This is my grandmother in 1937, age five.
Beautiful, isn’t she? She was one of 12 children from a small town in southern Indiana. She had three children of her own, worked in a hardware store with my Grampa (how cute is that?) and taught me how to play high stakes poker using Oreos and Pringles. She was deeply religious and yet, nonjudgemental. I never heard her say a negative word about anyone. In short, I aspire to her image.
I’m not exactly sure how she became the grand hostess of our massive family, but Thanksgiving was her holiday, and she fed dozens of us for decades. She passed away in 2001 and I think of her every Sunday and most definitely every Thanksgiving. I keep her photo in my kitchen because her love for feeding family inspires me to cook well for my own. For me, Thanksgiving represents more than an overstuffed bird and too many desserts: it’s about her.
I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner in college (two years after she died) and it has become a ritual, especially when it comes to the bird. Grandma’s turkey was spectacular and I never understood friends who complained about boring and dried out turkey. I picked up a few tips watching her in the last years of her life and I’m happy to share (some of them!) with you.
Start At Room Temperature
I’m going to say something you might not like: Come Turkey Day, you need to get up two hours early. Yeah, I know, you’re already getting up early to put the bird in the oven, but hear me out. Letting the bird rest outside the fridge and rise to room temperature will cut down on baking time and help the meat cook evenly. I noticed an immediate change once I began forcing myself to do this. Set the alarm, drag yourself out of bed and crash on the couch before baking time.
Keep the Heat Low
Think about barbecued ribs. Would you rather have them microwaved or cooked over a low flame for eight hours? Exactly. Keep the heat between 325 and 350 degrees. Slow roasting is best.
Don’t Use a Basting Bag
Cooking a holiday bird is intimidating for sure, and I think many people default to a basting bag because they are nervous about it. The ironic thing about a basting bag— in my experience, anyway—is that it does very little to actually “baste” your turkey. The bottom of the bird ends up soggy and the breast ends up overcooked and dried out. Instead, line your roasting pan with long pieces of aluminum foil and tightly wrap the turkey, opening the foil to baste each time.
Stuffing Adds Time (But It’s Worth It)
I’m not sure we can be friends if you don’t stuff your turkey. It’s called stuffing, people, and unless your bird is teeming with bacteria beforehand, I promise it won’t make you sick. Factor in a little extra cook time to account for the extra weight.
Baste Every 30 Minutes
Yep, you heard me. That bird comes out for a bath every 30 minutes. I also use a basting syringe to make sure every bit of meat is getting the attention it needs.
Brown the Skin in Shifts
Browning the skin without drying the meat is tough. I usually cook the bird uncovered for the first and last hour to prioritize moisture.
Brining is a Judgement Call
I personally don’t brine my bird because I like the taste of turkey meat without too many herbs and spices. It’s just the way I prefer it and the way grandma did it. That said, it’s completely up to you. I would start 48 hours before D-Day to ensure that your flavors have time to develop.
Butter is Required
Lots of butter. More butter than should be legally allowed. Prep the night before by loosening the skin away from the meat and placing butter in between. Do this for the breasts, drumsticks and anywhere else the skin will separate. Repeat for the first two hours as you baste to allow the juices to accumulate in the roasting pan.
Don’t Overthink Temperature
This is one of those worries that can result in a dried-out main course. Yes, 165 degrees is the standard cook temperature, but I generally call mine done at five degrees under. Thermometers are not 100% accurate and I carefully track baking time to gauge doneness as well.
I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!