actually isn’t a cure for dry turkey. It’s a brine.
Osmosis, being a term you probably haven’t thought about in its true context since high school biology, is the hero of this kitchen hack. Its sidekick is good old salt. By drawing the natural moisture out of the bird’s individual cells and then replenishing them with the brine solution, the bird stays moist in the oven, and the salt actually denatures (unravels) and re-binds the proteins to form a mesh that retains the moisture through cooking.
The crispy, delicious, crackly skin comes from the way you cook the bird. Blast it with heat to render the fat and crisp the skin, and then turn the heat down to gently roast the meat to perfection. Remember that the light and dark meat have different densities and will cook differently — Alton Brown of Good Eats from the Food Network shows us that by putting a piece of foil over the white meat for the lower-and-slower portion of cooking, the breast meat won’t dry out while the dark meat cooks through.
Don’t use a Kosher or self-basting bird when brining. Your finished product will be too salty. For best flavor, buy a fresh, pastured bird. If your bird is frozen, thaw it completely before brining. Also, do not over-brine your bird. If you brine for too long, it will get mushy. For smaller birds under 10 pounds, try brining for 6 to 8 hours; for birds under 20 pounds, brine for 16 to 18 hours.
Brine in a sterile bucket or big bag in the refrigerator. When it’s time to rack and roast your bird, wash the salt brine off the outside and inside. Move it straight to the rack. Do not stop to collect $200. It’s a tough economy, but Monopoly money isn’t worth the salmonella that will grow from cross-contamination on your cutting boards and counters. Form your foil protector before your turkey goes in the oven. Start your turkey with enough time to let it rest for 30 minutes after cooking. If you don’t let it rest before you cut into it, all that juiciness will pour right out of your bird — and all that brining will be for naught.
At risk of sounding heretical, do not put stuffing inside your bird. It will increase the density of the bird and seriously increase the time it will take to roast. Too much time in the oven will yield a dry bird. Stuff your bird with aromatics instead (e.g. onion quarters, thyme sprigs, sage leaves, and apple halves) and cook your stuffing separately. As always, under-cooked meat can make you sick. Cook to an internal temperature of 161 degrees Fahrenheit. Check out Alton Brown’s recipe for brining your turkey — I suggest watching the videos.
Perfect mashed potatoes
There are a few tricks for perfect mashed potatoes, but chief among them is how you actually mash them. If you’re even a little rough with them or fuss for too long, you will end up turning your glorious bowl of spuds into a dish of wallpaper paste.
The cells in the potatoes that hold the starch swell while the potatoes cook. By the time you drain them from the pot, they’re ready to burst at the slightest touch. Bursting releases all the starch, and the more starch, the gluier the potatoes. Using a blender or a stand mixer or a food processor or an immersion blender will be the end of your light, airy mash. If you’re ok with rustic, chunkier mashed potatoes, go at it by hand — just make sure you don’t mash in the same place twice.
If you want the smoothest whipped potatoes, though, you’re going to need some equipment — a ricer or a food mill. By pressing the potatoes through the fine holes straight into the serving bowl, you guarantee only mashing once and you still obtain a super smooth final product.
Other tips for great mashed potatoes
Use a starchy potato like a Russet or a Yukon. Do not use a waxy potato like a red potato or a fingerling. Don’t cut your potatoes too small when you put them in the pot; they’ll get waterlogged. No one likes watery mashed potatoes.
Warm your butter and milk or cream. When your potatoes cool, they lose the ability to absorb the ingredients. Cold butter will also mean more stirring to incorporate, which, as discussed, is bad. Add the butter before the milk or cream. It will coat the starch and lead to a richer product. Bon Appétit has a recipe for the fluffiest mashed potatoes.
Reaching the sweet spot in gravy-making can be difficult. Everything can be going swimmingly and then, all of a sudden, your gravy either thins or thickens too much and you’re left with an uncertain balancing act. Assuming that you’re thickening your gravy with flour or cornstarch, the answer is in the temperature and length the gravy — specifically, the starch — is exposed to that temperature.
The first rule is simmer, don’t boil. Flour and cornstarch are both pretty strong starches. This means that the gravy has to come up to a little below boiling before the granules soften. Starch is made up of two molecules: amylose and amylopectin. Before you cook the starch, these stay separate. During cooking, though, they soften, bind with each other, and begin to absorb liquid. According to Russ Parsons, former food editor of the L.A. Times and author of How to Read a French Fry, this process starts happening near 140 degrees Fahrenheit and the thickening really gets going at 160 degrees Fahrenheit. If they get too hot or you stir too much when the granules have softened, though, they’ll burst — and all the liquid they hold will come flooding back out, thinning your gravy.
