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Chefs’ 9 Tips for Tastier Turkey, Sides, and Pie at Your Holiday Feast

BY: Shannon Jewitt | Dec 8, 2015

The holiday season means different things to different people. For some, it’s an excuse to shop until they drop, explore the outdoors via skiing or ice skating, or catch up with friends and family. And for many, the holiday season and holiday cooking are one in the same.

To make this year the tastiest yet, we asked chefs and bakers at restaurants across the country for their holiday-cooking tips for three of the most important parts of the meal: the turkey, the cranberry sauce, and the pie. Their responses were eye-opening—and mouthwatering, too.

Tips for a Better Turkey

Turkey Tips jpg

1. Cook the breast and leg meats separately.

“The breast meat and leg meats cook differently, so a whole roasted bird is at best a compromise between what's best for the breast and what's best for the leg,” said John Anderson, the executive chef at Marmalade Cafe in Los Angeles.

“As nice as it is to present a whole bird to carve at the table, I think it's nicer to present a bird that is properly cooked and juicy throughout.”

– Chef John Anderson 

He suggested asking your butcher to separate the two legs and the breast, which should be split in half through the sternum.

After brining the meat, he said, let it dry. Then, roll the leg meat into logs about 4 inches thick and tie with butcher's twine. Season the meat with salt and pepper and brown it well on all sides in a large pan over medium heat. Transfer it to a roasting pan with the breast meat, which should be bone side down, and slow-roast at 275 degrees until the breast meat is 165 degrees at the thickest part.

2. Practice makes perfect.

Before the big meal, practice your roasting skills with the turkey’s understudy—chicken.

“A chicken is anatomically the same as a turkey, just a smaller, easier-to-handle version,” Anderson said.

3. Say yes to butter and no to brine.

David Fhima, executive chef at Faces Mears Park in Saint Paul, advises against brining the turkey.

“[Brining] really interferes with the flavor of the meat.”

– Chef David Fhima

Instead, rub the inside and outside of the turkey with a combination of grassfed butter and your preferred herbs and spices.

4. Basting is best.

For Ali Omar, the chef and owner of Ceedo's Eatery in Stow, Ohio, basting with a marinade is crucial for adding flavor. “Create an overnight marinade consisting of olive oil, fresh minced garlic, fresh sage leaves, salt, white pepper, and fresh-squeezed lime juice. Massage the marinade into the turkey and add under the skin as well, and let it rest overnight in the fridge.”

After stuffing it, place the turkey in a large roasting pan, cover it in foil, and place it in the oven at 350 degrees, Omar said. After an hour, uncover and baste the turkey with any excess liquid, then place it in the oven for another 30 minutes. Then, uncover turkey and drain as much of the liquid as possible. Mix the remaining liquid with honey and continue to baste the turkey every hour until it’s golden brown and cooked through.

Crowd-Pleasing Cranberry Sauce

Turkey Tips Cranberry Sauce jpg

5. Ditch the can

Although they differed on their methods for preparing turkey, the chefs we talked to agreed that cranberry relish is the clear winner over jellied cranberry sauce. Well, two of them did.

“Fresh cranberry sauce is the best. No matter how you make it, it will always be better than the canned cranberry sauce.”

– Chef Ali Omar

If you’re looking for a recipe, try Anderson’s. “I take whole, washed, fresh cranberries and pulse them in a food processor a little to chop them in large pieces. Then, I simmer them in fresh orange juice, the julienned zest of the oranges, sugar, one star anise, and a stick of cinnamon.”

6. … or ditch the cran?

Fhima, however, suggested trying something different. “I love a great orange marmalade with the skin on,” he said. It’s particularly savory with a little clove, honey, cumin, and even cayenne added.

A More Perfect Pie

Pumpkin Pie jpg

7. The key is in the crust.

“Try and do your own crust over a store-bought one,” suggests Lindsay Hollister Heffner, owner of The Pie Hole in Los Angeles and Pasadena. “It just gives it more flavor, and dough can be as simple as salt, butter or shortening, and water!”

Wendy Achatz agreed. “I like to use pastry flour because it gives you a tender, flaky crust,” said the co-owner and cofounder of Achatz Handmade Pie Co., which has several locations across Michigan. “But if you can't find that, you can just mix half all-purpose flour and half cake flour for the same results!”

One thing that can ruin a homemade pie crust? Body heat, which can cause the butter pockets to melt and lead to a tough crust. To combat it,  just “make sure all of your ingredients are chilled, especially if you are mixing by hand,” Achatz said.

8. Keep it simple.

“The most simple of pies are usually the best!” Hollister Heffner said.

“We always joke that our recipes are stored away in a vault in Switzerland, but really an apple pie is 10 whole apples cut into slices, all mixed together with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.”

– The Pie Hole owner Lindsay Hollister Heffner

Similarly, Achatz’s pumpkin-pie recipe was adapted from the recipe on the back of the Libby’s pumpkin can.

9. Don’t be afraid to sweat.

Emily Elsen, the co-owner and cofounder of Four & Twenty Blackbirds in New York, actually advises sweating—apples, that is.

“To achieve an apple pie that is not too steamy in the oven and not soggy or mushy, sweat your apples in sugar and lemon juice, then drain the excess juice off before filling your pie,” she said.