Turkey Talk: Our experts answer your last-minute Thanksgiving questions

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Our experts can help you make sure your turkey looks like this.

Panicked? We've got experts on hand to answer your questions about last-minute meal preparations and even reservations if you're not up to cooking.

Thanksgiving is looming over you and maybe you haven't quite figured out what to do with yams. Or perhaps the multitude of suggested turkey cooking times confuses you.

It's OK.

We've got Jean T. Barrett food and wine writer and contributing editor of EAT: Los Angeles and Jeff Potter, author of Cooking for Geeks on hand to solve all of your quandaries about Thanksgiving in the kitchen and outside.

The chat is over, but you can find out favorite tips below:

On scheduling things in your oven

Jean: It depends on the dishes. In many cases, casseroles can be cooked ahead of time then reheated in the oven after the turkey comes out to sit for 20 minutes to a half-hour, which is recommended. Can any of your oven dishes be done top-of-stove?

Jeff: I'd look at it from the angle of what can be cooked and "held" at a warm temperature (sweet potatoes) vs things that tend to suffer from being held at temperature too long (say, string beans).

On Cranberry sauce alternatives:

Jeff: Cranberry cornbread sounds delicious! Cranberries by themselves can be quiet sour, and sugar is normally used to cancel out that sourness. If you wanted to go crazy, you might be able to add miracuilin — it's the compound in the miracle berry fruit that makes sour things sweet — but that's probably more than you're asking for. =-)

Other thoughts for you would be to add other fruits into the cornbread—blueberries, applesauce—although you'd need to cut back on other wet ingredients to counteract it. I'm not a dietician, but I would imagine anything you do to try to compensate for the sourness by adding sweetness would be an issue for you.

Jean: I think fresh cranberries would work fine in cornbread. They will be very tart, though, so I would use a relatively small amount. They will burst with the heat, like blueberries in muffins.

On having a non-dry turkey:

Jeff: Dry turkey = overcooked turkey! That is, if you get the turkey too hot, it becomes dry as various types of proteins denature and essentially squeeze out water.

It's really much more of an issue for turkey breast meat than leg meat, because the leg meat has enough collagen in it to mask the dryness brought about by denatured actin.

The general recommendation by the FSIS -- the fine folks at the USDA who are responsible for making sure you don't get sick from your food -- is to cook the breast meat to 165°F. But the problem with 165°F is that the turkey breast will be dry and overcooked by then! With some care, you actually can cook things at lower temperatures, but you have to hold them for a long enough time to properly pasteurize the meat.

If you're interested in more details on the temperature guidelines from FSIS, I have a writeup on it here:

http://www.cookingforgeeks.com/blog/posts/perfect-thanksgiving-turkey/

Jean: The key is to try not to overcook it. Unfortunately turkey has a design flaw which is that the breast takes less time to cook than the leg/thigh. So to cook the thigh properly, the breast sometimes gets overcooked. A meat thermometer is a real boon for cooking turkey to make sure the thigh gets just to the right temperature without going overboard and turning the breast into cardboard.

And the other detail is that the turkey keeps cooking when you pull it out of the oven and let it sit. So 155 can go to 160, giving you a safe, tender turkey.

On finding last minute reservations in Los Angeles:

Jean: Regarding last-minute reservations, I checked opentable, which is the best bet if you're facing a last-minute situation, and 288 restaurants in LA/OC have space available around 4 pm tomorrow. Including some very nice spots listed in EAT: Los Angeles 2011, such as Maison Akira in Pasadena, Palate in Glendale, Saint Amour in Culver City and Zucca downtown. So all is not lost!

The key to a perfect holiday meal?

Jean: The best way to serve a great meal to guests is to get as much done ahead of time as possible. And don't sweat the small stuff. Remember the guests are there to spend time with you, not critique the food.
Jeff: I completely agree with Jean. Pick things that you're comfortable making, and have a good time with your family and friends!

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