“America’s Test Kitchen” co-host Bridget Lancaster has been working on her Thanksgiving meal (which is organized into a giant spreadsheet) since October, but she also knows that most of us can’t seem to swing that level of I commit. So, before the holidays, she stopped Boston Public Radio to answer listener questions and give us all some advice.
What to do if you are a perpetual procrastinator
A listener wondered what to do if you find yourself two days before hosting a large group at Thanksgiving with no plan and no preparation whatsoever. Lancaster says: Start with the turkey and go buy some side dishes.
“If you’re working with a frozen turkey at this point, it’s best to start thawing,” he said.
His recommendation for thawing is to place the bird in cold water and refresh that water once every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. And if you’re still planning to buy a turkey at this point, make sure it’s fresh. Thawing takes about 30 minutes per pound, so you may not have time to thaw a large bird bought just before the holidays.
As for sides, however, there’s no shame in sticking with store-bought ones.
“There are great bakeries and great restaurants where you can get side dishes and things like that,” he said, “so you don’t have to shoulder all the load yourself.”
Another shortcut she mentioned to save time (and intimidation) is prepackaged pie dough, which you can always spice up for a little more dimension.
“Feel free to go to the supermarket and get ready-made pie dough,” she said. “You can actually roll it in the graham cracker [or animal cracker] crumbs instead of flour to get some nutty flavor.”
For nervous bird handlers
Unsurprisingly, many listeners had questions and concerns about how to properly prepare and cook a turkey. One of the popular ways to streamline the process, Lancaster said, is spatchcocking. Spatchcocking, or butterflying, involves removing the turkey’s backbone so it can spread out and cook more quickly and evenly. Lancaster explained that the process is simple, particularly considering the amount of time it saves.
“You can do this, especially if it’s a smaller turkey, with some really meaty kitchen shears,” she explained. break that bib so it’s as flat as possible. And that’s great because all the dark meat is on the outside of the pan, exposed to the fire, and it will also save you an hour and a half on cooking time.
A caller inquired about the rules and merits of brining or soaking turkey in salt water overnight. Lancaster said the brine can make the meat a little too moist or salty, so his preference is to stick to a dry seasoning method.
“If you have a previously salted turkey – if you buy it and look at the ingredients and it says it has a lot of sodium and or has been injected – you don’t want to brine it because it will be too salty…[the Test Kitchen has] it started doing more salting rather than brining,” he said.
For brining, he said, “you basically lift the skin off the turkey, put the salt under the skin. That way [it] can enter the flesh. And then you let it go for 24-48 hours in the fridge.”
Turkey breast meat should be cooked to 165 degrees and thigh meat should be around 175 degrees. A caller asked if pop-up timers are reliable in telling when the meat is ready. Lancaster said home cooks should stick to instant-read thermometers for the best result.
“Don’t trust this [pop-up] timers…they all pop at different temperatures and usually pop too late. They’ll pop 10 to 15 degrees above when you’re supposed to take out that turkey breast, which, again, is 165,” she said. An instant-read thermometer is what you want.
And if the bird cooks unevenly or you can’t get the temperature right, she recommends cutting it into large portions: Place the legs and breast on baking sheets, then return them to the oven.
One listener asked to prepare the homemade dressing in advance, then put it in the refrigerator to cook the next day. Lancaster said he’s absolutely sure (and that’s what she does herself). The only thing you have to do is give it one last stir before cooking.
Another age-old question: how to get everything out at once when using only one oven. His advice? Use the turkey’s resting time to reheat the sides.
“The turkey should rest for at least 35 minutes to 45 minutes. It needs to rest before you can hack it. Otherwise, all those juices are going to be all over the counter and stovetop on the turkey,” she said. You just bought yourself 35 to 40 minutes of oven right there.
America’s Test Kitchen’s latest book, “The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook,” is now available.