I love Thanksgiving. There are no gifts to buy – I repeat: No Gifts to Buy! And the focus is on family, friends, gratitude – and food. Yes, there is a big meal to prepare, but the traditional Thanksgiving menu at our house is quite simple due to tradition. In our family, Thanksgiving is not the day to try new recipes.
Here are a few of our favorite traditional Thanksgiving recipes.
Turkey – Size matters
The only thing that really changes from year to year at our house is the size of the turkey. But usually I try to find a 14-16 pounder. That size turkey provides enough light and dark meat for everyone – and substantial leftovers. I love a Thanksgiving leftover sandwich – with turkey, homemade cranberry sauce, and stuffing between two pieces of whole wheat bread slathered with mayonnaise.
Turkey – Fresh is best
My first year of total Thanksgiving responsibility, we were living in Hong Kong, far from my mom and my mother-in-law. My son was 3 weeks old, and friends were coming for dinner. I bought a frozen turkey – and had no idea that it would take days to thaw. Thanksgiving morning we spent hours running warm water through the turkey to melt its icy insides. We got it in the oven by noon, and served a delicious Thanksgiving dinner at 6:00. Now I always buy fresh.
Turkey – Don’t overcook
My mom’s family would get up before dawn to get the turkey in the oven. It would stay there all morning and into the afternoon. My father complained that this approach yielded meat that was nearly inedible – dry and tough.
So I have a more leisurely approach to Thanksgiving morning – and aim for putting the turkey in the oven by 9:00 AM. This gives me plenty of time to prep the turkey, make the stuffing, and sit down to dinner by 3:00. We like to have dinner on the earlier side so there’s time to clean up, relax, and not go to bed stuffed.
So here is what I do to get the turkey ready with the least amount of fuss. I make the stuffing (see below). Take the giblets out of the bird. Sometimes I boil them on the stovetop and use the strained water from that to enhance my gravy. Or you can just throw the whole mess out.
Don’t wash your turkey
I no longer wash the turkey. According to many food experts, washing your Thanksgiving turkey, or any poultry, really, just runs the risk of spreading contamination around your sink area. I do my best to avoid contamination by simply rubbing it all over with butter, sprinkling with salt and pepper, stuffing it, and popping it in the oven.
I cook the turkey at 325°F for 20 minutes per pound. If it starts getting too brown, cover the breast with foil.
Stuffing – Is inside the bird ok?
Of all the food safety warnings of the past decades, this is the one that has caused the most anxiety in my household. Well, ok, for me. I tried, I really tried. I mean, it’s in the name – stuffing! But for a couple of years I heeded the warnings and cooked my stuffing in a casserole dish. I’d put an empty bird into the oven. Despite the protests from both my parents that they’d been cooking a stuffed bird all my life, and nobody ever got sick.
But stuffing cooked that way just never tasted as delicious as stuffing from inside the bird. It soaks up the juices and turns into an incredibly flavorful – and integral – addition to the Thanksgiving meal. So I follow the advice of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service on how to prepare a stuffed bird safely. I cook the ingredients ahead of time, avoid cross-contamination, and use a thermometer to make sure the turkey’s internal temperature reaches 165° Farenheit. For more safety tips, check out the USDA website here.
Thanksgiving Stuffing Recipe – as basic as can be
Our family stuffing recipe is as simple as they come. The starting point is the Fannie Farmer Cook Book bread stuffing recipe, which calls for bread crumbs, butter, onions, and celery. I substitute apples for celery, because I don’t like celery and the apples give the stuffing a little sweetness. The only seasonings are salt and pepper. No sage. Maybe this is why we need the bird juices to liven it up! But Fannie Farmer, originally published in 1896, was the cookbook my mom always used and we grew up with those basic recipes. And my dad did not like sage, so we stuck with the basics.
The most wonderful characteristic of stuffing is it’s very forgiving. I don’t like celery, so we substitute apple. You can buy bread crumbs, or make them from day-old bread. If you don’t have stale bread, you can toast fresh bread and cut it into crumbs. If you like sage, or thyme, or sausage, you can add them and create your own signature dish.
Here is how we do stuffing at my house:
Two loaves of hefty white bread, like Pepperidge Farm Hearty White.
2 sticks of butter (we use salted – many people would use unsalted – it’s a matter of personal taste).
1 large onion diced
2 large apples – we like Honeycrisp but any type will do – diced
Salt and pepper to taste
Unsalted chicken broth – amount needed will vary
Very lightly toast all bread slices. Cut into large squares (about 1″). Melt a stick of butter in a large frying pan at medium heat. Saute onions until clear, then add apple. Add enough bread cubes to frying pan to soak up the butter and then add that mixture to a large bowl or sauce pan and thoroughly mix with the bread cubes. Use enough chicken broth to moisten the stuffing so the pieces hold together.
Stuff turkey with stuffing and roast until internal temperature reaches 165°F – or put into a buttered casserole dish, cover with foil, and bake at 400°F for 25 minutes. Remove foil cover and bake for another 10-15 minutes or until crispy edges form.
Cranberries – Homemade sauce or jelly?
I never had jellied cranberry sauce from a can until I was an adult. Our family recipe for cranberry sauce is also a Fannie Farmer – and it’s so simple I can print it in its entirety here:
12 ounces fresh cranberries
1 cup water
1 cup sugar, or more to taste
Wash the cranberries. Bring the water to a boil, then add the cranberries and sugar. Cook for 10 minutes or until the skins pop. Skim off the white froth and cool. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
We make a couple of adjustments to our family’s taste. I use 1/2 cup of water and 1/2 cup of orange juice. And I add 1 teaspoon of cinnamon. These modifications give the cranberry sauce added flavor. I double the recipe so everyone can indulge – and we like to have leftovers. And I put it in a clear glass bowl because it adds such a beautiful dash of color to the Thanksgiving table.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday because it reminds us to be grateful for the things we have. And it allows us to celebrate our family and friends with food unique to our own traditions. We’d love to hear how you celebrate the holiday – tell us about your favorite tradition or recipe. And have a wonderful Thanksgiving day!