For the last couple of Thanksgivings, we’ve done call-in episodes of Special Sauce with Stella and Kenji to answer the holiday-cooking questions stumping the Serious Eats community. We love producing these episodes, and our audience seems to love listening to (or reading) them, so we’ve decided to make it a Serious Eats holiday tradition.
This year, we were treated to a mini treatise from Kenji on gravy, which, I’m not ashamed to admit, has vexed me so much over the years that I’ve resorted to tubs of the store-bought stuff. Kenji broke down the basic process of making it, then described one of his favorite secret ingredients: “The other thing I like to do with my gravy, which some people consider cheating—whatever, I don’t care—is that we add a little bit of soy sauce to it. This is actually something that my grandmother did, my mother did. This is an Alt family, a Nakanishi family tradition, actually…. When I do it, I actually put enough to make it taste a little bit like soy sauce, just because I like that flavor, but even if you don’t want that flavor, even just a little splash of it, I find, it gives it a nicer color, and it also really deepens the flavor and brings out some of the other, more roasty flavors in the turkey.”
Meanwhile, Stella had reassuring words for cooks who think the best-tasting pumpkin pie depends on fresh roasted pumpkin. If roasting your own sugar pumpkins and scooping out the flesh adds to the coziness of your Thanksgiving experience, she says, then go for it. But “if you don’t enjoy that process, if you don’t feel like, man, this is really improving my day and my dessert experience, there’s not really any huge benefit, because the companies that make canned pumpkin are using the most delicious type of squash product, pumpkin product, that they can. They have scientists and engineers and farmers, all working together to produce this one glorious thing. It’s like, let them do their job.” The upshot of all of this being that “if you’ve got a recipe that calls for pumpkin purée, don’t beat yourself up. Grab a can of pumpkin purée, and just take it easy.”
Stella and Kenji’s Thanksgiving troubleshooting ranged far and wide, tackling the most challenging questions with their customary aplomb and grace: How to time the many dishes that go into a Thanksgiving repast so that they all end up on the table together? What kinds of pies travel best? If you have to make your turkey in advance, what’s the best way to reheat it? And many, many more that we’re sure serious eaters will appreciate. If that isn’t enough to entice you into listening, in the course of our conversation, both Kenji and Stella revealed themselves to be lovers of white-meat turkey and explained why. (I was skeptical, as you’ll find out, but you’ll no doubt render your own judgment about this controversial position.)
This special episode of Special Sauce is our way of thanking the millions of readers and listeners who have welcomed us into your kitchens and your stomachs over the years. Happy Thanksgiving, serious eaters.
Ed Levine: Welcome, Serious Eaters, to a special Thanksgiving Call Special Sauce. Serious Eaters from all over the country have sent us Turkey Day-related questions that they would like us to answer. What we’re really trying to do here is take the stress and worry out of Thanksgiving. Here to do the answering and provide the stress reduction are two Serious Eaters who know a thing or two about cooking and baking, Kenji Lopez-Alt, our Chief Culinary Consultant and the bestselling author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, and Stella Parks, our resident pastry wizard and another New York Times bestselling author of BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts. Welcome, Kenji and Stella. You guys are thousands of miles away from each other, but through the magic of this studio we’re all together.
J. Kenji López-Alt: Thanks, Ed.
Stella Parks: Hey, Ed.
EL: So what’s up? Stella just got back … Kenji, you know … from vacation. She sent us tons of photos.
JKLA: Oh, I know. I’ve seen them.
EL: Stella, tell everyone a little bit about that Airbnb you found which was just spectacular.
SP: Oh, man. We had a great vacation, my first ever vacation, in fact, but we had a chance to stay in a hogan in Monument Valley, Arizona. It’s a traditional Navajo dwelling. It’s called a female hogan, and it’s a little bit of a larger size, and it’s designed for people to sleep at night. It was just absolutely beautiful, and the host of our Airbnb is actually on Instagram. Everyone should check out her Instagram. She takes the most beautiful photos of just her life in Monument Valley and everything that’s going on there. It was kind of like an outdoor camping experience a little bit, except that we had a roof over our head and a potbelly stove. But we had otherwise a fully outdoors, no running water, no electricity, that kind of thing. It was a really great break. Not that I don’t love being connected to you all 24/7.
EL: And Kenji, you just got back from a trip, too, right? But this was a shorter, less scenic trip. Right?
JKLA: Well, it was pretty scenic. Yeah, I just took my daughter, Alicia, to visit her two aunts, so my older sister, in Colorado, she lives outside of Boulder, and my younger sister who lives in Bozeman, Montana. No, it was pretty scenic, mountains and big sky and snow. It was nice.
EL: And you had running water.
JKLA: Yes, in both places. Fireplaces, running water. She got to build her first snowman.
EL: She must’ve loved that.
JKLA: She did. It was her first real snowfall. She saw snow when she was a tiny, tiny baby, but this is her first time where she was aware of what was going on and could experience it. So yeah, it was really nice.
EL: Did you actually use a carrot for a nose? Because we have to bring this to Thanksgiving somehow, so I needed a transition there.
JKLA: No, we used rocks and berries that she kind of just squished into the face. There were these purple berries, and so as she squished them in for the teeth they kind of bled out all over the face, so it ended up with this kind of like Heath Ledger’s Joker.
EL: It looked like a snowman in ICU, like a snowman who’d just been beaten up?
JKLA: Yeah. You know, like a vampire or the Joker snowman, I’d say, yeah.
EL: All right. Now we have to get to Thanksgiving. We have so many questions we need answered, but we do … You know, there’s something that I’ve been wanting to know, so I’m going to get my question answered. It’s something we don’t talk about a lot, which is this whole notion of gravy, which I buy. I’m a little embarrassed to tell Kenji and Stella just because it’s always seemed like it would be too difficult to do, even though, Kenji, you’ve written extensively on the site that it’s not that hard to do.
JKLA: To make really perfect anything, you’re going to have to work hard, including gravy, but it’s very easy to get something that is 98% perfect in a relatively short amount of time. With gravy, my method for gravy, I generally spatchcock my turkeys, which I’m sure we’ll talk about more in this episode, which means that you end up with the turkey’s backbone already out of the bird before you even start roasting it. So you get the neck and the backbone and whatever other giblets it came with. So that’s basically all you really need to fortify a chicken stock to make it into a really good gravy.
If you have homemade chicken stock, that’s great. Some people keep it in their freezer; some people make it fresh all the time. If you don’t, it doesn’t really matter. You can use store bought chicken stock. Add to that your … Brown your turkey necks and turkey backs, brown some vegetables, carrots, onions, and celery, and then fortify that store bought chicken stock with all those flavors. Basically, just let it simmer on the stove top for about 45 minutes or so. And you’re going to come up with a stock that doesn’t taste … It’s not like the most perfect stock you’ve ever had at the best restaurant in the world, but it tastes really good, and that’s going to be the basis for your gravy. From there, you can thicken it however much or however little you want, or if you want to add other flavors to it as well, cider or wine or citrus juice, whatever you want to add to it. Then you thicken it, and that’s basically it. Gravy’s not that hard.
