13 Chef-Approved Solutions to Common Thanksgiving Fails
Thanksgiving should be all good times and joy in the kitchen, but the fear of cooking catastrophes (and worse, having those fears become reality) can make the day a disaster. While preparing the Thanksgiving feature in our November issue, we turned to a roster of renowned chefs and food scientists to figure out the reasons behind the most common turkey day pitfalls—plus, some simple ways to avoid them. Here, they share their best tips and techniques for a stress-free feast:
Daniel Humm is considered one of the world’s best chefs, but even he acknowledges how easily turkey breast dries out. He explains, “A big problem with cooking turkey—or any whole poultry for that matter—is that the lean breast meat is always done before the legs and thighs.” His solution is simple: Cook the bone-in breast separately. It still looks gorgeous on the table and slices beautifully. To make the meat even more succulent, Humm smears butter under and over the skin. He promises, “As the butter melts, it will keep the breast moist and almost fry the skin from above and below. You’ll end up with buttery moist breast meat and crispy skin.” What more could you want in turkey?
Gravy is traditionally prepped after the turkey comes out of the oven, which not only adds to the anxiety of last-minute preparations, but can also result in insipid flavors. That’s why Chef Daniel Boulud, who has created countless Thanksgiving feasts in his restaurants across America, sticks to his French roots when making gravy. He explains, “I prefer a gravy made like a jus, with roasted vegetables—it has much more flavor and depth.” The vegetables bring a natural sweetness and blend into lusciously thick and silky gravy. Best of all, this technique can be followed a few days before the feast. Simply reheat before serving!
Full Before Dinner!
Raid the market for the prettiest produce that’s in season—tiny turnips, cauliflower, radishes, multicolored carrots. Trim or thinly slice the vegetables, then sprinkle them with sea salt, which will slightly soften them and intensify their flavor. Toss together some pomegranate seeds, finely chopped parsley, and a splash of olive oil; drizzle this mixture over the top of the vegetables. Serve with small dishes of nuts, olives, marinated artichokes, and sour pickles.
Too-sweet Sweet Potatoes
Cold Mashed Potatoes
Making them right before serving seems like common sense, but food scientist Shirley Corriher warns us otherwise. She says, “Everybody waits until the last minute to make mashed potatoes and then they whip cold room temperature air into them and they’re not going to be hot. For really hot mashed potatoes, prepare the mashed potatoes that morning or the day before, chill, and then cover tightly with foil and heat them in the oven. They will get hot all the way through and stay hot the whole meal.” Indeed, wee tried her ingenious tactic and found the spuds still steaming long after they came to the table.
Has your dressing come out pasty or mushy in the past? To avoid that mess, we turned to noted food scientist, Harold McGee. He explained, “The best way to avoid gummy bread stuffing is to start with dry bread. Dry bread will stay firmer and prevent the pieces from sticking together into a solid mass.” The simplest route is to toast bread cubes in the oven. You can do this way ahead of time and even start with a stale loaf. In fact, the longer the toasted bread sits out, the drier it gets.
Boring, Wilted Salads
Stiff Cranberry Sauce
The likely culprits are adding too much sugar and cooking the mixture too long. But it’s an easy and understandable mistake. Star chef Carla Hall explains, “People don’t realize how much pectin is in cranberries and how the sauce will be much runnier than you expect while bubbling on the stove. But don’t add more sugar or overcook it to thicken it and get it the way you want it. Just remember, it’ll thicken as it sits and chills.” Hall recommends sticking to the ratio of ingredients given in tried and true recipes.
Sad, Limp Green Vegetables
This one’s easy: Don't cook them as long. Green vegetables should be cooked to super-soft only in dishes like old-fashioned green bean casserole or Southern-style collard greens. Otherwise, remove them from the heat as soon as they’re bright and crisp-tender. Food scientist Shirley Corriher says this also prevents cruciferous greens like broccoli and Brussels sprouts from getting stinky. She explains, “The stinky hydrogen sulfide smells double after 5 minutes of cooking.” On a less technical note, Corriher also advises preparing green vegetables ahead of time, but being careful to avoid overcooking them before serving. Her rule of thumb: “Don’t reheat like crazy. Just reheat to reheat.”
Piecrust That Won’t Cooperate
If you’re going to make a rolled-out pie crust, you’ll want to be sure the bottom doesn’t turn soggy under a load of apples or pumpkin filling. Day offers not one but two tips for a crust that stays crisp and flaky all the way through. “We do a two-part blind baking: We line the shell with parchment paper and beans and bake until the edges are just starting to set,” she explains. “Then we remove the parchment and beans and, for extra insurance, we’ll brush some beaten egg white on the bottom and insides of the crust and put it back in the oven.”
You Can’t Clean Your Copper
A mix of equal parts flour and salt, with enough vinegar to make a paste, is the most effective copper cleaner. Every time you wash your copper, says chef Anita Olivarez Eisenhauer, a lecturing instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, apply the paste to the outside and the interior of the pot and let it sit for 10 minutes. Rinse it with hot water, then dry with a cloth. “It will make the copper shine and help release any bacteria or grease that seeped into the metal when it was hot.”
Your Cookies Fall Flat
Fact: Using shortening instead of butter produces fluffier cookies. Butter has water in it, and water means a thinner dough, which means a flatter cookie. Shortening contains no water, so it always produces a cookie that stands taller than one made with only butter. “The trade-off is flavor,” says Emily Luchetti, executive pastry chef for Marlowe, Park Tavern, and The Cavalier Restaurants in San Francisco, adding that even if a recipe calls for shortening alone, for more tasty results “you can use half butter, half shortening.” One trick Luchetti recommends to help make all-butter cookies fluffy is to beat the butter-and-sugar mixture longer—say, 5 minutes instead of 2—to whip in more air.