When culinary instructor and award-winning cookbook author Molly Stevens set out to write a definitive volume about roasting, she knew she had to talk turkey.
"Roasting is such an old, traditional, festival, feast day way of cooking," said Stevens. "If you think of old paintings or literature, you carry out the big roast. I wanted to make sure I had the big, traditional roasts in it, but that it wasn't just a book of holiday roasts."
In the five years it took to research and test the recipes in "All About Roasting: A New Approach to a Classic Art," Stevens never lost sight of the fact that the Thanksgiving turkey was on many cooks' must-have menus.
"When you get into the winter holidays, people have variations in what they do. Some people do a ham, or a goose, or a turkey," said Stevens, a Buffalo native and Nichols alumna whose 2005 book "Braising" won numerous awards. "But Thanksgiving, everybody does a turkey. That's it."
Stevens, who will be appearing in Buffalo this Sunday for a book signing (Talking Leaves, 951 Elmwood Ave., 3 to 5 p.m.), agreed to share her most important turkey roasting tips with News readers, just in time for Thanksgiving.
Traditionalists may be in for a shock. Stevens' turkey techniques challenge many commonly held beliefs on the best roasting practices.
First, consider how the bird you're buying will act in the oven, Stevens urged. That 24-pounder might seem like the answer when you're looking at the long list of dinner guests. In the oven, though, it will be difficult to fully cook the parts that need the most time, like the legs, without leaving the prized breast meat a dried-out disappointment.
"I really believe in a smaller turkey, not much bigger than a 16-pounder," she said. "In my family we roast two smaller turkeys. Obviously you need two ovens to do that, but we have over 20 people, so that's the way we have to do it."
To serve a group with one oven, cooks can roast a turkey along with a boneless turkey breast, if it will fit, Stevens said. "Plus, you'll have more white meat, which despite the virtues of dark meat, seems to be preferred."
Or, if you have room, cut up a second turkey and roast it on a pan, underneath the whole bird. "Then you have the one full turkey for the sort of Norman Rockwell carving-a-beautiful-turkey," said Stevens, "and you have this other one that's all ready to cut up."
Here's another tradition rocker: The best gravy will need extra turkey parts.
The neck and giblets that come inside most turkeys aren't enough to make the roasted turkey stock that fine gravy relies on, Stevens said. Buy five or six pounds of turkey parts and roast them until brown to simmer into about two quarts of stock.
The extra work respects the role that gravy plays in the meal. "What I find at Thanksgiving is that people are putting gravy on their turkey -- but they're also putting it on their mashed potatoes, and their sweet potatoes, and it's supposed to sauce the whole plate," she said. "So I find having this secret weapon of this turkey stock means you get this turkey gravy that's got this depth of flavor you just don't get otherwise."
The newest wave of turkey revisionists has settled on brining, soaking the bird in a saltwater solution, as the best preparation. Don't do it, Stevens said, especially if you have gone to the trouble of buying a turkey that wasn't raised at a factory farm.
Instead, season the bird inside and out, with salt and whatever spices you like, and let it dry in the refrigerator for a day or two, Stevens suggests. She recommends about two tablespoons salt and a teaspoon of pepper for a 14-pound turkey.
"I've brined it, I've fried it, I've done about everything you could imagine, and I found that the best way is to preseason the bird, but not brine it," she said. "Brining keeps the meat more moist, but it also adds water to the bird. When you preseason it, you're seasoning the inside of the turkey, but you're not adding tap water."
If you are making stuffing, roast it in a pan, and not inside the turkey, Stevens suggested. Stuffed birds take longer to reach the proper internal temperature, because hot air can't move through the bird.
Plus, you risk food illness unless the stuffing, soaking up all the semi-raw turkey juices, gets to 165 degrees.
Make sure you let your turkey rest for at least 30 minutes before you carve it, Stevens said. "The juices need to sort of settle, and they actually thicken up a little bit. Any overdone or underdoneness actually mitigates a little bit."
Sometimes she lets the turkey rest for up to an hour. "That gives you a little breather on Thanksgiving Day, if you've got a lot of food and one oven," she said. "If you've got the mashed potatoes that need to be reheated or squash casserole that has to go into the oven for an hour, just let the turkey sit. Put some foil over it. You'll lose a little crispness, but it'll be fine."
When it comes time for carving, don't feel obligated to slice the turkey at a crowded table with everyone watching, she said. It's fine to show the table, and let people marvel at your work, then work without an audience.
"When it comes to carving, I really believe carving the breast off whole, and then slicing it crossways across the grain, is much better eating than trying to carve long thin slices," Stevens said.
"The final thing I'd say is: Try to relax. It's just a turkey. You'll be fine."
Here's the side dish recipe Molly Stevens recommended from "Roasting." "I always like something green with Thanksgiving," she said.
> Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Capers and Lemony Browned Butter
1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon mustard seeds, yellow or brown
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, plus more if needed
Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 425 degrees (400 degrees convection). If desired, line a heavy-duty, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Cut and season the Brussels spouts. Depending on their size, cut the Brussels sprouts in halves or quarters; you want them to be small enough to be bite-sized. Place in a large bowl and toss with the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Arrange the sprouts in a single layer on the baking sheet. Don't worry if some of the leaves fall off. Include these when roasting; they will crisp up, adding a nice crunch to the dish.
Slide the pan into the oven and roast the sprouts, turning once or twice with a metal spatula to promote even cooking, until they are tender throughout and smaller bits or leaves that have fallen off are browned and crunchy, 20 to 25 minutes. Test for doneness by piercing a sprout with the tip of a paring knife, but to be sure, nab one off the baking sheet, let it cool slightly, and taste; it should be tender and sweet.
As the sprouts roast, melt the butter in a small skillet or heavy saucepan (it should be no more than 6 inches across or the butter will burn). Cook over medium heat until the butter is melted. Add the mustard seeds, increase the heat to medium-high, and cook, watching the pan carefully and swirling frequently, until the butter begins to foam and turns golden brown, about 2 minutes. Add the capers and lemon juice -- the butter will sizzle -- and immediately remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste and keep warm until the Brussels sprouts are ready.
Transfer the Brussels sprouts to a serving dish and add the browned butter. Toss to coat. Taste for salt, pepper and lemon and serve immediately. Serves 4.
(From "All About Roasting: A New Approach to a Classic Art," by Molly Stevens. Photographs by Quentin Bacon. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.)