EL: What’s the difference between gravy and jus?
JKLA: It’s really just a question of thickness. And of course, like all language, there’s probably going to be some overlap between how some people use those two words. But a jus is typically a very thin sauce made generally from the drippings of a roasted meat. If you take your turkey drippings from the pan, poured them into a cup, defatted them, clarified it a little bit, maybe you could mount it with some butter, season it, that’s basically a jus, a turkey jus. Whereas a turkey gravy would be sort of the equivalent, but you’re also adding typically flour and butter, a roux, to thicken it.
The other thing I like to do with my gravy, which some people consider cheating … Whatever, I don’t care … is that we add a little bit of soy sauce to it. This is actually something that my grandmother did, my mother did. This is an Alt family, a Nakanishi family tradition, actually. You know, a little bit of soy sauce. When I do it, I actually put enough to make it taste a little bit like soy sauce, just because I like that flavor, but even if you don’t want that flavor even just a little splash of it, I find it gives it a nicer color and it also really deepens the flavor and brings out some of the other, more roasty flavors in the turkey.
EL: So Stella, what about at your house? What’s the gravy situation in Kentucky?
SP: My mother-in-law handles Thanksgiving in its entirety, so I don’t lift a finger for Thanksgiving, nor am I fully versed in her inner workings. It’s a very mysterious time, but it’s her thing. Thanksgiving is like what she lives for all year, and she knocks it out, she takes care of it, and I just get to kick back. Which is actually pretty nice, considering that I do a lot of cooking and baking for work all the time. So it’s nice to coast.
EL: That’s great. You don’t even have to bring the pie?
SP: I don’t bring a dang thing.
EL: That’s so great. All right, we have a question from Steven Aldridge, who wants us to recommend either dry brining the turkey, brining the turkey in buttermilk, or perhaps another method for packing some extra flavor into the turkey for dunking it into a vat of hot oil. He says he’s done a bit of research online recently, but hasn’t found many strong recommendations. He would love any advice that you two have to share.
JKLA: Sure. He’s talking about deep frying a turkey. When you’re deep frying a turkey, you’re obviously not doing the spatchcock, which I would do for the oven. But, it doesn’t really matter because you’re getting even heat from all around. So yeah, one of the problems you get with deep frying is that it’s such a high heat method that it so aggressively cooks the turkey that if you’re not careful, if you don’t take some preventative steps, it can end up quite dry. So that is where brining or dry brining would come in.
I almost always recommend dry brining over wet brining, just because I find that you end up with better flavor. When you do a wet brine, which is where you dunk the turkey in a cooler or a bit pot of salt water, you end up diluting that turkey flavor. Some of the juices run out into the water. Some of the water goes into the turkey, and so your turkey ends up juicy but a little bit diluted. So a dry brine, where you just salt aggressively and let it sit for a couple days, it has a lot of the same effects. It helps prevent the meat from seizing up too much when it gets hot, so you squeeze out fewer juices so the turkey ends up juicier. But the flavor that you get in that turkey is more concentrated because you’re not watering it down. So yeah, whether you’re roasting or you’re deep frying, I would pretty much always recommend dry brining.
With a deep fried turkey, the other thing that I’ve found works and which a lot of people do is injecting it. I like to make an injection mixture which has both fat and water-based liquid in it, so a nice chicken or turkey stock maybe fortified with some herbs like rosemary and thyme, and then to that I mix in some browned butter. You can kind of emulsify all that with either a whisk or in a blender to get at least a relatively homogenous mixture, and then get one of those big injectors and inject it into the meat in various points. You can build in a little bit of extra flavor and moisture, which I think is pretty essential for a deep fried bird.
EL: Got it. If you’re not going to inject it, you wouldn’t recommend deep frying a bird.
JKLA: You can definitely still deep fry, and as long as you brine it, or dry brine it, for a good amount of time beforehand, you should be pretty safe. And as long as you’re also very careful with the temperatures you’re cooking it to. I generally recommend poultry breast meat to around 155 degrees. Personally, I go at 150, which is for some people a little bit too soft, but 155 is, I think, a very good balance between traditional texture while still maintaining a very high level of juiciness. Once you get up to the 160, 165 range, you get pretty dry no matter what. So no, you don’t necessarily need to inject. As long as you’re careful and you don’t let the very center of those breasts come above 155, I think you’re pretty safe.
EL: You know, my friend Jeffrey Steingarten once tried to bring a pot to deep fry a turkey on the set of the David Letterman Show, and he was really upset when they told him that he couldn’t do it, that it was a fire hazard.
JKLA: I think your friend Jeffrey Steingarten is just a … He is a living fire hazard.
EL: I see. All right, so Cassandra Gray has a question. We’re going to go back and forth. We’re not going to maintain strict lane obeyance to courses, so we’re going to go back and forth from dessert to turkey. Cassandra Gray has a question about, she says to Stella that she loves your old-fashioned pie dough recipe and blind bake with sugar trick, and she plans on making a bunch of pies for Thanksgiving. But her problem is that there’s so much butter fat that leaks out from the pie and onto the baking sheet that she cooks it on. She says the crust is great. It’s crispy after baking the actual pie, and even after a stint in the fridge. But the pie plate is a greasy mess, which is pretty, in her own words, inelegant and dangerous, depending on how clumsy you are and whose aunt’s tablecloth you’re putting the pie plate on. Wow! Cassandra really socks it to us. Stella, what do you say to Cassandra?
SP: Well, that’s a great question and I’m glad that she’s asking about it. A certain amount of buttery residue is only natural for a pie that’s made with so much butter. You’ve got a crust made of butter, and on a glass dish transfer is inevitable. There’s a certain amount that you’re just going to have to deal with that one needs to expect. But I do sometimes hear from readers who are experiencing what sounds like a lot of butter escaping the crust, which is not good and that’s not something you should expect or accept from making a pie dough, or specifically making my pie dough.
It sounds like a couple of things can be going on that can cause this. The first two, which I think have been pretty widely addressed in the recipe and the comments and in reader discussion but is worth mentioning, is that it could be an issue with the flour. It could be the result of using a relatively high-protein flour. The thing about that is that the FDA does not regulate the definition of all-purpose flour. So companies can make whatever blend of soft white wheat or hard red wheat or a combination thereof that they want. It can be 100% of one, 100% of the other, a little of both, whatever. There’s no regulated definition of what all-purpose flour is or should be, and so some brands are higher in protein than others. High-protein flours tend to be lower in starch, and that means the higher protein flours may not be as able to absorb liquid and butter from the crust.
So I would first check that you’re not using a high protein flour, and a really easy rough approximate way to do that would be to check the nutrition label and look at the grams of protein per serving. If it’s higher than three, it’s probably too high in protein for this particular recipe. So using a softer flour that has a little bit more starch to handle the butter content of the crust would be a huge help. I use Gold Medal’s Blue Label. It’s my favorite flour. It’s what I use for everything, and it helps a lot. The first thing I would check is the flour.