The second is rule is don’t overdo it. To keep your gravy from becoming a solid mass, don’t add too much flour and don’t cook all the way to your preferred viscosity. Provided that you haven’t exploded the starch, your gravy will thicken as it cools. If you’ve added too much flour because you became impatient or unsure of your flour’s thickening ability, the residual heat after cooking and before cooling will over-thicken even the most carefully heated gravy. Keep it warm and never, ever boil gravy once it has set.
Silky gravy bonus tips
There are two camps for gravy making: the roux and the slurry. A roux is formed by heating a fat with a starch before adding the liquid (e.g., pan drippings or butter with flour or cornstarch). If you do this, do not brown your starch — it will weaken its ability to thicken the gravy. Flour is best for a roux because it needs to be cooked to remove the raw, floury taste, and stands up to the more direct heat.
A slurry is formed by thoroughly incorporating (i.e., whisking or shaking) starch with cool liquid (turkey stock). Cornstarch is best used for slurries because it is quick to thicken and doesn’t need to be cooked to remove any raw flavors. Both of these methods will produce smooth gravy. Adding starch to hot liquid, on the other hand, will clump. Clumps can be strained out through a sieve or cheesecloth, but clumps will not thicken your gravy.
Also, because flour has protein as well as starch, the finished product will be somewhat dull and cloudy. Cornstarch, on the other hand, is pure starch. When it has reached its true gravy-making potential, it will become clear, giving you a translucent gravy. This knowledge means you can control the look of your final product. You hold the power.
The Kitchn has a great recipe for gravy.
Stuffing: The truth about stale bread
You’ve probably had stuffing that’s a little mushy or gelatinous or generally not ideal. You also probably think you know what makes bread stale when you leave it out on the counter. I’m here to let you know that you’re probably wrong. The truth is that bread does not get stale because it loses moisture.
Bread gets stale because the starch molecules crystallize and harden, trapping in moisture. Heating the bread will reverse the crystallization process (bonus tip) and restore it to pillowy goodness. When you use naturally-staled bread to make stuffing, though, you’re adding liquid to bread that isn’t really dried out. The idea is that you’re reconstituting dried-out bread with a tasty, seasoned liquid like a stock. When you add liquid to naturally-staled bread and then bake it, the original moisture from the bread is released and your stuffing gets soggy and a bit gummy. No one wants that.
To avoid this, take a loaf of crusty bread like a baguette. Sandwich bread is not the bread for this. Cut it into one-inch cubes, spread it out on a baking sheet, and bake it at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour. Now, your bread is ready to receive flavorful stock and transform into stuffing without getting mushy. Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen posted a recipe for stuffing (which we all know is called dressing when it’s cooked outside the bird) featuring apples and herbs.
Cry no more: Tear-free onion chopping
In a word: water. Before you sat down to read this, your battle with Thanksgiving dinner would likely have been fraught with weeping: your turkey dry and flabby, your potatoes gluey, your stuffing gummy, and your gravy watery. Now, there is only one thing (besides family, we can’t help you there) standing in your way of a tear-free Thanksgiving: onions.
This tip could easily carry you through the rest of your life a happier cook. All those times you’ve cried over onions could have been avoided. First, let’s dispel the myths and get to the facts:
Myth: Holding bread over the onion or better yet, in your mouth, will halt the fumes that make your eyes tear.
Myth: Douse your cutting surface with vinegar.
Myth: Hold a match while you’re cutting. Or, for those of us who need both hands to chop a spherical onion, light a candle.
Myth: Chew gum.
Myth: Stick your tongue out.
Seriously, these are all things people honestly believe will help keep the onion tears at bay. That’s silly. All you need is a sharp knife and a splash of cold water. Really. It’s science.
The science of onions
Onions are 90 percent water. The water is held in the onion by “pipes” made of cellulose. Within the pipe walls are miniscule chambers called vacuoles, each containing a long grocery list of naturally occurring chemicals, held separate from each other. When you slice your knife through your onion, you’re rupturing the pipes and the vacuoles, releasing the chemicals into the flood of water. All of those chemicals combine to create a completely new compound: sulfonic acid.
Sulfonic acid is a highly volatile acid, which means that it will disperse quickly, but the dispersal is actually what makes you cry. The fumes of this acid hit your nose and cause your eyes to water. The more cell walls you rupture, the more acid you get. This is why you’ll weep over grating an onion for latkes but not shed a tear when only cutting off the root-end. A sharp knife will slice more cleanly through the onion, whereas a dull knife gets dragged through and ruptures many more vacuoles. Even a sharp knife will still rupture those, though, and this is where the fresh, cold water comes in.
These unstable acids are heat- and water-soluble. Cooking will break down the acid, but by then it’ll be too late for your eyes. Chilling the onions in the refrigerator will also work, but that requires advance planning and could alter cooking temperatures in certain applications. By splashing some cold water on the onion, rinsing it under the tap after you’ve cut it in half, or submerging it in water, you dissipate the fumes for good. Thanksgiving is yours.