Thanksgiving Cooking

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Help! I have to cook a turkey!

Nov 2004

Help! I am hosting Thanksgiving for the first time and I've never cooked a turkey before. I have no idea what size turkey to get, where to buy it, what kind, and how early. Do I have to place an order ahead of time? Can I buy it fresh and bring it home a couple of days ahead to avoid long lines? Or should it be frozen and then thawed out? What about kosher turkeys? I've heard that brining is the best and that kosher turkey's are already brined. Where do I buy a kosher turkey? And what about all the cooking utensils? I don't have a carving knife. Does it really matter? And what kind of thermometer works best? There will be 8 adults eating the turkey. My oven is small and won't fit large roasting pans. What is the smallest size turkey I can get away with for 8 people? Confused cook

The SF Chronicle has done a great ''turkey training camp'' for cooknig Thanksiving meals for the last several years. You can find last year's article in the archives at file=/chronicle/archive/2003/11/19/FDG71316TG1.DTL hope that helps, good luck! Nancy

I recommend going to They just posted a checklist and have some failproof methods on turkey-ing. I always order my turkey from Piedmont Grocery. I say, I'm having 15 people over. What size should I get? And they tell me and I buy it. Leftovers are always good. My tried and true method is to buy Cajun Injector spices (found at Safeway), the Garlic Butter flavor. It comes with an injector. I inject Tom up like a heroin addice and let him sit for a bit in the fridge. Then, I preheat the oven to 375 degrees. I pop Tom in the oven for about 20 minutes. Then, I lower the temp to 325 and cover him looseley with a foil tent. I also wrap the edges of the wings and the legs in foil to keep them from burning.

Also, buy a meat thermometer. Can't remember the temp it should be but look it up and use that to help you determine its done. Also, don't tell anyone, but in the first hour of roasting, I put a stick of butter in his cavity. Then, toward the end, I put a stick of butter on top and let it melt. Hey, you only eat T-giving once a year so enjoy the fat. Roast him for about 3 hours (depending on the size) and be sure to BASTE every 20 minutes to keep him moist. Don't forget to cook some really great sides. Good luck. Love to cook my turkey

For 8 people, you can get a small turkey 10-12 lbs, which is as small as they go. Note that this is assuming there will be plenty of side dishes as well. You have many choices as to what type of turkey you get. Regular supermarket turkeys have been bread to have huge breasts and they are massed produced so they are cheaper. Kosher turkeys are already brined, but it's easy to brine a turkey yourself by submerging it in a salt/walter solution for a few hours. Still, that may require a larger bowl or more refrigerator space that you have available. Other choices are organic and heritage turkeys. The latter are descendants of the original turkeys and have smaller breasts/more dark meat. They are also much more expensive.

If you buy a regular turkey, you can just pick it up at the supermarket frozen whenever. If you want a fresh turkey, a heritage turkey or something special you may be better off ordering one or at least talking to the poultry people at the supermarket as to what they will have available. A chef's knife is good enough for carving and any meat thermometer that's working properly should be good. Check for recipes and instructions online - there is a plethora of it. anon

thanksgiving is family time... be human. You are probably having ''family'' over for dinner... ask for help from the guests, especially if they are local. get a 12 pound or so fresh turkey and a pan that will fit your oven on Tuesday or Wednsday. Keep the turkey in an Ice cest and leave it wraped and add ice 2X a day until Thursday AM when the ''family arrives. Your Mother in law will love being asked for help. Have eveyone bring something, admit you are overwhelmed by it, Get aunt to bring the potatoes, have a bag of frozen peas and jellied and berry cranberry and take the advice OR All the markets have ''prepared dinners''.... buy one Good luck Grandpa Henry

Personally, I would stop by Andronico's and have a chat with the butcher; tell them your situation and ask for suggestions! And even though it's Thanksgiving, you don't HAVE to do a turkey, especially if you have a small oven; a couple of roast chickens might be more appropriate. Or a ham. The simpler you keep the logistics, the more fun you are going to have! Experienced hostess

Laurey, Williams and Sonoma has a lot of good info on their website about cooking a Thanksgiving meal. As for getting a small turkey, Andronico's has small turkeys that feed 6-8 people. So does Whole Foods and Magnani's on Hopkins Street. Buy fresh,the turkey is always better this way. You can buy it a few days ahead. I would suggest you keep it simple. Turkey, one vegi, potatoes and stuffing. And, of course pie. You can chop all the stuff for your stuffing the day before and store in frig. Then mix it togther in the morning. Pies can be made 2 days ahead of time (or buy them). Mashed potatoes need to be cooked on Thanksgiving.