The second thing I’d check is the butter. I’m kind of infamous for my deep abiding love for cheap American-style butter. So if a reader is using a higher fat style of butter, like a European style, that can cause some problems. It’s a higher fat butter, so it’s more fat than the crust really wants to deal with. That can be a problem, so switching just to a basic American. I use my local Kroger brand. I’m not very fancy when it comes to butter, but you can use Land O’Lakes, whatever local brand you’re into, just a regular American-style butter. Those are the two ingredient issues I’d take a look at and make sure you’ve got the right ingredients for the job.
The crust can also leak a little bit of butter if the butter’s overworked into the dough, if the pieces are cut too small or smashed too far. For my pie crust, I cut the butter into approximately 1/2 inch chunks and then I just smash each one a single time. I think some people have seen Kenji’s food processor method and then wondered, “Oh, that might be a good way to make Stella’s crust.” It’s a terrible way to make my crust. Kenji’s recipe is designed to work under those conditions, and it’s brilliant. But if you’re crossing over technique, that’s going to overwork the butter and that can cause the butter to leak out of my crust.
Or just working it too much by hand. Some people have a pastry cutter and they may think, “Oh, I’m going to use this instead. The directions say to smash the cubes, but I’ll get similar results.” Maybe because so many recipes for pie crust call for pea-sized bits of butter to be cut into the flour, but mine needs to be really chunky. So just make sure you’re not overworking the butter pieces.
Finally, if you’re using the right butter, you’re using the right flour, you think you’re working the butter to the right amount or as described in the recipe, the final thing that can cause trouble is if your oven is running a little bit hot or if your oven is running at the correct temperature but the pie crust is placed a little low in the oven or onto a baking stone. Some recipes will call to use a baking stone, but with my recipe that really quick heat transfer just causes the butter to melt out super fast. It could be something to do with the heat in the oven, whether it’s running too hot and that’s melting the butter out of the crust a little too quickly or whether it’s being set on something that’s causing a little bit of direct heat transfer and that’s causing it to happen too fast. That’s the other thing I would look at.
EL: Got it. Now, this has been an ongoing discussion on Serious Eats since Stella came onboard and had definite ideas about pie dough. Of course, Kenji is famous for his vodka pie dough. I think there’s room for both.
JKLA: There’s definitely room for both. I mean, they’re different results, different processes. For a quick breakdown, I think the end results, Stella’s is a more sturdy crust and I think it’s much better, especially if you’re doing decorative things. It holds its shape really well, it’s nice and sturdy, it’s super buttery. Mine is a little bit more tender in the end result. It’s shorter, it doesn’t quite have that kind of crunch that Stella’s does.
As far as making it goes, and Stella can tell me if I’m getting any of this wrong or if she disagrees, but as far as making it goes, I think both of them are quite easy. I think mine, if you have a food processor, that makes the process really simple. Mine was very specifically designed to be extremely easy to roll out, so when you make the dough it looks … If you’ve made other pie crusts in the past, when you make my dough it looks and feels completely wrong. It basically feels like a ball of Play Doh, but it’s super easy to roll out without cracking. That was the big problem I was trying to tackle in designing that recipe. But if you have any kind of experience and you’re confident you can roll out a more traditional pie crust, there’s no reason to choose mine over Stella’s if that’s the result you want.
EL: And it sounds like the key is don’t try to, I think what Stella said, which is don’t try to combine these two recipes.
JKLA: Oh, yes.
EL: This is a 1+1=0.
JKLA: Yeah, they’re very particular because mine is a very different technique for most pies in that it blends the butter really far. And Stella’s has the opposite. It’s different from most pies in that the butter barely gets blended in at all. They’re designed to work with the particular ratios of ingredients that we have and the particular handling process, so if you do try and combine them, yeah, you end up with something that’s-
SP: The worst of both worlds.
EL: The worst of both worlds. Exactly.
SP: Yeah. I’m a huge proponent for different recipes for different occasions and different recipes for different skill levels and different recipes for different ingredients. So there’s definitely room … I’ve got two brownie recipes on Serious Eats. I’m not going to begrudge anybody having two pie crusts. Geez.
EL: Mike has a question that I really want answered and I think that many city dwellers want answered, which is with limited oven space, how do you optimize time and appliance use for a full-meal menu? This obviously applies, in this case, to Thanksgiving, but it also applies to any meal. Appetizers, main, sides, desserts. He’s got an Instant Pot, a Crock Pot, a sous vide immersion circulator, a grill, a stovetop, and an oven, so practically the full range of cooking apparatuses-
EL: But he’s struggled in getting everything out both timely and warm. How do you begin to prioritize things and stagger cooking times without losing your mind?
JKLA: Yeah, that is a common problem, and it’s one that I think starts at the planning phase, when you’re deciding what dishes you’re going to cook. I think people, especially home cooks, will often think about what they want to eat as opposed to what is possible. When you have a whole bunch of different pieces of equipment, it doesn’t make sense to make all of your dishes things that come out of the oven, because you know that, even before you start, you know that I’m not going to have the oven space to do all this. You’re shooting yourself in the foot before you even start. Really, I think your best bet is to plan very carefully and make sure that you have dishes that are coming from … You’re using all the available heat sources in your kitchen. If you have all those pieces of equipment, you’re utilizing each one of them.
Now, as far as specifics go, a lot of things can be made ahead. If you’re talking about appetizers, those are sometimes things that you don’t even need to heat up at all. You can make a really great cheese plate, a really great cheese and charcuterie board and that requires no cooking, so you’re not tying up any of your oven space. You can make some spiced nuts to have around. Think about things that you can serve at room temperature and make ahead so you don’t really have to worry about.
Then, for things you do want to make ahead, purees, so mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, whatever mashed vegetable you want, or gravy, for instance. Mashed potatoes are notoriously hard to reheat. It’s partly because their starches kind of retrograde. So you always have to kind of loosen them up again the second time you’re reheating them after the first time you make them. But it’s also because they’re so thick. It’s hard to reheat on the stovetop because they burn to the bottom of the pan before they heat through, so you kind of have to stir them all the time. They reheat pretty well in the microwave in a bowl if you stir them a lot. They’re hard to reheat in the oven. What I generally do for purees is put them in either sous-vide or heavy duty Ziploc bags with all the air squeezed out. You can make them ahead even up to a few days there. And if you have a sous-vide circulator you can set a water bath at around 140 degrees or so and put your bag in there. You can do it with the mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, you can do it with the gravy, and just let them sit there and they’ll hold that temperature until you’re ready to serve. If you don’t have a sous-vide machine you can also just fill a pot with water, heat it up on a stove top to about 150 degrees, put your bag in there and put a lid on it. That should stay warm for at least a couple hours, which gives you a pretty big window to serve them.
