As Americans, we believe we can have it all. But there's nothing like struggling to roast a Thanksgiving turkey to shatter the myth.
"I'm afraid with turkeys -- and whole birds in general -- life does require some compromises," says Harold McGee, kitchen science guru and author of "Keys to Good Cooking" (Penguin, 2010). "You've got two kinds of meat on the same bird in the same oven at the same time."
Which means roasting perfectly done thighs usually results in dry, stringy breast meat. What's a cook to do?
Leave it to a scientist to crack that code.
McGee's suggestion? Chill the turkey breasts with ice packs before the bird goes in the oven. This is easy to do. Turkeys should be brought to room temperature before roasting, but leave the breasts covered with ice packs during that time.
"You put the bird in the oven with a temperature differential already built in," McGee says. That way, the legs and the breasts reach their different (and ideal) temperatures at the same time.
You also could brine the turkey (which plumps the meat with moisture before it goes into the oven). But McGee says to beware the tradeoffs. While brining will yield a juicy breast, it also will give you oversalted stuffing and pan juices. "It depends on what you want out of your turkey," he says.
Other Thanksgiving pointers:
*Basting. Tradeoff time again. The good news is that basting slows the cooking of the bird. This gives you a better chance of catching the turkey at just the right temperature. But it also usually results in flabby skin, so kiss that crisp skin goodbye.
*Mashed potatoes. So long as you treat them gently, it doesn't matter what kind of potato you use.
"If you just mash them barely, what you end up with are intact little cells and clumps of cells that are surrounded by a wonderful mixture of butter and milk and whatever else you've added," McGee says. "If you break the cells open, that's when you release the starch inside the cells That's when you get that gloppy, sticky result."
*Nuke it. Thanksgiving green beans and other vegetables will retain more vitamins when cooked in the microwave, which McGee says quickly breaks down the enzymes that degrade vitamins. But reheating is a different matter. Potatoes, for instance, will rapidly taste stale after cooking, McGee says, making them lousy candidates for reheating. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, do just fine.
*Weigh, don't measure. Get this: A tablespoon of table salt weighs twice as much as a tablespoon of kosher salt. So replace your measuring spoons and cups with a scale. And, while you're at it, pick up a digital thermometer. "Especially on Thanksgiving, that will help you get the leg and breast meat done just right," McGee says.