The family comes together for one of the two biggest meals of the year. Old, simmering resentments and jealousies abound, barely kept in check. It's the one big chance for the host cook to make an impression, or maybe to redeem himself.
Thanksgiving is fraught with peril. A misstep could mean social disaster.
And with so much riding on it, the whole thing inevitably comes down to: turkey.
It's often bland. Often dry. And never really what anyone would ever call fancy.
The meal is so important, and yet there are so many different ways to fail. Not all mistakes wind up with the house burned down, but Thanksgiving is quite possibly the day when the most kitchens fill up with the most amount of smoke, when ingredients are left out of side dishes, when rolls are forgotten in the oven.
But the biggest problem is that the turkey just tastes ...blah.
Turkeys are easy to overcook, easy to make dry and tasteless. And if you've ever had undercooked turkey, you'll know it's not just blah, it's bleh.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat the whole uninspired turkiness of Thanksgiving. Foolproof recipes. Unusual ingredients. Even different ways to prepare the bird.
Let's start with the basics. The most important step you can take to improve the taste of your turkey and keep it moist and delicious is to brine it. Brining turkey (or, for that matter, chicken) simply means immersing the bird in salt water for several hours before cooking it. The salt seeps into the meat in a more thorough and flavorful way than just sprinkling salt on it before cooking. And properly brined meat needs no salt later.
Brining basics are simple: Use one cup of salt for every gallon of liquid, use enough liquid to cover the bird entirely, and be sure to keep it chilled -- brining does not keep the meat from spoiling. For turkey, a good rule of thumb is to brine it one hour for every pound. Brining a 12-14-pound bird overnight is always fine; you can do it longer (some people do it for two hours per pound), but it is better to underbrine than overbrine, which results in the meat being much too salty and tough.
You can just stir the salt into the water until it dissolves, but a more effective method of creating the brine is to boil one cup of water for every cup of salt you use. Add the salt, stir until it dissolves, and then add that mixture into the remaining cold water.
If you want to get fancy, you can create additional flavor in your brine by adding a tablespoon of chopped sage and chopped thyme (if you boil the water with the salt, that's the best time to add the herbs). You can also add a half-cup of sugar per gallon of brine, stirring to dissolve it.
And the liquid doesn't have to be all water. You can goose the flavor of the turkey, so to speak, by substituting half of the water with a vegetable stock. You can either use store-bought vegetable stock or make your own (chop and simmer four stalks of celery, four peeled carrots, two large onions and one-half bunch of parsley in one gallon of water for an hour; then strain out the vegetables). If you don't have all the stock you need, you can also add apple juice to the mix of water and stock. Just keep the general proportion of one cup of salt to each gallon of liquid.
To brine the turkey, first remove the giblets and neck. Put the rest in a large stockpot, a clean and food-safe plastic paint bucket or a turkey-size resealable plastic bag (Reynolds makes them, among other companies. Do not use a plastic trash bag, which has unhealthy chemicals). During the brining process, be sure to keep it in the refrigerator, if you have room. If it is going to be cold enough during the whole time you are brining -- under 40 degrees at the warmest -- you always can store it in Nature's Refrigerator: the great outdoors. And if it is too warm outdoors, you can put the pot, bucket or bag in a large cooler with plenty of ice. Don't forget to add more ice if needed.
Or you can skip the whole brining process altogether and still get the same great flavor in one simple step: Buy a kosher turkey. They may be expensive for turkey (though it's still cheaper per pound than hamburger), but they are so easy and are guaranteed to make the best turkey you've ever had.
You'll get a much better flavor from a fresh turkey than a frozen one, but you'll pay for it. If you do buy a frozen bird, don't forget that it will take two to four days to thaw in your refrigerator, depending on the size -- figure on six hours per pound (that's one full day for every four pounds). It must be thawed before you can brine it, which adds additional time. Under no circumstances should you try to thaw it at room temperature; that's only inviting bacteria and an unpleasant stay at a hospital. If you don't have time to thaw it in the refrigerator, you can thaw it under cold running water -- but that takes a lot of time, too, and wastes a great deal of water.
Now that you have the turkey ready to cook, how are you going to cook it? Most people roast