And then the turkey, I spatchcock it, it takes about 90 minutes in a 450 degree oven there. You can start, you know, if you have a two rack oven, or if you have multiple ovens especially, but you can start cooking other things while the turkey is in there on a rack below it.
Then, once the turkey comes out, the turkey still has to rest, so things can finish cooking in there. So, if you’re roasting vegetables, roasting potatoes, or Brussels sprouts, or whatever, you can start them in there for the last little bit. Just calculate how much time overlap you need. Start them in the oven, then take out the turkey, let them finish off while the turkey’s resting, and they’ll come out just fine.
If you have your Crock Pot or a slow cooker, most Instant Pots, multi cookers, double as slow cookers these days. Stuffing comes out really well in the slow cooker, it’s one of the few things I think a slow cooker is great at. I think stuffing in a slow cooker almost has that texture of stuffing that was cooked inside the turkey, where it’s sort of really, really moist, and almost sort of like bread pudding like, you know? So, stuffing comes out great in the slow cooker.
And then remember, you also have your stovetop, so instead of doing your Brussels sprouts in the oven you can cut them in half, blanch them in salted water the day before until they’re just barely cooked through, store them in your fridge. And then the next day, when you’re ready to serve, you can finish them off on the stovetop.
You can use bacon fat, chorizo fat, just olive oil if you want. Get a nice, hot, cast iron pan, put all the Brussels sprouts in there face down, and let them sear nice and hard until they’re kind of almost black, and then toss them a bit. And they come out … I mean, I prefer them that way to the oven.
Anyway, I’m rambling, but really I think it’s just a question of planning, and figuring out what your available heat sources are, and making sure you have a good balance. It’s the same way a restaurant menu is designed, because on a restaurant line you have a whole bunch of different stations. And so, when you’re designing a menu you have to make sure that there’s a good balance between different cooking methods so that you’re not overwhelming one single cook, you know, so the guy on the fryer doesn’t get screwed because every single dish has a fried component. So, it’s just a question of planning.
EL: So, thinking about restaurant lines and maintaining sanity at Thanksgiving, it seems like people sometimes feel compelled to try brand new recipes on Thanksgiving. Stella, sounds like a lot of fun, but wouldn’t it be pretty stressful in practice?
SP: It’s the famous, like, there’s two kinds of people in the world. There’s the kind of person who really thrives in a high pressure environment, who longs to be on a cooking competition show where there’s secret ingredients, and missing appliances, and everything’s coming at you. There’s a certain kind of person who does really, really well in that environment.
And then there’s another type of person who is a little bit stressed out by Thanksgiving, and that’s the type of person I am, personally. I mean, not that I do Thanksgiving, because of my angelic mother-in-law taking care of it for me, but I find it stressful. You’re having to meet a deadline. You’re having to handle a lot of different components, and kind of, as Kenji was saying, on different formats.
So, you’ve got something in the oven, you got something on the stove, you got something, potentially, in your pressure cooker, or your slow cooker, or you’re doing something … There’s a lot happening, and you’re trying to bring a lot of disparate elements together on a similar timetable.
So, to me that’s stressful, and with any new recipe there are always a ton of variables, especially in baking, kind of like we touched on with the pie dough. Aside from just straight up can you execute the technique correctly on the first try, which is admittedly a big question, especially in the realm of baking, there’s all these other variables, like whether or not you live at altitude, or whether or not your flour is high-protein or high-starch, or whether you picked up some American or European butter.
There’s a million subtle variables that can really influence a recipe, and any singly element on its own may not be a big deal. Like, eh, you grabbed the wrong type of flour, everything else has been pulled off perfectly, it’s fine. But when you’ve got a bunch of small elements stacking together because it’s something you’ve never had a chance to try before, they can really kind of move together to kind of push the recipe off its most desirable path, bit by bit.
From it’s really hot in your kitchen because the oven’s going, because you’ve got a giant vat of mashed potatoes cooking on the stove, because your pressure cooker is outputting an incredible amount of steam into the air, there’s all these things that are happening, your kitchen’s super hot, and now your meringue’s getting droopy or whatever. So, if you haven’t tested something before and know what elements to be aware of it can kind of come back to bite you in the moment.
So, if you really love being in a high-stress baking environment, and just the thrill of pulling something off, go for it. I’m not here to tell you how to live your best life. But if you do tend to get a little flustered or frustrated by all that’s going on, and all that you’ve got to consider on a holiday like Thanksgiving, take the sane approach and make your familiar family favorites. And if you don’t have time to test drive them a week or so in advance, just don’t worry about it.
There’s still plenty of time to enjoy a nightmarish pecan pie, or a brand new method for sweet potato pie, or something, in December. You don’t need to have it, like, now or die. So, I just say treat yourself kindly. Part of the joy of Thanksgiving is actually enjoying time with your family, and enjoying a great meal, so just take the sane approach.
EL: I like this. Kenji, do you take the sane approach?
JKLA: I am one of these people who really thrives under pressure, but at Thanksgiving, you know, I do take that approach, but mainly it’s not for my sanity, it’s because everybody has specific things that they want every year. So, we make the same things every year just because if we didn’t someone would be unhappy.
EL: And I have a question, when did you take over the Thanksgiving meal in your family?
JKLA: I mean, I guess I started taking it over after I started cooking. So, I started taking it over in maybe 2000 … maybe around 2000. But in those early days, when I was in restaurants, there were a lot of years when I couldn’t get home for Thanksgiving because restaurants are usually … well, many restaurants are open Thanksgiving. I guess it wasn’t until after I got out of restaurants and then into magazines, so I guess around 2007, I think, that I really started doing it every year.
Although this year we’re having a … This is the first year not because of work we’re not having Thanksgiving together. Adri and I are staying here in California with Alicia, and the rest of the family’s going to be in New York. So, that will be a little sad, but it’s just the travel schedule just got a little bit too hectic with the toddler, because we have a … we’re doing a ton of trips with her, so-
EL: Got it.
JKLA: … oh, well.
EL: And Stella, even though you don’t make Thanksgiving now, there must have been a point before you met John that you were involved in your family’s Thanksgiving. Do you even remember that?
SP: You know, I guess I have just always been a Thanksgiving slacker. Before I met John I was either working in restaurants or bakeries, which involved working on holidays, oftentimes. So, I kind of shirked my responsibility there and let other folks take care of it. And then prior to that I would have been in culinary school, and then prior to that I would have been in high school, and at that point I was a real lazy butt. So, I’m sure I made dessert. I definitely made dessert, but I wasn’t really involved in the meal as a whole. I was very focused on pie, I guess.
EL: Got it. In my family there’s a kind of messy division of labor between my wife and myself. And you both know my wife, who’s a wonderful human being, whom I love dearly, and is a really good cook in many ways, but there-
JKLA: This means something bad is coming, right?
EL: … but there is … We have a hard time sharing the same kitchen. So, is that a problem that you two ever encounter, either in your own lives, or you’ve observed in other people’s lives?
