Cooking a turkey for the first time? We cover the Thanksgiving basics for you.

November 4th, 2020
thanksgiving basics help create the perfect thanksgiving meal like this photo shows.
Understanding Thanksgiving basics when in the kitchen can help first-time cooks make delicious dishes this Thanksgiving. Photo: Getty Images.

Cooking your first Thanksgiving Day dinner was, is, or will be the bar exam, the 8th-grade play, the dissertation orals, the first big job interview of all American meals.

Who puts together this Las Vegas-style buffet for any other meal of the year? The turkey’s white meat, dark meat both; two types of tuber, the orange one topped with marshmallow; stuffing, itself stuffed with anything from cornmeal to oysters, Italian sausage to walnuts; cranberries two (or more) ways; vegetables in a prism of colors, some doused with canned mushroom soup; desserts of ascending degrees of sweetness; and Aunt Hortense with her three pre-prandial apricot sours?

But, will it be that this year, here today in the land of Pandemia?

If 2020’s Thanksgiving dinner indeed is your first, will it be as big as your parent’s or grandparent’s has been? If this Thanksgiving Day dinner isn’t your first, will it be smaller (much smaller?) than those from The Before Time?

For you who scale down this Thanksgiving, in either (or both) the number of guests or breadth of offerings, this merely will be a dinner that’s humble for a year that’s been humbling. But Thanksgiving basics still matter, perhaps more.

As for cutting back or keeping things simpler, you own those choices. Back in September, cooks began to consider roasting just a turkey breast instead of the whole bird. If it comes down to the Solomonic choice whether it’s sweet potatoes or mashed Yukon Golds, just mash the sweet potatoes with lots of butter and you’ll get something good and tasty from both worlds in one.

Above all, I’d like to offer tips for newcomers to the Thanksgiving Day dinner kitchen. Maybe this is a Friendsgiving because you’re at (quarantined?) college and cannot travel home or prefer not to fly. Maybe you are newlyweds (good on you, especially this year) and this is your first turkey dinner “with all the trimmings” away from Mom and Dad.

Get more great tips and recipes from Bill St. John.

Maybe you’re just scared wattle-less and don’t want to bother the ladies at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. I understand; I’m pretty sure these no-nonsensers wear their aprons to the grocery store.

During the past 50 years or so, I have roasted many a turkey and mashed many a spud. Here are what I think are the best tricks or the most important Thanksgiving basics for cooking a Thanksgiving Day dinner, or, well, any big meal. Or even one halved in size by a virus.

Thanksgiving basics

  • Best initial suggestion: spatchcock (butterfly) the bird. Its skin will be crackly crisp; its juices intact. It doesn’t come out looking like the pretty pictures, but it roasts perfectly and, more important, evenly. It all looks the same once it’s down the hatch; your stomach doesn’t know Norman Rockwell from KFC.
  • A common mistake — perhaps the most common, and one that I myself make still — is to over salt. While you can’t take the salt out once it’s in, a squeeze of lemon juice (or a splash of rice vinegar) can help trick the palate into not noticing it. Alternatively, and only if it could work with the preparation, something sweet can offset (or, in a way of tasting, “balance off”) the salt and make it less obtrusive. But better advice is to taste the preparation as you make it; adjust as you go so that you need not fix later.
  • The best way to finish most any dish — those sweetened sweet potatoes, the starchy mashed, the tasty yet salty and buttery gravy — is to slip in a bit of something acidic. A squeeze of lemon juice, for example, “lifts” all flavors, even gives an edge or outline, a sort of definition, a nice “ta-da,” to most anything that it sequins.
  • On the other hand, if a food is bland or dull, such as a mistake of a puréed soup, a hit of honey (not much to the whole pot, just a teaspoon or so) brings it life and style.
  • It turns out that your greatest worry, come the evening of the last Thursday in November, well may be where to keep everything that you’ve cooked warm. Think outside of the box (in this case, being the cavity of the oven). These are tips for anyone, even those with lots of kitchen space.

If you live in an apartment building with a community outdoor grill, commandeer a spot on the low-heat side. Keep soup servings in your array of insulated coffee cups from the cupboard. The beer cooler, kept covered in the tub, and its interior splashed with some scalding water does the reverse with hot foods that it does so effectively in summertime with the White Claws: it keeps hot foods warm. Also, you will be amazed how long a wrap of an electric blanket on “Hi” will maintain the heat on a pot of food.

