Tips For Your Turkey, Stuffing And Sides: Taking It Back To Thanksgiving Basics

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Kathy's sliced roast turkey. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Kathy's sliced roast turkey. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Here & Now resident chef Kathy Gunst goes over some basic Thanksgiving menu questions with Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson and Robin Young. She'll address defrosting a frozen turkey, to brine or not to brine, making gravy and how to pep up family favorite recipes.

Roast Turkey With Pan Dripping Gravy

This recipe is for an 18- to 20-pound bird, but can easily work with a smaller one by reducing the cooking time. If you're working with a frozen turkey be sure to defrost in time (see "Frozen Tips" below) and leave time to brine the bird if you like. The turkey should soak in the brine for at least 12 to 24 hours and then it needs to dry out for several hours before roasting. (See "To Brine Or Not To Brine" below.)

Turkey Ingredients

  • One 18- to 20-pound fresh turkey (preferably organic), at room temperature*
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 stick butter
  • 10 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
  • 2 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
  • Sweet Hungarian paprika
  • Your favorite stuffing, optional
  • 1 slice bread, optional
  • Kitchen string or butcher’s twine

*Room temperature simply means that the bird shouldn’t come straight out of the refrigerator. You don’t want to let it sit around for hours; remove from the refrigerator about one hour before roasting while you make the stuffing. And never stuff a bird until you’re just about to put it in the oven.

Stock And Gravy Ingredients

  • 1 turkey neck, heart and gizzard from the inside of the turkey
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 onions, peeled and quartered
  • 2 ribs celery, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 6 peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons flour


  1. Defrost the turkey if frozen. Brine the bird if you choose.
  2. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Arrange the oven rack so the bird will fit on the middle shelf without touching the top shelf.
  3. Clean the bird and remove the neck, giblets, liver and heart, and set aside for the stock/gravy. Pat the bird dry with paper towels. (The liver can be reserved; it is delicious lightly coated in flour and then sautéed in a hot skillet greased with 1 teaspoon of butter for about five to six minutes per side.)
  4. Use the vegetable oil to lightly grease the bottom of a large roasting pan. Season the turkey with pepper and salt (only if you did not brine the bird), inside the cavity and outside the skin. If stuffing the bird, loosely stuff both the body and neck cavities of the turkey with your choice of stuffing, pressing down but being careful not to overstuff the bird. Use the whole slice of bread as a "door" to keep the stuffing inside the large body cavity; simply press the bread into the cavity as a way of keeping the stuffing inside so it won’t fall out while roasting. Carefully place the bird into the roasting pan, breast side up. If you want to use a roasting rack simply place the bird on the rack and set inside the pan.
  5. In a medium skillet, heat the butter over low heat. Add the garlic cloves, thyme and sage and let cook two to three minutes until the butter has completely melted, and the garlic is just beginning to turn a light golden brown. Remove from the heat. Using a spoon or a barbecue or pastry brush, brush the skin of the turkey with some of the garlic butter and scatter at least half the garlic cloves around and on top of the bird. Keep the remaining garlic and butter for later basting. Sprinkle the top of the bird with the paprika, salt and pepper. Using a piece of kitchen string, tie the legs together to keep them from touching the sides of the roasting pan; tying the legs also makes for a "neater" looking roasted turkey.
  6. Place the bird on the middle shelf and roast for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and loosely cover the bird with foil. Roast the turkey another 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours, about 15 to 20 minutes per pound, depending on the freshness of the bird. (Fresh turkey tends to cook much faster than those that have been frozen. And unstuffed birds will cook even faster so be sure to check the turkey after it’s roasted for 10 minutes per pound.) Baste the bird every hour or so with the remaining garlic and butter and baste with the liquids that have accumulated on the bottom of the roasting pan. Remove the foil for the last hour of roasting time to give the bird a golden brown glaze.
  7. While the bird is roasting, begin the gravy by making the turkey stock: place the reserved neck, giblets, and heart in a medium saucepan. Add the parsley, onions, celery, carrots, peppercorns, bay leaf, salt and pepper to the pot and cover with about 8 cups cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat, and let simmer on very low heat for about 1 to 2 hours. This will produce a light turkey stock that will be the basis of your gravy. Taste for seasoning and remove from the heat.
  8. To test for done-ness: the bird should be a gorgeous golden brown; when you wiggle a drumstick, it should feel slightly loose, and when you pierce the skin directly above the wing, the juice should run clear yellow, and not pink. A meat thermometer placed deep into the breast should read 150 degrees. The bird will keep cooking once it’s removed from the oven so be careful not to overcook it. Gently remove the bird from the roasting pan and place on a serving platter; cover loosely with aluminum foil.
  9. To finish the gravy, once you’ve removed the bird, place the roasting pan over two burners over moderate heat. (If there seems to be an excessive amount of turkey fat in the bottom of the pan, remove it by tilting the juices to the side and remove with a spoon or baster, being careful not to remove any of the natural juices.) Use a spatula to loosen any bits clinging to the bottom of the roasting pan. Sprinkle on the flour and, using a whisk, mix the flour with the juices in the bottom of the pan. Let cook one minute, stirring, until the paste has come together and is beginning to turn a pale golden color. Pour a little more than half the turkey stock through a sieve into the pan and whisk to create a smooth gravy. Let simmer about five to 10 minutes, until slightly thickened and flavorful. Thin the gravy by adding additional stock as needed. Simmer until the gravy is the desired thickness. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep the gravy warm over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until ready to serve.
Kathy slices a roast turkey just out of the oven. (Kathy Gunst for Here & Now)
Kathy slices a roast turkey just out of the oven. (Kathy Gunst for Here & Now)