JKLA: I encountered it much more in the past than I do now for a couple reasons. In the past, I think, there … In the past it was partly because I was … you know, it was at the time in my life when I was still working at restaurants, and I think I hadn’t really recalibrated my brain to realize that not every environment is a restaurant kitchen, and that people don’t react to other people the same way as restaurant cooks react to each other. And so, that was always a … that was a problem that I had to sort of retrain myself, especially given the types of restaurants I had worked in, which were all sort of very aggressive, loud, angry places.
EL: Hey Stella, did you ever work in loud, aggressive, angry places?
JKLA: It’s probably a similar problem to what you have, because I know your kitchen, and by New York standards it’s pretty big, but it’s still a kind of narrow space in there. So, just the space issue was a big problem in the past when … you know, like when I was living in New York, we were at my mom’s place in New York where we had this tiny, tiny kitchen that’s essentially a closet, to try and fit multiple people in there was hard. And then always have, like, my dad walking back and forth to the fridge every 10 minutes to refill his chardonnay or his martini, and so that … or pick at things. So that was frustrating.
I think it was really … for me it was really an issue of being willing to cede control, and also sort of recalibrating, and remembering that the food is not really the point of Thanksgiving, and it’s that, you know, the family is the point of Thanksgiving, so that should be the priority at all times, even when you’re cooking. So, I think a lot of it is just, yeah, being able to give up a little control, being okay with things not coming out perfectly, being okay with food being picked at and not arriving at the table the way it should look, et cetera. It’s just about relaxing your perspective on the food-
EL: Yeah, I think you’re right.
JKLA: … for me, was the issue.
EL: I think that’s what happens to me, because what happens is I start tasting Vicky’s dishes, and then I start giving her advice, and somehow that advice is not met with undying gratitude, and so it’s … I think you’re right, and I don’t think I have that perspective yet. You know, what we’ve done is we’ve basically … we don’t occupy the kitchen at the same time.
JKLA: Well, the thing you have to remember is that it takes … you know, it takes, what, like six hours to cook all the food, and then probably half an hour to eat it. So, your time is better spent trying to make sure that everybody is happy during those six hours than during the half an hour, I think.
EL: Right. That’s a great way to think about it. So, Stella, Cathy Bruce has a question about rolls, and pie, and travel. She says she can make her rolls early on Thursday morning, but she needs to make the pies ahead of time and drive them to North Carolina, about six to seven hours. My family is pretty flexible about their pie. I usually make different kinds every year. What kinds of pies travel well, or can be heated up successfully? Should she make pie ahead, freeze it, and then bake it on Thanksgiving Day?
SP: Yeah, pie is a really good option for make ahead. Ed can attest to the fact that my cherry pie holds up really well to next day treatment, it’s …
EL: It’s true. She-
JKLA: You can fully bake it off and just, like –
EL: She showed up at our door 24 hours after you made it and it was awesome.
SP: Yeah, so that’s a recipe that crisps up really well on the bottom. Same thing of my blueberry pie, or mixed fruit pie, or any of those type of fruit pies that I have on Serious Eats. All of those are really good options for fully making them in advance, and then reheating them on site when you get there if you want to, or just serving them at room temperature. They’re all really tasty at room temperature.
Same thing for a sweet potato pie, or a pumpkin pie, or any of those single layer custard pies, pecan pie, all that type of stuff should travel really, really well. Honestly, a lot of these recipes, they do well because of my crust. Because my crust has a super high proportion of butter in it, it is a little bit almost like moisture repellent because of that nice fat layer, so it helps keep the crust really crispy so you don’t have this kind of mushy, day-old pie sensation.
Although, most pies can benefit from just five minutes in a 350 oven, just to kind of help re-crisp the crust if it’s kind of gone a little soft around the edges or something from some humidity, which is always an issue around the holidays when a thousand things are cooking on the stovetop.
At our house, if we make more than two things and it’s, like, below 20 degrees outside or something, the windows all immediately fog up in our house. You can just tell how much moisture is in the air.
So, those pies reheat really well, and do really good as make ahead. I think even something like a meringue pie can do pretty well if you are able to carry it in your lap, which admittedly not all people can do when driving. But if you’ve got someone you can trust to hold the pie in its carrier it will be fine.
The problem is, if it’s a meringue pie, and you’ve got it even in a pie carrier in the back seat, if you brake, or take a … brake suddenly or take a sharp turn, it’s possible that the pie can have more momentum than the meringue, and the meringue can kind of go sailing off.
But if somebody’s, like … Not off, but, you know, it can slip. It can become a little bit detached because that, like … the forces have kind of nudged it out of its safe resting place. But if you’re holding it in your lap in the container you can kind of be like, okay, we’re tilting really hard this way, you can kind of counterbalance it.
So, I’ve transported many a meringue pie with John behind the wheel and just holding it in my lap. And I sometimes post these as videos on Instagram, and people are just losing their minds in the comments and the replies. They’re just like, “Oh, my God, you’re giving me a stroke, stop that.” But it’s fine. As long as a competent person is there to hold it in their arms like a baby.
EL: Stella, if you do have some limited oven access at the destination that you’re bringing a pie to, for something like a meringue pie, could you bring the meringue … like, bake the pie base separately, bring the meringue separately, and kind of construct it, and finish it off in the oven there? A quick way to avoid that problem?
SP: That’s potentially a good option, presuming you have enough time to cool it back down, because what happens is with most meringue pies, after they’re baked off, even if you’ve made the crust, and filling, and got that all taken care of and assembled in advance, it still needs about two hours to refrigerate after that, because that short time in the oven to brown the meringue can kind of do a whammy on the filling, and make it a little loose and soft.
And so, if you’ve also been traveling, so it’s not super cold to start that, that may be problematic. But if you get there in advance enough that you’re able to get them toasted up and then chilled down afterwards, that should be fine.
EL: What about if you made the filling, like, the base, like, the day ahead … a day ahead, kept it in the fridge overnight, and brought it in a little … you know, kept it cool in a cooler or something with your other stuff.
SP: Yeah, that would certainly help. If you’ve got the logistics to pull that off, for sure. Sometimes there can be a little bit of volume loss, because … So, first of all, I should say that all my meringue pies use a Swiss meringue, which is a meringue that’s made by combining the sugar and egg whites together over a water bath, and then I cook them up to a pretty high temperature, 175 degrees, and that ensures that it’s fully cooked. The deal is that sugar kind of offsets the coagulation point of the eggs. So, if you just cooked it to, you know, whatever temperature, say, Kenji has determined to be the ultimate egg white cooking temperature for a poached egg or something, it’s not going to behave like that when you’re dealing with this much sugar being added to it.
So, if you’re using a different meringue recipe, and not my meringue recipe, I don’t know that I would recommend traveling with the meringue, because it’s going to lose its volume, it doesn’t have that kind of stability. But because a Swiss meringue is fully cooked, and the way it’s whipped and handled, it’s very, very stable. And you’re going to experience a little bit of volume loss after you make and whip the meringue, and then transfer it to a container of some sort because presumably you’re going to need your stand mixer bowl back, you’re not going to be able to just leave it there, transfer it to another container, cover it, refrigerate it, go somewhere with it, then scrape it back out and arrange it on top of the pie, it’s not going to be as fluffy as if you had just made it and put it directly on the pie. But that kind of volume loss is probably also a pretty nice trade off for the convenience factor, for sure.