I just read in the Trader Joe's flyer that they are selling bags of chopped celery and onions. What a easy way to go for making stuffing. Their cranberry sauce is pretty good too. TJ's would be a good place for a couple of easy appetizers. Buy some spiced cashews, and one or two other things to nibble on while turkey is cooking. I like to buy their gorgonzola and pecan spread and put a small dollop on endive as an appetizer (they sell the endive also). People seem to like this. If you do a salad, buy at TJ's their bagged spinach, shredded carrots, cooked soybeans, candied pecans and crumbled blue cheese. Throw it all in a bowl and use Brianna's blush dressing (Andronico's sells this). It is a very easy salad and everyone loves it. They also have good rolls.

Feel free to contact me if you want some other ideas. I know the first time can be a little scary. I know I always over do it and cook too much. That is why I suggested keeping it simple since you have a small group. Good luck. Jennifer

Here's a link from the Chronicle for cooking a brined turkey. I used this recipie a few weeks ago and it worked very nicely. anon

Fear not! Cooking a turkey is actually really, really easy. Try to buy a fresh turkey - they are much better than frozen ones. I usually buy mine on Monday or Tuesday, and it keeps just fine in the fridge until Tday. The official rule of thumb is 1 pound per person, but I usually go larger so as to have leftovers, especially if you have houseguests - turkey sandwiches are part of the fun of Thanksgiving! Personally I would get a 12 pounder for 8 people. Brining does indeed produce a nice bird, but if you have limited space and are worried about it all, I wouldn't bother. You can cook a really nice bird without brining it.

Preheat your oven to 350. Wash the bird, then stuff it if you wish. Then cover the bird with a clean kitchen towel (a teatowel, not a fluffy terrycloth towel. A clean piece of old cotton sheet works just as well). The towel should completely cover the bird. Then take a stick of soft butter, and rub it all over the towel. Anywhere the towel touches the bird should have butter rubbed into it. Place the turkey breast-side up in a roasting pan. Place in the oven, and let roast. You can baste it if you want, but really you don't need to. You don't really need to do anything else at all - just let it cook! A 12 pound turkey, with stuffing, will probably take 3-3 1/2 hours to cook.

For a themometer, just pick up one a the grocery store. I have had bad luck with the instant-read kind, so just get your basic meat thermometer.

The turkey will be jucier if you allow it to sit for about 15 minutes after you take it out of the oven, before carving.

I saw your 2nd posting about logisitics. Pies, cranberry sauce, and sweet potatoes can all be made in advance. The 2 things that you really cannot make in advance are mashed potatoes and gravey. You can chop the potatoes up early, but you can't cook them and then mash them later - they always come out lumpy. Have a wonderful time, and please remember, your guests are there to enjoy themselves. They are not going to sit around criticizing you! We all tend to think we have to create some perfect meal, when in reality having a decent meal, with lots of love and laugher, will make a memorable Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving veteran

Relax. It's not that hard to cook a turkey well, but it does take some time and preparation.