Of course, use the slow cooker warmed up ahead of time; the toaster oven for a last-minute hit; or even, if you live anciently and the furnace is on, the top of the radiator grille.

two women cooking thanksgiving meal in the kitchen using the thanksgiving basic tips.
If it’s your first time cooking the Thanksgiving meal, or you just need some new tricks, Bill St. John provides great recipes and advice on Thanksgiving basics sure to make you a success. Photo: Getty Images.

Broth

This is the one (liquid) food that you can prepare ahead, even weeks out, so that you give yourself some breathing room come the big meal with its inevitable crunch: turkey broth (or, as some of us call it, “stock”).

How to make turkey stock without the turkey? Easy; a delicious all-turkey stock may be made year-round with turkey wings, thighs and drumsticks, always available at the grocer’s.

A solid, golden-yellow turkey stock will be the best liquid at hand on Thanksgiving Day itself, for the base of turkey gravy, for moistening the stuffing that you well might bake outside of the bird, or even as the foundation for a soup that you might slot for an early course.

It also will serve as a calming “cuppa” in the days ahead, warmed to steaming and a terrific source of both comfort and nourishment.

And no need to wait for “the drippings” to fashion a base for the gravy for the Thanksgiving Day table; you’ll be way ahead of the curve with a turkey stock at hand that day. The drippings and gizzards, should you render them that Thursday, simply will amplify the stock that you’ve wisely made ahead.

Spatchcocking a turkey

This method of preparing the turkey has its origins in the cooking of 18th and 19th century Ireland and derives from an old Irish way of saying “dispatch the fowl.” It’s the same thing as what’s called “butterflying” the turkey (and the word that you would choose to use to lower the giggle quotient if you have teenagers in the kitchen). It involves removing the backbone of the bird, turning it over, pressing down to crack its breastplate, and ending up with a fairly flat, one-piece of meat.

Spatchcocking turkeys has multiple benefits. Any large piece of meat that is flattened heats through more evenly (therefore the breast meat has a better chance to remain juicy and tender) than does the “Norman Rockwell” trophy of a whole browned bird so long sought-after by generations of Thanksgiving Day cooks. Also, exposing a greater amount of the real estate of the turkey’s skin to the high heat of the oven allows for crispy skin all around. (I always disliked the Nosferatu-like appearance of the belly skin unearthed from the bottom side of a mainstream roasted turkey).

And — ha! — the best benefit, so often sought but so rarely achieved, is much, much less roasting time, thus giving cooks more flexibility in their plans for using the oven, in turns, for various dishes, and just plain saving a great deal of worry. You’ll be surprised to hear that spatchcocking and roasting a 10-12 pound turkey takes as little as an hour and a half, far, far less than roasting the same whole, un-dismembered bird we commonly think the ideal.

Ingredient

1 turkey, of whatever weight, although 10-12 pounds is easiest to work (see note if larger)

Directions

Take the whole, defrosted turkey and turn it “upside down,” that is, in reverse of its normal appearance. Beginning at the tail end and with a set of super-sturdy, sharp poultry or kitchen shears, or a sturdy boning knife, cut along one side of the backbone (you can feel its length just alongside the crown of the underside). Repeat on the opposite side. Don’t discard the backbone; it’s a hefty piece of flavor and ought to be saved in the freezer for your white meat stocks or broths.

Slice off any protruding large pieces of skin, or fat globules from the turkey’s interior, and (if you didn’t get it when removing the backbone) what’s called “the pope’s nose,” that heart-shaped, wagging, fat-and-tissue flap at the bird’s behind. (Real name: pygostyle; “pope’s nose,” cooler word.)

Now, flip the entire bird over, neck side facing away from you, onto a large roasting pan or baking tray, oiled if you wish. Using both hands joined and both arms locked as if doing CPR, press down very firmly on the top of the breast area. You will break the breastplate and hear a distinct “crack.” Good for you.

Some people tuck the wings under the breast area; some people flap them over the breast area. I do the latter because, in their special way, they shield the breast meat from overheating and, thence, overcooking.