EL: This is a question that’s also related to making stuff ahead of time, it comes from Deb Reese Hall about roasting a turkey the day before the holiday, either Thanksgiving or Christmas Day, and how do you heat that up? She doesn’t know how to do it and have the turkey maintain its moisture. But how can we help Deb here?
JKLA: It’s a difficult problem, because … So, when you’re roasting a turkey, you’re roasting it until it gets to a specific internal temperature, and so it’s hot all the way through. When you’re reheating a turkey … Assuming it’s been chilled in the fridge overnight, when you’re reheating a turkey, if the turkey is still roughly the same volume and shape that it was the day before, which it is unless you’ve sliced it or something like that, it’s going to take about just as long to reheat it as it did to roast it in the first place, because you still have to wait for that heat to get all the way through to the center. It will take a little bit less because of sort of evaporative cooling, but it’s going to take basically the same amount of time to reheat it. And then you’re also going to lose more moisture that way, so your turkey’s not going to end up as good.
So, really, the only solution to this is to somehow break the turkey down in between. So, roast the turkey on one day, let it rest a little bit … And the part you’re really concerned about is the breast meat, because the legs … you can throw the legs back in the oven whole and they’ll crisp up and still be plenty juicy because they’re so forgiving. The breast meat, however, is where you’re going to run into problems. So, I would either slice the breast meat into, you know, maybe quarter or half inch slices, and then reheat them with moisture. So, save some of the drippings, and arrange the turkey breast meat slices in a skillet, an ovenproof skillet, add some of that liquid to the bottom of the pan so it’s kind of simmering in there, and reheat it that way.
Alternatively, what you could do is you can, if you don’t mind this preparation, is you can shred the turkey breast meat. This is an idea I saw, actually, just a couple days ago from Meathead Goldwyn, who wrote the book Meathead and runs AmazingRibs.com, but he does a smoked turkey breast that he kind of pulls like pulled pork. I’m going to … just a disclaimer that I haven’t actually tried this, but I’ve done it with chicken, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t work with turkey. Would be to roast the turkey whole, and then once the turkey breast is chilled, shred it all, and reheat it again in either gravy or in the drippings from the pan, and you can do that directly on the stove top. But in some form or another you’re going to have to break the turkey down if you want to sort of efficiently reheat it.
EL: Could you reheat it either in gravy or just some chicken stock, or reduced chicken stock?
JKLA: Absolutely, yeah, even a box of chicken stock. And anything that is going to add … you know, be moist so that the turkey breast doesn’t dry out so much, and sort of evens out the cooking as well, anything that’s moist … And you don’t want to use just plain old tap water, because that will draw out flavor and not add anything bad. So, you do want to use some kind of seasoned, flavorful liquid, and probably not anything too acidic either, so not, like … You wouldn’t want to use white wine, or vinegar, or something like that.
EL: Yeah. So, I have a question for both of you about sweet potatoes and pumpkin. Obviously, there’s the age old debate about using canned pumpkin, which may not even be pumpkin, it could be squash, and fresh pumpkins, depending on if you use the right kind of pumpkin. And the same thing with sweet potatoes. Where do you both come out on this canned versus whole and fresh issue when it comes to sweet potatoes and pumpkin? Stella, we’ll start with you.
SP: When you think of a pumpkin we all have this mental image of what would be called a field pumpkin that looks like a jack-o-lantern, it’s this real big situation, kind of got the classic orange rind, and the ribbing, and the little curly top of the stem. That’s what we all imagine as a pumpkin.
A pumpkin is a type of squash, first and foremost, and the companies that make canned pumpkin use a different type of squash than a field pumpkin. So, it’s not what you envision, and it’s … Sometimes, some of these companies, like, they’ll have a drawing on the front of the label, it’s not necessarily a photograph, but a little stylized pumpkin that looks very much like what you would expect a pumpkin to look like, but that’s not necessarily what’s in the can.
And example would be the Dickinson squash, I believe, is what Libby’s pumpkin uses, which is … There’s nothing wrong with calling it a pumpkin. There’s plenty of wiggle room in terms of what the FDA considers to be a pumpkin. But it doesn’t look like what you’d want a pumpkin to look like. So, I think we have a lot of romantic imagery tied up around a pumpkin, where we think oh, I want to make the best pie. I need to use a real pumpkin.
Then, people go out and buy a real pumpkin, which is terrible for pie. So, if you’ve got a recipe that calls for pumpkin puree, don’t beat yourself up. Grab a can of pumpkin puree, and just take it easy. There’s nothing better about buying a pumpkin, and roasting it yourself.
Let’s say, “Oh, okay. I’m gonna get a sugar pumpkin, because this is a more delicious type of pumpkin, and this is what I want to do.” If that makes you feel good, and that’s an enjoyable process for you, and that adds to your Thanksgiving experience, like you feel all cozy, like, I got some pumpkins in the oven, roasting away, that’s fantastic, and you should totally go ahead and do that.
But, if you don’t enjoy that process, if you don’t feel like man, this is really improving my day, and my dessert experience, there’s not really any huge benefit, because the companies that make canned pumpkin are using the most delicious type of squash product, pumpkin product that they can. They have scientists, and engineers, and farmers all working together, to produce this one glorious thing. It’s like, let them do their job. That’s great.
SP: So, that said, when I make a pumpkin pie, I prefer to use a roasted butternut squash, as my air quotes, pumpkin puree, because it has a flavor profile that you’re gonna read as pumpkin, because pumpkin itself, doesn’t really have much flavor. It doesn’t taste like anything. That’s why we load up our pumpkin pies with all these different spices. It just has this vague earthiness. It’s not a really intense, or discernible flavor, so one squash can be as good as another.
So, if I’m gonna do it completely from scratch, I’m gonna use a butternut squash, in part, because of the yield. It’s a real meaty squash, so you can just split it in half. There’s very minimal seeds to scoop out, and they’re very easy to scoop out, and it’s really easy to roast, and it’s really easy to puree. That’s my take on using a homemade pumpkin puree kind of situation, is I’d rather use butternut squash.
EL: So, what about sweet potatoes?
SP: Sweet potato dishes, I’ve made them with sweet potatoes, and I’ve made them with yams, and I find them to be fairly interchangeable, at least in the context of my recipes, and my recipes are all based on taking a fresh sweet potato-like product, and simmering it in milk, poaching it in milk slowly.
So, the benefit of this is, you not only get this really nice sweetness out of the sweet potato, during the process of poaching it in the milk, you slowly make your own sweetened condensed milk, so you don’t have to use canned sweetened condensed milk in the recipe, because you’re cooking your sweet potatoes, and making condensed milk at the same time. It’s like a two for one process.
