When Disaster Strikes

Still-frozen bird? Unsightly piecrust? Don't panic -- there are ways to recover from the big day's most common cooking mistakes.

November 22, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Julia Child, who knew her way around the kitchen, used to say that every cook is going to make mistakes - the question is how you recover from them. This is especially true at Thanksgiving, when there are a wealth of dishes on the menu and a fair number of fledgling cooks trying to fix them.

With that in mind, I called a number of Thanksgiving veterans: experts who staff the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line; editors at America's Test Kitchen, where Cook's Illustrated, one of the more obsessive cooking magazines, is published; and piecrust mavens at the Crisco Pie Hot Line. Here, culled from those interviews, are eight top troubles of Thanksgiving (not counting issues with the in-laws) and how to bounce back from them.


Frozen turkeys, like glaciers, take a long time to thaw. Last Thursday was the day we, as a nation, were supposed to start defrosting our frozen birds by the preferred method of letting them sit in the refrigerator.

However, there is still time to get a rock-solid bird ready for tomorrow's date with the oven. You have to give the bird a series of cold-water baths, changing the bath water every 30 minutes. The bird should remain wrapped in its package with its breast facing down as it bathes. Figure 30 minutes thawing time for each pound of meat. In other words, a 10-pound turkey would take five hours.

Don't even think about thawing the bird in the open air, the experts say. This method runs the risk of encouraging unhealthy bacteria growth. The microwave can be used only for smaller birds, with their plastic covering removed. Even then, the uneven shape of the bird makes for hot and cold spots, and some cooks say defrosting in the microwave dries out the meat.


Turkeys fresh and frozen come with a surprise inside - two of them, actually. One, a bag usually containing the heart, liver and gizzards, lurks in the main cavity of the bird. The other, usually containing the neck, resides in the top or neck cavity.

If you neglect to pull both bags out before you put the bird in the oven, all is not lost. Marty VanNess, one of the 55 home economists and nutritionists who staff the Butterball talk line based in Naperville, Ill., said the packages holding these parts are made of heat-proof material. Cooking them will not harm the rest of the bird, stuffed or unstuffed.

"The only thing this will hurt is your pride, not the turkey," said VanNess, who speaks from experience. Many Thanksgivings ago, she made this mistake. "I tell callers I once left the bags in, and now I am the expert," VanNess said. The bags also can be removed, with tongs, from a partially cooked bird.


Delivering a bird that features both moist breast meat and succulent thighs defines turkey success. If the slower-cooking thighs are not done or the breast meat is dry, you have a real turkey on your hands.

One method of reaching the state of turkey perfection is to start cooking the bird upside down at high heat, 425 degrees, then, after an hour, turning it over and turning the heat down to 325 degrees.

Christopher Kimball, editor of Cook's Illustrated, said turning a bird upside down and placing it on a V-shaped cooking rack secured to a roasting pan promotes browning and gets the thighs up in the air where they cook faster.

The bird-flipping procedure, detailed in the Cook's Illustrated paperback 834 Kitchen Quick Tips, suggests wearing oven mitts that have been covered with clean, plastic produce bags. The plastic will keep the mitts from getting greasy and lessen the chance of burning your hands, Kimball said.

At Butterball, VanNess took a different path to turkey perfection. She advocated cooking at 325 degrees, then shielding the breast meat with a piece of aluminum foil, about the size of an 8 1/2 -inch-by-11-inch piece of paper, during the last third of the cooking process.

As for the thighs, she said, the key is to get them off the bottom of the roasting pan. Use either a rack or an upside-down muffin pan to lift the bird off the roasting pan, speed up the thighs' cooking and ensure even cooking, she said. The best roasting pan is shallow aluminum, about 2 inches deep, she said.

If you use store-bought, disposable pans, buy two, she said, and place one inside the other. Doubling the pan can prevent a disaster - namely the pan's buckling under the weight of the big bird - when it comes out of the oven.

The question of when the turkey is done, of what temperature the meat should register on a real thermometer (not those pop-up jobs) is complicated. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the bird is safely done when a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh, not touching the bone, reaches 165 degrees. Some cooks prefer pulling the bird several degrees earlier and letting it continue to cook as it rests.


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