When I pulled a turkey breast out of the fridge the other day, one of my sons asked if we were having Thanksgiving. A fair question, considering we don’t have turkey many other days of the year. But that’s all going to change, now that I know just how easy a turkey dinner can be. Now, I’ll admit, I’m not talking weeknight meal easy here. But I am talking regular old not-any-harder-than-a-roast Sunday dinner (and not any more expensive than a roast, either).
I’m going to give you a foolproof plan for cooking turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and rolls without the mad rush right before serving that makes you want to wait an entire year to do it again. Instead, you’ll be relaxed and enjoying your turkey so much that you’ll be thinking about cooking another one next week.
Step One: Buy a turkey breast (not a whole turkey!) and put it in your fridge (not your freezer!) four or five days before you want to cook it. I know there are some dark meat fanatics out there, but let’s all admit they are few and far between. If you’re one of them, I’m very sorry, I can’t help you today. It seems like most people prefer white meat, and even if they didn’t, I’d still tell you just to buy a turkey breast and not a whole turkey because it really simplifies things. See, people do all sorts of things to turkeys, like brining them and injecting them and marinating them, and I don’t have patience for any of it (plus I don’t think it really makes the turkey taste all that much better). Everyone wants a moist, tender turkey, but buying a whole bird goes against you there, since the breast meat gets dried out by the time the dark meat is fully cooked. And buying a big bird is even worse, because it’s less tender to begin with. So, get just a breast, and plan on a 6-7 pounder (plenty to feed a family of 8 for Sunday dinner), and just let it defrost in your fridge to save yourself the hassle of leaving it on the counter and risking food poisoning or gunking up your sink with raw turkey while you frantically try to defrost the thing at the last minute. Some people will tell you a turkey breast should only take a day to defrost in the fridge, but I keep my fridge fairly cold and my turkey breast was in there four full days before it was completely defrosted.
Step two: Make your rolls early in the morning, or even the night before. Don’t worry, I’m not telling you to eat cold, stale rolls with your tukey, I’m just clueing you into one of the most life-changing (or maybe just dinner-changing) revelations I’ve ever had. Mix your roll dough, knead it up, let it rise, shape it into rolls and pop them into the pan you’ll cook them in, THEN COVER WITH GREASED PLASTIC WRAP AND STICK IN THE FRIDGE. They’ll sit there, nicely rising at a slowwww rate, waiting until you are ready to bake them. In the mean time, clean up all the roll-making mess, and know you have one less thing to worry about later on.
Step three: About three hours before you want to eat, pull that turkey out and get it ready for the oven. Three things are important here: turkey bags, salt, and a meat thermometer.
A turkey bag is not strictly required, but I think it helps the bird stay moist and cuts down a little on cooking time. Sprinkle some flour in the bag and get it ready in a pan with sides on it (I often use a 9×13 pan).
Next, salt. Lots of salt, like at least a couple of tablespoons. Pour some out in a little bowl before your hands get all turkeyfied. Then place your turkey in another pan/cookie sheet (so the blood doesn’t run all over you counter when you open it) and cut it out of it’s wrapping.
Pull the gravy packet out (don’t worry, that’s not giblets) and toss it into the sink for the moment. (Rinse later and put back in the fridge).
Next, find the meaty (not rib) side of the breast, and start loosening the skin.
Grab a tablespoon or so of salt and rub it all over the breast and under the skin. Repeat with the other side. Sprinkle some more salt inside, and rub a little more over all the skin. Salt makes poultry taste good. Use more than you think you need.
Place the turkey inside the turkey bag, and grab your in-oven probe thermometer. (Don’t have one? I didn’t until a few months ago, and I have no idea why I waited so long to get one. They run about $15 and they make roasting anything so much easier!) A probe thermometer has a probe which goes right into your meat at the beginning of the cook time, attached by a cord to the display portion, which stays on your counter. You set the alarm to beep when you meat gets to the temperature you want it at, close the oven door, and walk away. The display on my version tells me what temp the meat is up to at all times, so I can easily check where it’s at and estimate how much longer I need to cook it. No opening the over door to look at the meat, no cutting into it to see if it’s done, no pulling out raw turkey, getting ready to eat it, and then having to put it back in. It’s so worth it! However, if you don’t have one, just cook your turkey according to the times on the package directions and be ready to stick an instant read thermometer in at the end of the cooking time to make sure it’s done all the way through.
Insert the thermometer probe, getting it deep into the breast but not far enough to touch a bone, and set it for 170 (I know mine says “beef” not “turkey” – it doesn’t matter because it’s set for 170). Tie up the bag, cut a few small ventilation holes in it, and slide it in the oven.
Step four: Make your mashed potatoes. That’s right, make them right now. Peel ‘em, cut ‘em, boil ‘em, mash ‘em, all right now. And then wash all the dishes you used and put them away, because your mashed potatoes are going to stay stowed in your CROCKPOT for the next couple of hours, staying nice and hot while you relax. Honestly, this is the second most life-changing (dinner-changing) revelation ever. I have always HATED making mashed potatoes at the last minute before dinner, rushing to get them done while everyone is waiting, and still delivering them to the table kind of cold. Is it possible to mash potatoes and keep them piping hot the entire time? If it is, I’ve never done it. It’s certainly not possible to mash your potatoes and clean up all the dishes you used and still get the potatoes on the table piping hot. So make ‘em and mash ‘em a few hours ahead of time, place in a crockpot on low, and take care of your cleanup in advance. Then, when it’s time to eat, just serve the potatoes right out of your crock. Genius. When people go back for seconds, the potatoes will still be hot! (Just be sure to stir them a few times in the hour or two before dinner, and turn your crockpot down to “keep warm” if they seem to be getting too hot.)
Step five: Look at your rolls about half an hour before your turkey should come out. If they don’t look like they’ve risen very much, take them out and let them rest on your counter. Mine usually rise beautifully in the fridge, and can go straight from the fridge to the oven once the turkey’s out, but peek on them just to make sure.
Step six: Your probe thermometer just beeped, so pull the turkey out of the oven and feel very proud of yourself. Open up the back and let the turkey rest for 15 minutes while you pop the rolls in the oven and make some gravy. Resting is important! Don’t cut into that thing as soon as it comes out of the oven. Letting it rest redistributes the juices (whatever that means) with the end result being a much juicier turkey.
Did I say make gravy? Don’t worry, no flour in the drippings here (although you certainly can do that if you want). I start with two packets of instant gravy (don’t tell my mom), whisked into 2 cups of water. Then I add the gravy packet that came out of the turkey. Once this mixture starts boiling, pour in some of the broth from the bottom of the pan your turkey cooked in. Boil for a few minutes to thicken, and you’re set! The combination of fake gravy/gravy packet/real broth makes for a super simple, tasty gravy that only takes a few minutes.
Step seven: The rolls come out of the oven, the turkey is ready to be sliced, and the mashed potatoes and gravy are ready and waiting. Add a green salad and some canned cranberry (don’t tell Grandma) and you have turkey dinner without the Thanksgiving fuss! Yum.