EL: That’s why you’re a pastry wizard, Stella.
JKLA: That is genius.
EL: But, have you made dishes with canned sweet potatoes, that you find okay?
SP: You know, I don’t think I’ve ever even opened a can of sweet potatoes before.
EL: That’s good. What about you, Kenji? That’s okay, you can admit that.
SP: I should have done it for science, but that’s something that … My dad has often had a garden, and that’s like a thing he would have grown, or John and I have always been big supporters of the farmer’s market. So for me, sweet potato access has always been abundant, and very easy, so I haven’t really had an occasion to do it, although I should have done it for science by now guys.
EL: Got it.
SP: I’m very sorry.
EL: What about you, Kenji? Where are you on this sweet potato, and pumpkin divide?
JKLA: The only time I’ve ever had canned sweet potatoes was, a number of years back, when I was at Cooks Illustrated, and my buddy Paco, Francisco Robert, he was working on a pumpkin pie recipe, and I think the little trick in that recipe was that, it used two parts canned pumpkin, and one part canned yams, or canned you know, whatever, orange sweet potatoes.
We found in the taste test that we were doing then, we found that most people thought the ones that were made with part sweet potato actually tasted more pumpkiny, had a stronger pumpkin flavor than the ones that were 100% pumpkin, because the truth is, pumpkin is pretty bland, and sweet potatoes are not.
So, that’s actually something that I do now, if making a pumpkin pie. I don’t use canned sweet potatoes, but I’ll add some regular sweet potato to it, because I think it gives it a better balanced, and deeper flavor than just straight up pumpkin.
The other trick I do is that, Stella mentioned simmering the sweet potatoes. It’s a really good method because, so sweet potatoes in them, have enzymes in them, that will convert starches to sugars, and those increase in activity, up to a certain temperature point. Then, at some point, they get killed off, and they just stop working completely. Off the top of my head, I think it’s around 140, to 145 degrees or so, their activity increases. So, you’re more, and more rapidly sweetening the sweet potato.
So, whenever I make sweet potatoes, pretty much whatever I’m gonna do with them, I try and cook them as slowly as possible, so that they spend a lot of time under that temperature range. So, if you’re roasting them, that means roasting them at a very low temperature, 300 or lower. Or, if you’re going to make mashed sweet potatoes, or use them in a pie filling like that, Stella’s method of doing it in the milk, that would definitely … because simmering is a relatively gentle method, that would definitely help sweeten them up. So yeah, that would be my advice is, slow cook the sweet potatoes, and then, even if you’re making a pumpkin pie, consider adding a little bit of slow cooked sweet potato to the filling, because I think it improves the flavor.
EL: So, where are you both on the yams versus sweet potatoes? Are they interchangeable? Should people see them as interchangeable? Should they worry if the recipe calls for yams, and you get sweet potatoes, or vice versa?
JKLA: Well, yams aren’t yams, technically, but what we call yams in the US, are a type of sweet potato, so it’s not really one or the other, it’s just a question of nomenclature, at least that’s my understanding. Maybe Stella can confirm or deny that.
SP: That’s been my understanding as well, although, I admit that I have not deeply researched the subject.
JKLA: I’m pretty sure I wrote about it in my book, and I’m pretty positive that what I wrote in my book is correct, so if what I just said now, matches up with what’s in my book, then I stand by it.
SP: I’m pretty sure everything I know about it came from Kenji, so …
EL: Sometimes that’s true about both of you, actually. So Stella, you’ve also been an advocate for making cakes, instead of pies around the holidays. Is that just a personal preference, or do you think there’s a good reason for it?
SP: A little bit personal preference, just because I’m a team cake kind of girl. I’ll say that I don’t really believe in the dichotomy of team cake versus team pie. There’s room in this world for both, but if push comes to shove, I really want cake. So, I’m pro cake. I love cake. I don’t know that it’s really the best choice, from a purely pastry chef kind of perspective, because Thanksgiving is a pretty rich, and heavy meal, and then you get to the end of it, and a cake slathered in buttercream is not exactly the counterpoint to that. It’s just a more is more, just piling it on, but that’s what I want out of my Thanksgiving experience, so I’m totally okay with that. A layer of cake with frosting, is definitely a little bit of a richer option than even an apple pie ala mode, or something, but that’s okay. I really like cake, so …
EL: Kenji, which team are you on? We now know that Stella is definitively on the cake team.
JKLA: I’m firmly on the pie side. For me, I just prefer desserts that are more, I guess fruit-based, than chocolate, or cake. I don’t know why. I guess I just feel a more direct connection to things that grow on trees, that I can pluck, and bite into, as opposed to things made from more refined ingredients, which is … I don’t mean to crap on cakes, and cookies, and chocolate, but I guess I just feel closer to pies and tarts, than I do to cakes.
SP: We should also pause to note that, Kenji lives in California, and has fruit trees. I’m in Kentucky. I’ve got nothing, you guys.
EL: That’s true. You have fruit trees in your backyard.
JKLA: But, I’ve held this view long before living in California. Actually, just before this call, I was eating guavas off of our tree. Just outside my back … there’s a guava tree six feet away from me, and I was eating them just before this call.
SP: I rest my case, your honor.
EL: Yeah, I think Stella may have a point, but Kenji did spend a lot of years on the East Coast, where there really were seasons.
EL: I have a question about turkey. Should people be slaves to turkey? There’s a lot of people who don’t really care for turkey, but it seems like people feel obligated to make turkey.
JKLA: Ed, I … Okay, so first of all, I love turkey. It’s my favorite poultry, tied with maybe some certain duck preparations, but I love turkey, and I particularly love turkey breast, and this wasn’t always the case. So I’m gonna say something that your friend Jeffrey Steingarten once said to me, when I made a ignorant comment about coffee, which is that, if someone says they don’t like turkey, they’re speaking exactly like someone who knows nothing about turkey.
EL: I was there when he said that to you. We were sitting at Motorino, the pizzeria.
JKLA: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, so honestly, I think the reason people don’t like turkey is, the same reason that people maybe in my generation or earlier, didn’t like a lot of vegetables like Brussels sprouts, and it was because, they were always overcooked. I think that’s a lot of the reason why people don’t like turkey. It is an extremely unforgiving meat to cook, because that breast meat, even more difficult than chicken … Chickens have the advantage of being relatively small, so that even when you screw them up, they at least cook relatively evenly, through, and through. Turkey breast, it’s really difficult, because it’s this big fat thing, that you’re trying to cook evenly, and you’re trying not to overcook.
On top of that, you have this problem where, if you cooked the entire turkey as a whole bird, the legs don’t cook fast enough, so you almost always end up overcooking the breast meat. So really, I think what people don’t like is, overcooked turkey breast meat. But when it’s properly cooked, it can be … When you properly dry brine it, and when you don’t overcook it, it’s super juicy.
