COOKING 101

Meal-prep tips to be thankful for this Thanksgiving

Our food columnist Robin Anish answers common questions

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Unless you have had years of experience preparing the annual Thanksgiving feast, taking on the task can be intimidating.

Don't let fear of failure get in the way of experiencing the joy to be had in cooking and sharing a beautiful meal with family and friends. Knowledge is power, even in cooking. Boosting your knowledge before taking on Thanksgiving dinner will make the process much easier. With that in mind, here are empowering answers to the most common questions and concerns about preparing the feast.

Q: How long does it take to thaw a frozen turkey?

A: According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a "properly thawed turkey is key to making sure the bird is fully cooked; one that's partially frozen when it goes in the oven means the outside will cook, but the inside will remain raw." Butterball advises placing the unopened turkey in the refrigerator and allowing 24 hours of thawing for every four pounds of turkey. Never cook a frozen turkey and never roast in an oven lower than 325 degrees F.

Q: Should the turkey be rinsed before cooking?

A: Contrary to what was common practice, rinsing the bird is not advised. Why? According to the United States Department of Agriculture, it is impossible to wash bacteria from a raw turkey. Washing can splash germs that can contaminate the sink, countertops and surrounding areas that could be missed when cleaning up. Proper cooking kills the bacteria. Just be sure to wash your hands well after handling the raw turkey.

Q: At what temperature is turkey safe to eat?

A: The USDA recommends testing at the thickest parts of the wings and breasts, as well, to check for doneness. The bird isn't cooked enough until it registers 165 degrees at each of those spots.

Do not depend on pop-up timers that come with the turkey. Instead, use an instant read thermometer for accuracy.

Q: How long does it take to cook a turkey?

A: The general rule is 20 minutes per pound; however, the time will vary if the turkey is stuffed.

Q: Is it safe to cook stuffing inside the turkey?

A: The general consensus is that it is better to avoid stuffing the turkey and, instead, bake the stuffing separately. Why? Cooking a stuffed turkey can be somewhat riskier than cooking one not stuffed. If the stuffing is not cooked and handled properly, food borne illness could occur. For this reason, baking the stuffing alongside the turkey avoids any concerns.

However, with a few precautions, you can enjoy stuffing cooked in the bird. Do not buy a pre-stuffed bird. Prepare the stuffing and let cool before stuffing the turkey and stuff just before cooking. Fill cavity 3/4 full to allow for expansion of the stuffing; and, most importantly, cook stuffing to 165 degrees F to insure safety. Having done this, however, means the turkey will be overcooked by the time the stuffing is done.

Q: Is it necessary to let the turkey rest before carving?

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A: Yes. Resting allows juices to redistributes through the bird resulting in moister turkey. If you carve as soon as it comes out of the oven, the juices with flow out making for dry turkey slices

Q: Frozen or fresh, that is the question.

A: Fresh, organic, pasture-raised turkeys are considered the most flavorful and juicy and the most expensive. Frozen turkeys are less expensive, which, in itself, might be a good enough reason to chose one. In the end, there is no right or wrong here. Trial and error will eventually determine a preference. Either way, a properly cooked turkey is the key to a great turkey.

Q: What's wrong with the mashed potatoes?!

A: The mashed potatoes are gummy, too soft, lumpy, lack flavor. The cause of gummy potatoes is over mixing. Russets or Yukon gold make the best mashed potatoes.

Start potatoes in cold water. If you don't salt the cooking water, the potatoes will lack flavor. Add a generous teaspoon of salt for each quart of cooking water.

Return drained potatoes to the burner for a minute to cook away excess water.

Whipping potatoes results in smooth mashed potatoes: however, mashing by hand is tried and true. There may be a few lumps but there is less risk of overworking and gummy potatoes.

If you've added too much liquid to the potatoes, add a spoonful at a time of instant potatoes flakes until desired consistency is achieved.

Last tip, use softened butter and heated milk or cream when mashing and taste for salt and pepper before serving.

Q: How do I make a pie crust that is flaky and not soggy on the bottom?

A: Use cold butter or shortening. A combination of butter and shortening yields a dough that is easy to work with and a flavorful flaky crust.

Some other tips: Leave some larger bits of butter when cutting in fat. Don't add all the water called for at once. Hold back a bit only adding if necessary. Be sure water is ice cold. Do not overwork dough. Chill dough before rolling. Once pie is assembled, chill 15 minutes before baking.

Brush inside of bottom crust with a beaten egg white. Bake pie on the bottom rack of oven.

Q: How long can cooked food be left out?

A: After a hefty Thanksgiving meal, no one is eager to move from the table. You can linger a bit, but the cooked food should be well wrapped and refrigerated within 2 hours or less.


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