Answers to your Thanksgiving cooking questions.
Have a question you don't see here? Ask away! I'll try to get you an answer before Thanksgiving! And bonus - your question will also show up on this page, where it can be enjoyed by everyone else. :) Happy feasting! - Lynley
QUESTION: What size turkey do I need?
The official guideline is 1.5-2 pounds per person, depending on a couple of things: 1) How much leftovers you want and 2) smaller birds tend to have a little less meat on their bones, so if the bird is on the small side (about 12 pounds or less), you should figure in the 2 lbs/person range.
But honestly, if I am feeding 10 people or less, I assume 2-2.5 pounds per person because I absolutely love cooking with turkey leftovers! When my family and I are tired of "turkey dinner," we turn the final scraps into things like Turkey Enchiladas, Turkey Pot Pie, Turkey-Gorgonzola-Cranberry Sandwiches, soup and more. As I write this, I am planning to host Thanksgiving dinner for just 5, but I'll be roasting a 16 lb bird (which works out to 2.67 lbs/person.)
If you're feeding more than 10, however, you may have so much work on your hands that leftovers will be the last thing you want or need. For a very large crowd, I would personally stick to the very lowest end of the weight range recommendation and just provide lots of side dishes. A super-large bird would take forever to roast, be difficult to handle, and it can take forever to find storage space for all those leftovers in that already-full post-Thanksgiving fridge.
QUESTION: Do you have an opinion about turning the turkey over partway through cooking?
I have read that it's a way to assure that the top doesn't get burnt and that the bottom gets thoroughly done. You don't call for that, so I suppose you don't see the need. What do you think?
This is a technique that some recipes call for, where the turkey is roasted breast-side-down at the beginning, and then flipped breast-side-up near the end. The idea is to keep the breast from drying out, not necessarily to keep it from burning. I used to do this, but I don't anymore.
The problem with this is that you're trying to turn a huge, heavy, steaming hot bowling ball-type object (which may or may not be filled with stuffing) upside down, and it's really hard to do without ruining your oven mitts or burning yourself or dropping it or - even worse - breaking the fragile skin, which must remain intact at all costs or those precious turkey juices will evaporate away and leave you with a dry bird. The prevention of which was the whole point in the first place!
A much simpler way to protect the breast meat is to cover it with something for part or all of the cooking. Some use foil, my recipe uses a cheesecloth soaked in a wine/butter mixture. Another great thing to do if you are not stuffing your bird would be to put a couple of cut-up lemons and/or onions in the cavity so their flavorful liquid evaporates upward through the breast meat throughout cooking.
The other thing to do of course is brining. I find that when I'm cooking a brined turkey it is so forgiving, it really just does not want to dry out, which is why I do it. It's a little like insurance, just in case this is one of those years when the dark meat seems to take forever to get thoroughly cooked, and you are waiting in dread of dry white meat for the dang thing to finish cooking. (Here's my recipe for brine, if you want to try it).
So bottom line, I recommend you avoid turning the turkey over at all costs! Use any of the other methods and you'll be in great shape.
QUESTION: We try to avoid adding sodium, so I'm wondering if soaking the turkey in otherwise seasoned fluids will help keep the bird just as moist as brining would?
Probably not, depending on what you mean by "otherwise seasoned fluids."
The reason a brine works is because of the salt. The saltwater solution encourages osmosis, in which the semipermeable cell walls allow water molecules to penetrate the cell. Also, the reaction of the sodium and chloride ions with the meat proteins cause the muscle fibers to relax and weaken, which makes the meat seem more tender when eaten.
Then during cooking, the contraction of muscle fibers that usually squeezes juices out while the meat cooks is reduced. The fibers remain relaxed so that fewer juices are lost.
In a 2004 study by Cooks Illustrated magazine, three chickens were roasted: one was brined in saltwater, one was soaked for the same amount of time in a water-only bath, and one was untreated. Before roasting, both soaked chickens gained 6% additional weight from water absorption. When the birds were roasted, the completely untreated bird lost 18% of its weight in roasting (this is normal). The water-soaked bird lost 12% from its original weight, and the brined bird only lost 7% of its original weight.
Many other flavorful fluids do contain some sodium (wine, turkey stock...?), so they will impart that sodium to your turkey. But cooking experts have figured out that a brining solution should contain 3%-6% salt to do its job, so another liquid with naturally-occurring salt won't have that much and won't work the same way. If you'd like to try soaking the bird but don't want to end up with a salty dinner, you could try keeping the salt to the 3% end of the scale, or soaking it for a shorter time (studies show about half as much sodium content after soaking half the time).