To Brine Or Not To Brine

On the topic of brining: I’m not sold. It’s a fussy extra step (making a salt and herb solution and soaking the turkey in the brine for at least 12 hours) but it will add moisture to your bird if you’re using a frozen supermarket variety or if you’re known for your overcooked, dry turkey. Brining allows the turkey to soak up moisture which acts as kind of baster while it roasts. Do not brine a turkey that has already been pre-treated in any way. Turkeys whose label say "enhanced," "self-basting" or "kosher" already have salt added to them.

If you’re roasting a fresh turkey (and, in particular, a locally raised and organic bird) there is no reason to brine. I have never brined fresh turkeys and never had a dry bird.

However, if you want to brine the bird here’s how it works: You’ll need a pot large enough to hold the bird and 2 gallons of brine. And you’ll need space in your refrigerator to chill the bird for at least eight to 12 hours.


  1. In a very large pot (large enough to hold the turkey and 2 gallons of water) heat 4 quarts water (16 cups) with 1 3/4 cup Kosher salt, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 bay leaf, 6 peppercorns, 2 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried, 2 sprigs fresh sage or 1 teaspoon dried and 2 strips lemon peel until it just begins to simmer. You simply want to make sure the salt and sugar have been dissolved. Cool to room temperature. Add 4 more quarts cold water (16 cups) to the brine.
  2. When cool add the turkey to the pot, breast side down. Place a plate on top of the turkey to keep it submerged in the brine solution. Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least eight to 12 hours.
  3. Remove the turkey and rinse thoroughly under cold running water to make sure there is no brine/salt still on the bird. Dry thoroughly; ideally you place the bird on a plate or a rack and loosely cover and place in the refrigerator to dry out for eight to 12 hours. If you don’t have that much time dry thoroughly with a clean tea or paper towel(s) before proceeding with the recipe and roasting of the turkey.

Frozen Turkey Tips

When working with a frozen turkey, you’ll need to plan to leave several days to defrost the bird. This takes planning. The best way to defrost a frozen bird is in the refrigerator, but it can take up to three to four days to defrost a bird using this method.

According to the USDA:

"Place the frozen turkey in the fridge — be sure your refrigerator temperature is set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. You'll need to allow about 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds of frozen turkey you plan to thaw in the fridge."

If you haven’t left enough time there are several tricks:

Fill a sink (or if it’s a really big bird you can use the bath tub — I’m not kidding!) with cold water and submerge the frozen bird in the sink. Flip the bird over after an hour or so. You need to make sure the bird is totally submerged in the water so you might want to put a can of soup or a heavy pan on top to keep it underwater. This keeps the bird safe and chilled. Be sure to change the water every hour to keep it very cold. Defrosting a frozen bird in a sink of water will take about one hour per every two pounds. If you have a 10-pound turkey it will take five hours; 20-pound frozen bird, you’ll need 10 hours. Plan your time accordingly.