Note: Spatchcocking a turkey weighing 15-20 pounds may be difficult for the home cook, although cooking it is pretty much the same as roasting a 12-pounder; it just takes a bit more time. If you enjoy a relationship with a butcher, ask him or her to spatchcock anything larger than 15 pounds. They should know what “spatchcocking” or “butterflying” means, although just be sure that they start with the bird’s backbone. If they don’t, they don’t know what “spatchcocking” means.

Roasted spatchcocked turkey

At least 10 servings

Ingredient

1 10-12 pound turkey, spatchcocked and flavored however you wish or not at all (see note)

Directions

After the turkey has been spatchcocked, leave it, if possible, in the refrigerator overnight skin side up and uncovered. (This helps dry out the skin and makes it even crisper when roasted.) When ready to cook, remove the turkey from the cold at least 30 minutes before placing it in the oven. Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

Roasting times will vary, of course, based on these following balls in the air: your oven’s personality (its constancy of temperature; any hot spots; whether or not it’s convection) and the actual weight of the turkey.

Place the turkey in a roasting pan able to accommodate it spatchcocked. Prep it with any flavorings or oils (see note). Roast for 20 minutes, then remove it and baste it for the first time with the accumulating juices. Reduce the oven heat to 375 degrees and return the turkey to the oven.

In 15 minutes, check the turkey’s temperature with an instant-read thermometer. When the thick, meaty part of the thigh meat, not touching any bone, registers 165 degrees, take the turkey out of the oven, baste it again and let it rest away from any heat and on a cutting board for 15-20 minutes, very loosely tented with aluminum foil. Carve and serve.

Notes on flavorings: You may roast a spatchcocked turkey naked and plain, save for some salt and pepper. It will be delicious. Or you may tuck some fresh herb sprigs such as thyme, tarragon or green scallion into the folds between the legs and thighs. Or, use a lavish blend of dried herbs crushed in the palm of the hand and sprinkled all over the turkey (dried herbs such as sage, rosemary, thyme, and certainly salt and pepper).

You might roast some aromatic vegetables cut large underneath the turkey in the pan (such as carrots, parsnips or Yukon Gold potatoes, perhaps with some garlic cloves strewn among them). You could drizzle the turkey with good olive oil in any of these scenarios or precede the herb flavorings with a “massage” of room-temperature unsalted butter, at least a half stick’s worth.

Carving a spatchcocked turkey

It’s important that the roasted turkey has rested for 15-20 minutes before carving. Turkey retains a lot of heat; the meat won’t go cold or dry out; and, most important, you’ll be able to handle carving it without having to wear heat-resistant barbecue pit gloves. You’ll want bare hands for carving the bird, especially for pulling away and slicing the breast meat.

Always begin carving any fowl by holding the leg and thigh combination and cutting through it, pulling it a bit away from the body of the bird, at the point where the thigh meets the main body.

Separate the leg from the thigh by cutting through the joint that attaches them. You can feel for it with a finger, finding it before you lift the knife. Set them aside for the moment; you’ll have four pieces, two drumsticks, two thighs.

Take the rest of the turkey and, following along the breastbone, carve (or carve and pull away) the breast meat from the breastbone and rib cage almost like a “loaf” of white meat. Repeat with the other side and set both sides aside.

Separate the wings from the body where they meet the breast. Set them with the other pieces.

Assemble, in as decorative a fashion as you wish, the platter of turkey. Lay one whole drumstick to one side for those who attend Renaissance Faires. Holding the end of any leg upward, with the large end on the cutting board, carve, in a downward motion, slices of dark leg meat, pirouetting the leg as you go to carve more. Place on a platter.

Carve away at the thigh meat in a similar way, keeping as much roasted skin as possible. Place thigh meat on platter.

Holding the “loaf” of white breast meat, slice 1/2-inch to 1-inch thick slices of breast meat, cutting against the grain and, again, keeping as much roasted skin on the meat as possible. (Basically, try to keep the skin from slipping off and away; it helps to have very sharp carving knives for this.) Do that with both portions of breast and place the slices on the platter as well.

Place the wings wherever they can fit in a pleasant manner. Garnish the now-completed platter with parsley springs, small leaves of kale, or other contrasting green accents.

You may reach Bill St John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.