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Thanksgiving Day DIY: You Can Cook A Turkey For The First-Time, Too!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

By: Angela M. DiMare-Messier
Nashua, NH
Dear Aradia


I cooked a turkey, and I didn't burn the house down!

One of my favorite things about Thanksgiving as a kid was watching my mom cook the turkey. It's the center of the entire day; as soon as she'd bring him home the night before, we'd name him (always Tom, obviously) and prep him, and we would get up super early the next morning to start the process. She would talk to him, too, cracking me up along the way, saying things like, "Now Tom, just hold still" and "The oven is like a tropical beach for him!" Even getting older couldn't take the joy away from Turkey Day. No matter how old I was or where I was living, I'd be at her house Thanksgiving Day, taking a peek in the oven to say hi to Tom.

This year, my husband and I are in our first apartment together and slowly building ourselves a home. Six months in and decorations are going up on the walls, curtains are hung, table settings are bought. We've been thinking about the memories we'll be making here, and the idea was had to host a holiday family gathering soon. I immediately thought of Thanksgiving and all the wonderful memories of my mom and me, until my lovely husband reminded me of one crucial bit of information.

I have never, actually, cooked a turkey all by myself.

How hard could it be? I'd seen my mom do it dozens of times, after all. I've cooked other meals with success. A turkey sat in the oven for hours, anyway. It seriously couldn't be that complicated! So, off we went to the store, and we brought home our very own, very first Tom to cook.

Preparing a turkey is not, as it turns out, as easy as I always imagined it would be. It wasn't hard, but it was involved! First of all, the preparations actually involve a lot of planning and thinking ahead of time. What will you serve with the turkey? Do you know when to start cooking everything else in relation to Tom's cook time, so everything is done together? What if you decide you want biscuits and need the oven that your bird is occupying? And speaking of the bird, do you have a platter to put him on when he comes out of the oven? What about a baster, or turkey lifters, or even all the necessary ingredients? Will you brine him? What about deep frying? These are all the answers my mom had decided ahead of time, all the boring parts I didn't have to watch.

Cooking my own turkey required quite a bit of research. Did you know, for instance, that brining the turkey is a step many people don't even think about, but yields the best, juiciest meat? My husband and I decided to take this route. We had to make sure the turkey was fully defrosted, and then find a pot, tub, or basin big enough to fully submerge Tom. (As a note, some Web sites will tell you to only submerge half the bird at a time and rotate; I didn't do this, and the turkey turned out just fine.) I happen to have a large 16 quart stockpot for canning, so we put the turkey in the pot, and filled it with water until the bird was completely covered.

To get a better flavor, consider adding spices to the water. We added salt, pepper, brown sugar, agave nectar, adobo seasoning, and half a cup of rum (my husband's idea). I was nervous the mix of tastes would be awkward, but we went with it anyway. Make sure to let your turkey sit someplace cold for a while when brining; we put the stockpot on our back deck overnight.

The next morning, Tom came out of his bath and into the turkey pan. I read that when putting the turkey in the pan, he should be put in breast side UP. I'd never seen my mom do this, but apparently it helps the meat to cook evenly. For the sake of experimentation, we did that. Then my husband removed the giblets (I just couldn't bring myself to put a hand inside the turkey, although I really did try!) and we rubbed down the entire bird with butter. This helps to add flavor to the skin and promotes crisping without burning. I also tossed a few cloves of garlic inside the turkey for flavor, poured in two cups of broth, and then turned the oven on to 450. While it heated up, I said my goodbyes to Tom.

The most complicated part, for me, was deciding how long to cook the turkey. It seemed like every recipe and Web site I visited had a different opinion! In the end, I went with a tip I found online that suggested 15 minutes per pound. Since we had a 13 pound turkey, I planned on about 3 hours. This seemed short to me, since I remember turkeys as a kid taking what seemed like all day. However, there's a helpful hint to always remember when cooking a full turkey: the temperature of the turkey should be at least 165 degrees, or else the bird isn't cooking all the way through. And don't just rely on one area; check for the temp in the breast, the outer thigh, and the inner thigh. Different areas of the bird cook at different speeds.

I checked the temperature every 45 minutes, since I had to take the turkey out to baste anyway. At about 2 hours and 45 minutes, the turkey was fully up to temp in all places. I was super excited, but put Tom back in for 45 minutes and began to work on the side dishes. (If you're cooking a turkey, you might as well go all out with dinner, right? We invited a few friends, making the evening a smaller, pre-Thanksgiving feast.)

At the 3 hour mark, my kitchen smelled like turkey and I took Tom out. One recipe I found said to take the bird out of the pan and wrap it in foil for half an hour to let the juices reabsorb back into the meat. Since we were running ahead of schedule and my guests hadn't arrived yet, I did this. I also covered the tin foil with dish towels to prevent the heat from escaping.

Once everything was ready and our friends had arrived, my husband carved the turkey and we sat down to eat! Now, I don't know if it was the brining, the basting, or the waiting period on the platter, but the turkey-my very first turkey-was juicy, flavorful, and practically fell apart in my mouth. Not to brag, but I did a pretty darn good job! It was so affirming to gather the ingredients, and cook a turkey all by myself.

My favorite part of the entire process, for sure, was the memories of Thanksgivings past that came back to me as I cooked. I saw my mom and myself, as a young girl, sharing love in a kitchen. I saw myself doing the same with my own children one day. I never thought cooking a turkey would be something I could pull off on my own, but not only did I do it, I did it well! It really is something I believe anyone can do, and the best part will be the memories you create to make it special. Next year, Thanksgiving will definitely be at my house!

Read more from Angela M. DiMare-Messier at Dear Aradia.


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