I nervously submit these recipes because so much of the Thanksgiving cooking tradition is passed on through families, as these ones are from mine. I’m just offering suggestions here and bear in mind, it is difficult to offer exact amounts or instructions because turkeys differ so much outside of the obvious size differences. This is a basic recipe with nothing fancy that will turn out a good tasting bird, stuffing and gravy. I hope this might help people who have never done this before although I have made this same recipe for fifty years and I’m still always nervous until it’s on the table and has been tasted.
Traditions around this uniquely American cooking and eating holiday also differ regionally. David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy did some research back in 2014 and found some unusual regional traditions that they presented in a New York Times article entitled, “What Americans Want Most on Thanksgiving.” Some examples are a very popular Maple Walnut pie that is served in Vermont, funeral potatoes are common in Utah, pretzel salad is big on the table in Delaware, 4-layer delight and green bean bundles in Arkansas, and frog eye salads (acini de pepe) are served in Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada and Colorado. Luckily for you, the internet is full of recipes in case you want to check any of these out.
Primarily, make sure your turkey is completely defrosted which can take up to two days in the refrigerator for birds under twelve pounds. Count on ordering about one and a half pounds for each person. If you buy a heavy bird, start early enough in the morning to prepare and bake it, plus allow it to sit for at least a half hour before carving and serving. That might mean starting at 6:30 in the morning for a 4 pm dinner with a 20-pound bird. I also recommend using a large high sided roasting pan like the dark blue enamel versions. You won’t need the top. You will make the gravy in that pan. A flexible aluminum pan would not work as well. Finally, to ensure good flavors, taste your dressing and gravy along the way and carefully add salt and pepper.
Turkey neck, giblets, liver, heart and gizzards
2 teaspoons cooking oil or butter
4-5 cups cold water
1 teaspoon salt
Handful of parsley stems and celery tops
Stuffing for a 10-12 pound bird:
4 cups stale sourdough bread cut into ½ inch squares
3 cups stale whole wheat bread cut into ½ inch squares
¼ – ½ cup butter, cooking oil or bacon fat
2 cups chopped celery
1 ½-2 cups chopped onion
2 teaspoons each thyme, sage and marjoram
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
½-1 cup turkey stock
Turkey baking times at 325 degrees:
6-8 pounds – 3 – 3 ½ hours
8-12 pounds – 3 ½ – 4 ½ hours
12-16 pounds – 4 ½ – 5 hours
16-20 pounds – 5 – 6 ½ hours
3-6 tablespoons of flour
2-4 cups of stock
1-2 cups warmed milk
Chopped up cooked liver, heart and gizzards, optional
Salt and pepper
Start with a fully defrosted bird. Remove the heart, gizzards, liver and neck. In a small saucepan over medium heat, add 2 teaspoons butter or cooking oil. When oil is hot, add neck, giblets, liver, heart and gizzards and brown for about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cover with 4-5 cups of cold water. Add the parsley and celery tops. Bring to a boil and then quickly lower heat. Simmer over very low heat for a few hours until ready to make the gravy.
Wash the inside and outside of the bird with cold water then dry it. Rub all over the outside and inside with salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Make the dressing by preparing all your ingredients in advance. Heat half of the butter, oil or fat in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and celery and cook until they’re soft. Add the rest of the butter and when bubbling, add herbs and stale bread cubes. Stir until coated and fry for 5 minutes or so stirring to keep from burning. Add salt and pepper to taste. Then add about enough stock to slightly soften the bread. Stuff the large cavity and the small one where the neck would have been. Any extra stuffing can be baked in a casserole dish. Sew flaps of loose skin closed with thick thread and a big needle. I use crochet cotton.
Put the stuffed turkey in roasting pan with high sides. To prevent the breast from getting too brown too early, rub butter over it and cover with cheesecloth, aluminum foil or a buttered brown paper bag. You will remove it for the last hour of baking. Every fifteen minutes or so, brush the bird. Use melted butter in the beginning. Eventually enough fat and drippings will form and you will use that to baste the bird.
The turkey is done when a thermometer inserted between the thigh and leg registers 165 degrees. Some turkeys come with a pop-up timer or you can stab the joint between the leg and the thigh and only clear juices should run out. Remember it will continue to cook even after it’s out of the oven. Overall, it is better to overcook than undercook. When the turkey is done, remove from the roasting pan and set on a large platter. It should sit for at least a half-hour before it is carved and served.
To make the gravy, first warm milk in a small saucepan. Pour off all but 4-6 tablespoons of turkey fat from the roasting pan depending on the size of the bird. Place the roasting pan over one or two burners if necessary, at low heat. Stir with a wooden spoon and try and detach the bits of turkey that are stuck to the pan. Sprinkle in 3-6 tablespoons of flour. Stir constantly until flour browns. Adjust the heat. Gradually stir in 2-4 cups of hot stock. Continue stirring or whisking until stock thickens into gravy and lumps disappear. Gradually add warmed milk and whisk until the gravy is the consistency you desire. I always chopped up the heart, liver and gizzards and add them as well. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Carve the bird and serve.
Afterwards, remember to never leave the stuffing in the bird. It slows the bird from chilling which can cause bacteria to form which can make you sick. Remove it and refrigerate it separately from the bird.
Sarah Ringler is a retired schoolteacher. She worked as a cook for 8 years before being a teacher, and also taught a cooking class at Pajaro Middle School for several years. She comes from a long line of serious cooks and passed the tradition on to her children, grandchildren, students and, hopefully, her readers.