First, if you really worried, you can always pre-order a fully-cooked turkey from your supermarket. I know from experience that Andronicos makes an excellent turkey. Second, if you and your guests prefer white meat, you might consider making a breast only. It will be more expensive, especially when many supermarkets will give a turkey for free or nearly free, but it will be faster and easier to cook. Kosher meat, including turkey, has been salted and rinsed, which is highly similar to brining. You can buy whole kosher turkeys at most supermarkets frozen. You don't need to pre-order. In the past few years Trader Joes has carried fresh kosher whole turkeys and turkey breasts right before Thanksgiving. Of course, you could also go to the kosher butcher, Oakland Kosher Foods on Lakeshore Ave, who will probably have a good variety. My personal feeling is that kosher turkeys are delicious and at least the Empire brand birds are treated humanely and are not given antibiotics routinely. The only downside to kosher poultry is that they tend to have a few little feathers sticking to them. Some people remove these, but I generally don't bother. I don't think there is a detectable difference in the taste of fresh and frozen turkeys. In fact, I believe government regulations allow turkeys to be frozen to the point they are hard, defrosted, and then sold as ''fresh.'' Thawing is easiest and safest (but most time- and space-consuming) in the refrigerator. You'll want to defrost one day for each 3-4 lbs of turkey, so a 12 lb. turkey will take 3-4 days.

If you brine your own turkey, the main challenge is to keep it cool while it is soaking. This can be accomplished with a big cooler and ice. You'll also find safety tips, instructions, and recipes at various websites like or, and you can be sure that you'll see a lot about cooking turkey in the newspaper and on TV in the next few weeks.

In my opinion, the best type of thermometer is digital with a little probe on a wire. You set it to go off when the meat reaches a certain temp, e.g. 160F for white meat. These cost $20-$40, so if this is the only time you'll use it, get something cheaper. Second-best is a digital ''pencil'' instant-read thermometer, about $15. It will take several hours to cook in the oven. David

For what its worth, my advice is to order a pre-cooked one at Whole Foods Market. They are great turkeys and taste great. In addition, if you have a small oven, it makes the day a lot easier because you can use your oven to cook all the side dishes and dessert. You can send someone to pick it up that day and it'll be all ready to go. You can get the gravy there too since that's hard to make without the turkey parts. I find ordering the turkey and cooking everything else makes for a stress-free holiday and its still full of home-made goodness. Lynn

You can order a boxed turkey dinner from Whole Foods or Diablo Foods. I believe the turkey still needs to be ''finished'' in the oven, but is all prepped - I've heard they do a good job. Expensive though. To make your own... I recommend ''The Joy of Cooking'' recipe for making a brined turkey, if you have it. There are plenty of recipes online too. Don't brine a kosher turkey, as it's already salted, different from brining. You can make brine using table salt or kosher salt (maybe that was the confusion) and soak the bird in it overnight in the refrigerator. Get a BIG container that will hold the turkey, covered with brine, and fit in your refrigerator. You'd be safe with a 10 pound bird for 8 people. Order turkey now from most supermarkets. Fresh turkeys are best, but sometimes are kept so cold that they're superficially frozen and need a day to totally thaw out. For a fresh turkey, pick up Tuesday and thaw overnight in your refrigerator, brine overnight on Wednesday, cook on Thursday.

Tools: #1. Instant-read meat thermometer: it has a dial on top of a metal spike. #2. Even a cheap carving knife will work better than a steak or table knife. A regular fork or tongs will hold the turkey while you carve. #3. I've seen inexpensive medium-sized roasting pans with V-shaped racks at places like Target, Bed Bath & Beyond and Costco. #4. Trussing kit (string and small metal skewers) if you want, but I've cooked a turkey without and it works fine. After the turkey is done, you should let it sit on the counter for 1/2 hour+ to let the juices redistribute. In that time, you can bake/reheat the other prepped food in the oven and microwave, and make gravy. (If you're making gravy from the pan drippings, I highly recommend a fat separator - like a measuring cup with a spout coming out of the bottom.) The whole process can be intimidating, but just smile and think about how tasty it will be! Heather

I would try a reynolds cooking bag. You just season and follow the directions in the package. Comes out great everytime. No mess all the grease and fat stay in the bag. Think of the turkey as a BIG chicken. A 12lb turkey may be enough. You could cook 2 small ones. A 12 to 15 lb turkey takes about 3 hours or so in a cooking bag. You could cook them one after another. Or take the fast way and order a pre cooked dinner at the store. Good luck! b3rkl33m

