Give Thanks for These Expert Holiday Tips From Local Chefs

For most, it is the biggest meal of the year. A gathering of family and friends around the table to eat, smile and give thanks. For home cooks, it is the Super Bowl, as all eyes are on the food. From the bird to the bread, it can be a daunting task to make a Thanksgiving meal, so we asked some of Orange County’s best chefs what advice they could give to help at home. Whether you are cooking for two or 20, these tips, tricks and practices will have your house guests giving you thanks for a great Thanksgiving. 

“It is all about the mise en place,” Chef Ryan Adams emphatically states. The expert chef behind Parallel Pizzeria and Buttermilk Fried Chicken believes there is no reason to wait till the day-of to start cooking, and he’s not alone. “Cook everything you can in advance,” echoes Chef Craig Strong, of the newly opened Ocean at Main. “There is too much cooking on the day of, so if you’re busy prepping, you’ll be unable to enjoy all the day’s festivities. Cranberry relish is a perfect example of a dish to make a day or two ahead.” The one thing every chef we spoke to agrees on: Don’t cook the stuffing in the bird. “Cooking the stuffing to the proper temperature means your bird will likely be overcooked,” says Chef Strong. So feel free to make that ahead of time too.

As you would expect, there are many beliefs on how you should cook the bird. “A good brine for your turkey is one of the most important things that one can do to ensure a juicy bird for the holidays,” says Chef Blake Mellgren of Craft House. “I recommend at least a 12-hour brine to impart your desired underlying flavors.” Maybe you don’t see a brine in your future, and that is OK too. “I don’t brine my turkeys,” Chef Adams says. “For me, I believe in salting the bird ahead of time, and seasoning it is as simple as salt, pepper, thyme and butter slid under the skin of the breasts.” No matter which side of the brine debate you land on, seasoning is most important, as Chef Greg Daniels of Harley Laguna Beach reinforces, “I love using whatever mixed citrus I have on hand, a little bit of garlic and a ton of herbs.” And after he is done with his brining? “I like to take it out and chill it in the refrigerator uncovered, so that it develops a dry, tacky skin before roasting,” he says. That skin will crisp better than your mom’s turkey, for sure.”

How should the bird, brined or unbrined, be cooked? Chef Adams takes the untraditional route, opting to remove the legs and thighs, which he confits in duck fat. The breasts he spatchcocks and roasts. “I think the meat cooks more evenly this way, and the best next-day turkey sandwich in history is made with that meat that I confit.” The seasoning for that amazing meat couldn’t be simpler too, Chef Adams takes salt, parsley and thyme and grinds them all together. The rub is then is coated onto the legs and thighs along with white and black pepper. If you want a more traditional looking presentation, but with an untraditional approach, then Chef Mellgren’s preparation may be more your speed. “I cook my turkey breast down, to ensure that the breast meat is as moist as possible.” After an hour, he covers the inverted bird with a foil tent, and after the meat has reached 145 degrees, he flips the bird and keeps cooking until the meat reads 155 degrees. If a crispier skin is needed, Chef Mellgren will fire up the broiler as is necessary to brown the bird. “My cardinal rule concerning Thanksgiving dinner is to not carve the turkey immediately after taking it out of the oven,” says Chef Strong. “The bird, as with all meat, needs time to rest, typically for 10 to 20 percent of the cooking time.” So let that bird rest before you dig into it.

The main event now complete, what other tips do these great chefs have for you? “For stuffing, I suggest cutting the bread a day in advance, which also allows it to dry out a bit. Dry bread drinks up the stock better,” according to Chef Strong. “Dry your potatoes you are going to mash,” demands Chef Adams. “I’ll take those potatoes and throw them in the oven. Too many people don’t take the time to get all the moisture out of their potatoes before they add the butter and cream.” That butter, cream and whatever else your heart desires doesn’t have to be added until the day-of, so prep those potatoes ahead of time as well. Chef Mellgren’s tip? Don’t feel obligated to turkey if you don’t want to. “Cook a beautiful prime rib, pork rack, or if you want to stay in the poultry family, quail or game hen — one game hen, two quail per person.”

It is your dinner, so have fun with it, and while these turkey tips are deliciously helpful, cook what you want. Just cook and prep as much as you can ahead of time. “There is too much cooking on the day of, so if you’re busy prepping, you’ll be unable to enjoy all the day’s festivities,” says Chef Strong, and we completely agree. Thanksgiving is essentially a pop-up restaurant in every home in the country for one day each year. By taking these tips from some of the best around, who succeed nightly, you will spend less time stressing and frantically check the stove, and more time smiling and remembering what this day is all about. Happy Thanksgiving!

Ingredients for Chef Mellgren’s Grandmother’s Stuffing Dressing

Sausage, apple, cornbread, country loaf, sage, turkey stock and pecans

Ingredients for Chef Adam’s Cranberry Sauce

Cranberries, cranberry juice, star anise, cinnamon, clove, brown sugar, orange peel and orange juice.

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