If you still don’t have enough time you can always roast the bird while it’s still slightly (but not totally) frozen, but you’ll need to reduce the oven temperature and roast for almost double the amount of time called for. You’ll be cooking it longer and slower allowing for defrosting time.

More tips from the USDA website.

Kathy's take on creamed spinach, using coconut milk instead of heavy cream. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Kathy's take on creamed spinach, using coconut milk instead of heavy cream. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A New Kind Of Creamed Spinach

Every Thanksgiving you’ll find creamed spinach on our table. My father adored creamy spinach laden with freshly dusted nutmeg and it has always been a holiday tradition. This year I decided to change things up a bit: I use coconut milk instead of heavy cream, fresh ginger, cardamom, chili pepper, nutmeg and garlic. The result: a lighter, fresher tasting spinach that has almost all the qualities of creamed spinach but not the heaviness or calories. I like to think my dad would approve.


  • 2 tablespoons safflower oil or vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • About 1/8 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, depending on how spicy you like it
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 15 ounces baby spinach, or regular spinach with the stems removed, washed and thoroughly dried
  • One 13.5-ounce can whole coconut milk


  1. In a large heavy skillet heat the two oils over moderate heat. Add the ginger and the garlic and cook, stirring, for two to three minutes or until they begin to soften but not brown.
  2. Add the cardamom, nutmeg, chili flakes, salt and pepper and cook one minute. Working in batches, add the spinach, stirring to coat all the greens with the spices. Cook, stirring, for about four minutes, or until just softened.
  3. Add the coconut milk and raise the heat to moderately high. Let simmer until the coconut milk has thickened slightly and the spinach is soft and fully cooked, about seven to 10 minutes.
  4. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, pepper, chili pepper or nutmeg as needed.
  5. You can make the spinach ahead of time and place in a casserole and reheat in a warm 325-degree oven until hot and bubbling. Serves 4 to 6.
Kathy's cranberry sauce with orange, ginger, pineapple and pecans. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Kathy's cranberry sauce with orange, ginger, pineapple and pecans. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Cranberry Sauce With Orange, Ginger, Pineapple And Pecans

From "Notes from a Maine Kitchen," by Kathy Gunst (Down East Books, 2011)

My favorite holiday condiment, which adds a light, fresh taste to virtually any other dish. Serve with Thanksgiving turkey or on turkey sandwiches, as a condiment with pureed squash or sweet potatoes. This sauce is also delicious served with a cheese platter, or as a dessert sauce with butter cookies, pound cake or pie.

Makes about 6 cups.


  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1 pound fresh cranberries (if frozen, do not defrost)
  • 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
  • 1/4 cup very thinly sliced orange rind
  • 1 tablespoon grated orange zest (rind)
  • 1 cup finely chopped pineapple
  • 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped candied or crystallized ginger, optional 1 cup pecans, or your favorite nut, coarsely chopped


  1. Place the sugar and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and cook about 15 minutes, or until the sugar syrup begins to turn a pale amber color. Add the maple syrup and the cranberries and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries begin to pop. Add the orange juice, orange rind, and the orange zest and cook another 5 to 10 minutes, or until the sauce begins to thicken slightly. Add the pineapple and the fresh and crystallized ginger and cook two minutes.
  2. The sauce should be full of flavor and slightly thickened. (If the sauce still seems thin — and remember, it will thicken as it chills — remove the cranberries with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl. Boil the liquid in the pot over moderate to high heat until it is thickened slightly, about 10 minutes, if needed. Place the cranberries back in the slightly thickened sauce.)
  3. Remove from the heat and stir in the nuts. Let cool completely. Place in a clean glass jar and refrigerate for up to 10 days, or freeze up to six months.

This article was originally published on November 15, 2017.

This segment aired on November 15, 2017.

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Kathy Gunst Resident Chef, Here & Now
Kathy Gunst is a James Beard Award-winning journalist and the author of 15 cookbooks.



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