I am one of those people who loves Thanksgiving for basically everything except the turkey. On my family’s Thanksgiving table, sides are the star of the show — and with all of those rich, fall flavors, the turkey sort of gets lost in the shuffle. However, when we wake up the next morning, after having promised ourselves and each other we would never eat again, the focus is back on the poor, ignored turkey. The day after Thanksgiving in my household is not Black Friday: it’s Leftover Sandwich Day. And on that day, the turkey is definitely the star. However you and your loved ones choose to ingest this festive bird, there’s pretty much no way to avoid it this time of year, so you may as well learn to enjoy it.
**All About Turkey**
In Season: Turkey
When to Buy: For sandwich meat, you can get turkey year-round. If you’re buying a whole bird for Thanksgiving, you should pre-order your turkey today (or as soon as possible, starting at least a couple weeks before the big day), so that in the very least you can start thinking about what type of turkey you want and make sure you lay claim to one.
What to Buy: Large, factory-farmed, “supermarket” birds are easy to find and cheap to buy, but they can often lack flavor since they are not given time to mature. Heritage and pasturized turkeys are allowed to roam freely and are not treated with growth hormones or additives, and are more expensive but also have a firmer texture and more flavor than the best-selling, mass-produced Butterball variety. Wild turkeys are raised on farms and generally have less white meat, so they taste gamier than other birds. Organic turkeys are free of antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, and must be fed certified organic food and allowed to roam free. When buying, look for a bird with plump, blemish-free flesh, the latest sell-by date, the cleanest packaging, and, as with all birds and meat, do not buy it if it has a questionable odor. It is generally suggested to buy about a pound per person, although it’s also thought that the bigger the bird, the less tasty. So if you’re getting above 18 lbs, you may opt for two smaller ones. Try to avoid buying frozen wherever possible. If you’re in a part of the country where you can’t get good quality birds, go Kosher. In that case, frozen is fine as long as you give it a couple of days in the fridge to thaw.
Prep & Storage: When you bring your turkey home, store it in the fridge, where it can be kept for a couple days. If it is already frozen, store it in the freezer until you want to thaw and prep it (frozen whole turkeys can last up to a year). Leftover turkey can be stored in the fridge for 3-4 days, or frozen for 3-4 months.
My aunt, the executive chef of our family Thanksgiving, assures me that dry brining has brought her the most success of any technique, from Russ Parsons of the LA Times who adapted from Judy Rodgers of the Zuni Café in San Francisco. Parsons suggests you should salt the turkey by Monday night at the latest to have it at its best by Thursday. Here’s how it goes: Wash your turkey inside and out, and pat dry. Measure about 1 tablespoon of kosher salt for every 5 pounds of turkey, and add minced fresh rosemary if you want that flavor. Sprinkle the seasoning on the inside of the turkey lightly, lay the bird on its back and liberally salt the breasts, then salt each of its sides. Stick the turkey in a sealed plastic bag (you’ll need a big one), press out the air, and refrigerate, breast side up. After a day or so you will see some liquid in the bag — don’t fear, this is normal. Give the turkey a light massage through the bag to make sure the salt is distributed evenly and stick it back in the fridge. After three days, you can remove the bird from the bag and either place it back in the fridge to dry out for a few hours, or simply pat it dry with a paper towel.
If you choose, you can tie turkey’s legs together with twine or string (or dental floss!). If you opt not to do this, try stuffing the inside of the bird with lemons or apples and herbs so that there isn’t too much air circulating inside, drying it out. If you choose to go the more traditional route and stuff your bird, Martha has a great step-by-step guide here.
How to Cook: Remove from the fridge for at least an hour. Loosely tent the breasts with foil to prevent burning. Place it in a roasting pan at 450°F to get the browning going, then after a half-hour or so, reduce to 325°F to cook through. A good rule of thumb is about 15-20 minutes per pound (although if you have a meat thermometer, it’s best to check that the turkey has reached 165°F at which point you should remove it from the oven). When you remove it from the oven, cover the turkey loosely with foil and let it rest at least 20 minutes.
Recipe Box: Here are some of our favorite turkey recipes, and great vehicles for your T-Day leftovers!
A healthy, tasty alternative to a cheeseburger.
Turkey Pepperjack Melts
Grilled cheese + Thanksgiving leftovers? Say no more.
Turkey and Garlic Soup
An easy, comforting, perfect under-the-weather type of soup.
Orecchiete in Feta Sauce with Roasted Turkey and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
A healthy, delicious pasta meant for two.
Mustard-y Midwestern Turkey Meatloaf
A midwestern classic, just a little gussied up.
Lily Bellow graduated in 2009 from Harvard University with a degree in English Literature. While in college, she bartended and cooked at the campus pub, and as a result has a difficult time eating chicken wings. She is the Managing Editor for Small Kitchen College.