Nobody would ever say that it’s more flavorful than a turkey thigh, or a duck thigh, but there’s … A lot of people have this view that more flavor is always better, and I think subtlety is also important. There’s a lot of super subtle dishes, and a lot of cuisines that really celebrate subtlety, and so, as long as you don’t … don’t think of the turkey breast as bland, just think of it as subtle, and really pay attention to the flavors that are in there, because it does have flavor, they’re just subtle flavors.
EL: I love that. And when you spatchcock the turkey, and you’re flattening it, and that in part, solves the cooking different parts of the bird …
JKLA: Not just in part, it completely solves it. I don’t know how much more I can talk about spatchcocking, but I’ve been advocating it for years now, and it’s still how I do it every year. I haven’t found a method that works better, or more easily, or faster.
EL: Yeah, I’m a devotee. Stella, do you share Kenji’s passion for turkey breast?
SP: I really love turkey. I love all parts of the turkey. I think I’m more of a turkey leg kind of girl, but no, I’m like Kenji, that I think that it does have a subtle flavor, and I get a lot of big flavors in my day to day life, just like intensity, so I enjoy just having something delicate to savor. I think delicacy is an underrated value in food these days.
I also am really fortunate, to live within a few miles of a farm that produces heritage turkey breeds, so I can at Thanksgiving … We don’t do it for Thanksgiving per se, because like I said, my mother-in-law’s got the lockdown on Thanksgiving, but my husband and I tend to order a heritage turkey from Elmwood Stock Farm here in Kentucky every year, that we usually … John and I have a secret holiday for ourselves that we invented, so we make a heritage turkey for that, and that’s really nice.
EL: And you know Kenji, this is something that you and I have discussed on the air before. People are always asking, do they have to get a heritage turkey? Our basic point of view has always been, right? That, it’s whatever the turkey you can afford. If you can avoid frozen processed turkeys, you should, but after that, you’re on your own.
JKLA: Yeah, and from a flavor perspective, there’s no doubt that most heritage breed turkeys are gonna give you more flavor than the commercial turkeys that have been bred more for size and consistency, than for actual flavor. So, if flavor’s what you want, you definitely want to get a heritage turkey.
Price is gonna be a big consideration, but what you’re getting for the price is A, more flavor. Generally, you’re gonna be supporting smaller farmers, and you’re gonna be supporting animals that are treated better.
The one thing to watch out for, no matter what kind of turkey you get is that, you want to know whether your turkey has been pre-brined, or not. So, most commercial turkeys, like your Jennie-Os, and your Butterballs, those have been injected with a brine solution, and you’ll see a little label on the package that’ll say, “Enhanced with up to a 10% brine solution” Something like that on the packaging. If you have one of those turkeys, then you don’t want to brine it yourself, and you don’t want to either dry brine it, or regular brine it yourself, because it’ll end up too salty.
Generally, I recommend buying natural turkeys, so turkeys that have been slaughtered, minimally processed, no other ingredients added, no brine added, because that gives you a lot more control over the end result. So, you can brine it the way you want to, you can treat it the way you want to, and you just have a little bit more control.
But yeah, generally, I would get … I would personally look for a reasonably priced heritage turkey, preferably from a local farm, but not everybody has the access to that, or the money for it. So, you can definitely get good results out of any turkey. It’s just a question of how you value your money, and what other things you value.
EL: Well, you know Kenji, you and I, we talk about spatchcocking all the time, and we should remind our listeners that, we have everything you need to know re spatchcocking on Serious Eats. We have videos, and also, we have everything you need to know about pie baking on Serious Eats, so you should just use this podcast as a jumping off point to get to the site where we really do have all the answer to making your Thanksgiving less stressful, written by our guests, how about that? We didn’t even have to steal the content!
So, I have a question. This is something I also argue with Vicky about. It’s like, I don’t feel that you need to put out appetizers before Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving’s a big, overwhelming meal, so if you want to put out some crudités, but I think if you put out cheese, or charcuterie, as Kenji mentioned, aren’t people just gonna get full? Shouldn’t we try to minimize the number of things we serve with drinks?
SP: Well, I think one thing to consider is that, the snacks are things that will lure people out of your way. So, I don’t do Thanksgiving, but I’ve done dinner parties, and man, a well-placed snack assortment, can really free up some kitchen space.
EL: I love that.
JKLA: Snack traps.
EL: And what about you?
JKLA: No, for me, it is the same. Whether it’s a dinner party, or a big holiday, I think the appetizers are really more a way to make sure that the guests are happy, and don’t come into the kitchen, and start poking at things, while you’re under stress. Although, it inevitably happens anyway, but yeah, for me, it’s like I think of the charcuterie platter as my surrogate in the dining room. It’s like the surrogate host to the house, because it shows people I’m thinking about you, I care, but I’m not gonna come talk to you right now.
EL: So, it sounds like Stella and Kenji, you guys are in the same camp, as to the function of things you put out with drinks.
SP: When introverts cook.
EL: They’re a diversion. They’re ways to divert people’s attention, and to literally divert them from walking into the kitchen.
SP: And stealing all the items.
JKLA: Yeah, it’s again, a thing from restaurants. You design your menu so that, there are certain things that people can order, that will come to the table immediately, and with very little fuss from the kitchen, so that they have something in front of them, and feel happy and comfortable, while you prepare the rest of their stuff.
JKLA: That’s the point of hors d’oeuvres, and appetizers on a restaurant menu. It’s partly because that’s a nice way to have a meal, but it’s really, just to make it easier for the kitchen to manage the flow of food, and manage the expectations of guests.
EL: We do have one final thought we want to get on the table, no pun intended, or maybe there’s a pun intended there. Cranberries whole, or smooshed?
JKLA: Well, I just put them in the pot with the sugar, and a little bit of whatever liquid I’m using, and let them cook. I stir them with a spoon, and then some of them get smooshed, and some of them stay a little chunkier, but they all pop as they cook, you know?
SP: They’re self-smooshing.
EL: They’re self-smooshing?
EL: It’s like they’re self-basting. Cranberries are self-smooshing.
JKLA: Yeah, you cook them, and just let nature take its course.
EL: That’s the perfect final thought. Thank you both. Kenji, Stella, have a wonderful Thanksgiving.
EL: I’d also like to thank the Serious Eats community, for sending us their questions. I hope we have succeeded in reducing your Thanksgiving-related stress.
EL: We’re also thankful here at Special Sauce, for everyone who helps make the podcast a joy to create. Our producer, Marty Goldensohn, our new associate producer, Grace Chen, welcome to Special Sauce, Grace, and everyone here at Radio Arts, and our other studio, CDM.
EL: So, happy Thanksgiving everyone, to you two, Kenji and Stella, may your turkey day be filled with lots of seriously delicious food and drink, and the sound of friends and family, enjoying each other’s company.
EL: If you want to ask some holiday questions, for an upcoming holiday, call Special Sauce, send them to [email protected]
EL: Thank you both, that was awesome!
JKLA: Thank you.
EL: So long, Serious Eaters, we’ll see you next time.