When trying to produce the perfect drumstick for guests this Thanksgiving, the last thing a first-time cook should do is try to wing it. That's the opinion of a pair of cooking instructors and a longtime supervisor of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. For someone who is making his or her first Thanksgiving dinner for relatives or friends, advance preparation and planning are key, said Carol Miller, who's manned the talk-line for Butterball for 29 years. “You know, I think planning ahead is the first thing people should do,” said Miller. “Just deciding how many people are coming (is important).We recommend about 1.5 pounds (of turkey) per person, that's a good serving plus leftovers.” “One thing, if you are a rookie, you want to have a game plan,” said Michael Barczak, culinary arts instructor at the Butler County Vocational Technical School. “The worst thing you want to do is wake up and decide you want to make Thanksgiving dinner.” “Make sure you have everything. And don't get ambitious. You don't want to cook eight dishes your first Thanksgiving,” Barczak said. “If you are a novice cook, one good tip is you do the main dish and ask your guests to bring their favorite dish,” Miller said. “Say your mom has the greatest sweet potato recipe, she will be happy to bring it. If you have a guy that is clueless, have him bring the wine.” Barczak said the first-time cook shouldn't be afraid to ask for help, whether from an aunt, a mother or a mother-in-law. “You are going to get overwhelmed the first time you cook for a large amount of people,” said Barczak. “I cook for 30 people at Thanksgiving, but I've been doing it since I've been 18, so it's a little bit different.” “Most mistakes are with the bird,” Barczak said. “Everyone knows how to do sides.” “It's a feast, so it can be overwhelming,” said Miller. “It's OK to go to the store and buy a pie, buy the things that you are not comfortable making.” And even if your attempts at baking a pumpkin pie fail, that doesn't mean you are left without dessert, said Kate Collins, a culinary arts instructor specializing in baking at the vo-tech. “People, if they have a pie that doesn't turn out, can use whipped cream or vanilla ice cream (with the pie filling) to make a parfait. Instead of throwing the pie away, they can repurpose the pie,” she said. But Collins suggested even a first-time Thanksgiving host skip the store-bought rolls and bake their own. “Dinner rolls are very inexpensive and easy to make,” Collins said. “They only require four ingredients and, except for yeast, most households already have three on hand.” “Allrecipes.com has really simple bread recipes, so does foodnetwork.com,” she said. “I would think you need two grocery lists, one is what you can do ahead of time,” said Miller. “Put that turkey on the list. A 16-pound turkey takes four days to thaw. A lot of first-time cooks are giving us a call. Their turkeys are still cold and frosty inside. They haven't given the thawing enough time.” “A day or two before Thanksgiving, buy the fresh items, the rolls the fresh vegetables,” said Miller. “My plan of attack is to do all those casserole type dishes a day ahead of time,” Miller said. “Do those recipes one night and pop them into the refrigerator or even freeze them.” “If you can do anything in advance, do it in advance,” Barczak said. “You can mix your stuffing and put it in a pan and keep it in the refrigerator a day or two. Sweet potato casserole and other side dishes can be cooked ahead of the day and kept in the refrigerator.” By Thursday the turkey should be thawed and ready for the oven. “You do not want to cook a partially thawed turkey,” Barczak said. “The outside will be done, but the inside will be undercooked and provide a chance for salmonella to appear. And who is at greatest risk for salmonella? The very young and the very old, just the sort of relatives gathered around your table.” Of course, Miller said, using a meat thermometer will prevent that from happening. “If you don't have an accurate meat thermometer, beg, borrow or steal one,” she said. “It's an inexpensive tool that every kitchen needs.”
Even if the turkey comes with a pop-up tab indicating when it's done cooking, Miller still recommends using a meat thermometer. “First-(time) cooks should use meat thermometers,” she said. “The dark meat is done at 180 degrees, the stuffing and the breast should be in the 165-170 degree range.” “It confuses people, but the dark meat has a different texture. It is more palatable and less chewy if you get it to a higher temperature,” she said. During the last 15 minutes of cooking, Barczak recommends cranking your oven temperature up to 500 degrees, which will crisp the turkey skin nicely. Both Barczak and Miller said the novice cook can't forget to let the turkey “rest” for 20 to 30 minutes before carving and serving it. Miller said this allows the juices to settle back into the muscles and makes it easier to carve. She suggested putting the turkey on a platter, covering it with foil, wrapping it in clean bath towels and putting it in a cooler to keep it warm. By doing this, the oven is empty and you are free to reheat previously prepared casseroles and make gravy. Miller suggested instead of placing the turkey on a rack in its pan, place it on top of six or seven large, peeled carrots. This sweetens up the gravy made from the pan drippings, she said. Barczak also recommends using the pan drippings in gravy “either made from scratch or from a can.” “You are going to get that beautiful flavor from the bottom of the bird,” he said. Both Miller and Barczak oppose filling the turkey with stuffing. Both say it is hard to raise the stuffing inside a turkey to the needed 165 degrees. They both recommend making the stuffing separately.
Instead, Barczak says you should fill the turkey's insides with aromatics that will release their flavors into the meat as the turkey cooks. “Citrus fruits, oranges work the best, onions, celery, carrots. Just chop them up large and slide them right into the carcass and let them cook,” he said. Throw them away when the cooking's done, he said. Speaking of the turkey's interior, remember to remove the giblet bag before cooking, said Miller. The giblets (heart, liver and gizzard) can be cooked, diced up and added to the stuffing. Miller said the hardest part of a Thanksgiving dinner is getting every dish onto the table hot. But Barczak said don't sweat it if you don't have the meal done exactly on time. “People will forget about it being a little late if it's a great meal,” he said. For a large gathering, Barczak said, “Go buffet. That's what we do. We throw it on the kitchen counter, everybody takes what they want, they eat what they want. We don't do the traditional stand around and watch dad carve the turkey. There's too many of us.” And that's the secret of a successful Thanksgiving meal, he said, the people. “Thanksgiving is (the time) to have fun and enjoy the people around you. Enjoy your family. Don't stress. Things will get done. Things will come together,” Barczak said.