Go to Cafe Rouge on 4th street and walk to the back of the restaurant to the charcuterie and order a brined turkey. Explain exactly your problem as you did in the email and the wonderful young, sweet smart articulate butchers will tell you everything you need to know. They will tell you how to cook it - what temp, where to stick the thermometer and how big of a bird you can get away with - ask for shannon - (male shannon not female) - he is wonderful at explaining technique. Then go across the street to sur la tab and buy a thermometer and then to ace hardware to buy a simple old fashioned roasting pan - black with white specs like grandma has. the price is $3.50 and lb which is pricey but you are getting free range, maybe organic (I forget), antibiotic free - a much better bird than anything ele out there (all their meat is outrageously delicious - if you don't shop there for meat you have no idea what you are missing). Anyway, call 411 - tell them berkeley - cafe rouge and call them to get their hours and directions if you are unsure where they are. They open at 11 am. It is a fabulous meat market - I have cooked many thanksgiving turkeys over the years and theirs are the best - also at xmas I get a standing rib roast and it blows all my guests minds - it is like eating like a king!

OKay - hope that helps - seriously, ignore everything else you read and do this - it is the simplest, best way b/c these guys are cooks, they know what they are saying - they will not steer you wrong like all these home cooks who over cook their birds making a chewy dry gross turkey that everyone pretends is good! Sarah

Recipe for Low Carb Stuffing

Nov 2003

Folks, does anyone have a tasty recipe for low carb stuffing for Thanksgiving? i hate to pass it up and thought there should be a good recipe out there. Thanks! diane

I found these on an Atkins thread at 2 stuffing recipes; one for ''mashed potatoes'' using cauliflower--I LOVE it.
SAUSAGE STUFFING with NUTS This stuffing harks back to the forcemeat stuffings of classic French cuisine that moistened the dry interiors of wild game. It's rich, dense, and savory- 1/2 cup pecan halves 1/2 cup pine nuts 2 tbsp olive oil 1 cup minced onion 8 oz bulk pork sausage (like Jimmy Dean) 1 diced green pepper (I always use red) 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley 2 tbsp chopped fresh sage or thyme, optional 1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg fresh ground pepper to taste 2 large eggs Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread the pecans out on a baking sheet. Spread the pine nuts out on another baking sheet. Toast each batch of nuts 5 to 8 minutes, until they begin to smell nutty and take on color. Check the pine nuts frequently, since they burn easily. Cool the nuts and break the pecans into large pieces. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and add the onion. Cook for two minutes over medium heat. Add the sausage, breaking it up with the side of a spoon. Cook slowly until the sausage is browned. Stir in the nuts and the remaining ingredients except the eggs. Whisk the eggs together lightly and combine with the sausage mixture. Transfer the stuffing to a greased 9-inch baking dish. Cover with foil and bake on the middle rack of the oven for 25 minutes. Exotic Mushroom & Turkey Sausage Stuffing Makes 6 Cups 4 Large Yellow Onions 4 Tbls Olive Oil 5 Cups mushrooms, coarsely chopped Portabello Cremini Oyster Shitake White Salt & Pepper to taste, Sea Salt 1/2 cup White Wine 3 Tbls Butter 2 Pounds spicy turkey sausage, (you might have to remove the casings) 1 Bunch of Fresh Tarragon Leaves only On Low heat saute the onions until carmelized in olive oil. Turn up to medium heat & add the mushrooms. Cook 10 - 15 minutes until crisp. Season with Salt and Pepper. Turn up the heat to high & add the wine, cook 2 minutes, then turn the mixture down to simmer for about 10 minutes. Stir in butter, 1 Tbls at a time until it is all combined with mushroom mixture. Remove and set aside. In a large skillet, brown the sausage, add the mushroom mixture and tarragon. You can make this one day ahead. I was just on the Atkins site to look at recips and there is a prompt for Thanksgiving recipe. FAUXTATOES 1 large head cauliflower 1/3 cup cream 4 oz. cream cheese 1 Tablespoon butter salt & pepper 1. Simmer the cauliflower in water with the cream added to it (This keeps the cauliflower sweet and prevents it from turning a gray color). When the cauliflower is very soft, drain thouroughly. 2. Put the till-warm cauliflower in a food processor with the cream cheese, butter and salt & pepper to taste and process until smooth ( you may have to do this in more than one batch.