Local chef, culinary instructor offer Thanksgiving cooking advice

PARKERSBURG – For the person designated each year to make the bird for every group Thanksgiving feast, questions of how to make the perfect roast turkey come to the forefront.

While flavor is always a consideration, the texture of the meat is the most criticized with many people suggesting turkey breast meat is always dry, said Gene Evans, director of culinary arts at the Culinary Academy of West Virginia University at Parkersburg.

“People always get worked up over cooking the Thanksgiving turkey and it’s no more difficult than roasting a chicken, it just takes longer,” Evans said.

“Trying to keep the breast meat tender and moist can be a challenge,” added Rick Argoso, executive chef at Spats Restaurant and Lounge at the Blennerhassett Hotel.

Evans said that because he is a chef, people are always expecting him to have tips and tricks of the trade to help the home cook make their meals better.

“People are always asking if I can help them with this thing or that problem,” he added. “When it comes to turkey, I have two tips I can offer to help one is to stop using the bags to cook your turkey.”

For decades many home cooks have used a plastic roasting bag to help keep the bird moist, according to the website What’s Cooking America (www.whatscookingamerica.net).

The reason the bag is not a good idea, Evans said, is the bag holds in too much moisture and does not allow the skin to get crisp or turn the golden shade people expect from a Thanksgiving turkey.

“Everyone looks forward to seeing the turkey come out of the oven,” said Argoso said. “When that turkey either doesn’t look like what they were expecting or it is dry, something needs to be done differently next year.”

Both Argoso and Evans suggest using a brine on the turkey the night before the big day as a way to keep it moist.

Brining, also known as salting, is similar to a marinade as it is a way to increase the moisture-holding capacity of protein. This results in a moister cooked meat.

It works by the salt changing the structure of the muscle tissue of the meat, which allows it to swell and absorb water and flavorings to make the roast more tender and juicy, according to What’s Cooking America.

Argoso said he likes to use a simple brine and leave the thawed, uncooked turkey to soak in the mixture at least six hours, preferably overnight.

“Brining is important because there is no better way to ensure that every part of the turkey will be moist,” Argoso said. “Without brining of some sort, the breast will be dry and, let’s face it, not many people like dark meat, so you need to focus on the breast and keeping it moist.”

The recipe Argoso recommends for the turkey brine includes bringing equal parts water, salt and brown sugar to a boil before adding a few cloves of garlic and traditional Thanksgiving herbs of sage, thyme and rosemary. Make sure the bird is completely covered by the mixture, add more water if necessary, and leave overnight. Completely dry the turkey off before placing it in the oven.

“While brining is the best way to make sure your turkey will be moist, I also like to do a butter and herb rub to baste it with while it cooks,” Evans said.

For those who do not want to brine their turkey or do not want to spend the time on the process, Evans said using a butter-basting method will add flavor and help keep the meat moist.

“Normally, I will take whole butter and whip them in a food processor with fresh herbs, salt and pepper before I smear it under the turkey’s skin,” Evans suggested. “While the turkey is roasting, I will use the melted butter in the bottom of the pan to glaze the breast.”

For the herbs to use, Evans suggests the same as Argoso with sage, rosemary and thyme.

“The key is really to keep the turkey as simple as possible by using the flavors that enhance the flavor of the turkey itself,” Evans said. “All of the herbs and spices we are used to using enhance the foods themselves, not overwhelm them.

“This is what we need to understand about herbs and spices the whole star of Thanksgiving is the turkey and if it ends up tasting of just sage, there is too much,” he continued.

Also, for those who like the turkey flavor in their dressing or stuffing, add drippings or chicken stock to the bread instead of cooking it in the open cavity, both chefs said.

“Always make the dressing on the side because nothing good comes out of it being cooked in the bird,” Evans said.

Why it is a bad idea is for health reasons more than anything, Argoso said.

The internal temperature of the stuffing must be around 160 degrees to ensure there are no foodborne bacteria to cause illness left lingering and by that time, the turkey has an internal temperature of 170 to 175, which makes it overdone.

“If you stuff your bird you are either in danger of getting sick from the uncooked stuffing or having cooked stuffing and a well overdone turkey,” Evans said. “It’s best to cook them separately.”

In order for the dressing to have the flavor of the turkey, Evans suggests using homemade turkey stock from the neck and giblets that came with the bird, or store-bought chicken stock and some drippings from the turkey, in the dressing recipe.

“Having extra turkey stock just adds to the dishes I can create from the leftovers,” Evans said.