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How big a turkey should I buy? And other Thanksgiving FAQs, answered.

By Kara Elder, Becky Krystal

November 10, 2017 at 10:30 AM

How big a turkey you buy depends on how many people are coming over and what else you’re serving. You’ll probably have leftovers, but we have ideas for you, below. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

Thanksgiving is all about tradition, so it’s only natural that we field a lot of the same questions each year. Consider this guide a resource for your most pressing queries.

Feel free to ask for more help in our online chat on Nov. 15 and Nov. 22 — we’ll have the usual WaPo Food suspects on deck, plus a few special guests, to guide you through all your Thanksgiving preparation needs. We’re also available via Twitter, Instagram and good old fashioned email via food@washpost.com.

Above all, don’t stress! Know that you are perfectly capable of making a dynamite Thanksgiving meal.

Click on the questions below to jump straight to each topic, many of which are linked to our more-fleshed-out explainer posts. This rundown will be updated with more tips and recipes as the big day approaches.

The turkey

It’s Thanksgiving day and my turkey is frozen, help!How big should my turkey be?
When to buy and how to store your turkeyShould I brine the turkey?
Should I make an extra turkey breast? What if I like dark meat better?Should I roast a turkey breast for two people?How do I carve the turkey?

The trimmings

How can I make gravy in advance? • I need a cocktail
How do I make the best, fluffiest, creamiest mashed potatoes?How do I make a perfect pie crust?

The other stuff

How do I pack food to bring to Friendsgiving?What can I make ahead?
What kind of meal can I make at the last minute?What can I do with leftovers?

It’s Thanksgiving day and my turkey is frozen, help!
Did you know you can put a solidly frozen bird in the oven, and in less than twice the time it would take to cook a fresh one, have a perfectly delicious roasted bird? It’s true! Roast turkey doesn’t get any simpler than this, so take heart, last-minute cooks. You’ll even be rewarded with lots of crisp skin and plenty of pan juices that will help season the meat after it has been sliced. Find the foolproof recipe here.

How big should my turkey be?
The Agriculture Department suggests one pound of turkey per person. We’ve previously suggested about 1½ pounds for each diner to allow for leftovers. One of our staple resources in the Food section is the “Chef’s Book of Formulas, Yields & Sizes,” by Arno Schmidt. The book says one 22-pound turkey will yield 12 pounds of roasted meat, including scraps, which equates to 22 servings — lining up perfectly with USDA guidance. “Chef’s Book” also indicates you can stretch that 22-pound bird to 40 servings “on a buffet when served with other meats and salads.”

When to buy and how to store your turkey
When you buy the bird depends on whether you’re going with fresh or frozen. A raw, fresh turkey should be stored for no longer than two days in the refrigerator. In theory, a frozen turkey can last indefinitely. But for the best quality, use it within a year.

Should I brine the turkey?
Brining helps poultry stay moist and tasty. (Kosher or self-basting birds should not be brined.) Some people choose to dry brine their turkey — rub it with salt, basically. In that situation, salt draws the meat’s juices to the surface of the bird. The juices then mix with the salt, forming a brine that is then reabsorbed by the meat. A few years ago, deputy Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick tried both methods and decided she preferred a wet brine, which required less effort and resulted in more uniformly moist and seasoned meat. When you remove the turkey from the brine, make sure you pat it thoroughly dry to get crisp skin. But consider this: You can also achieve a moist, flavorful turkey without brining at all.

Don’t neglect the dark meat lovers; make them turkey legs poached in duck fat. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)

Should I make an extra turkey breast? What if I like dark meat better?
Even dark-meat fans can appreciate the moist, tender yield of a bone-in turkey breast. The key is in choosing your ideal cooking method: Check out our recipes for turkey breast done in a slow cooker; a foolproof low and slow roasting method; and turkey breast with a pear, hazelnut and fennel stuffing.

For the uber dark-meat lovers, go for gold with Turkey Leg Confit. The method is flexible — poaching the legs in duck fat for even an extra hour won’t hurt them. Plus, you can strain the cooking fat, freeze it for up to a year and use it as a substitute for other fats in potatoes, soup, pâté, braised cabbage and so on.

Either choice can be just the ticket for a small group, as well as an alternative to roasting a second bird when you’re planning to feed a crowd. A real selling point: Both methods can be done in advance.

Should I roast a turkey breast for two people?
Size-wise, a turkey breast is definitely a good fit for a small crowd, though for a pair, you’ll probably want to aim for something close to six pounds. Even then, you’ll have some extra for subsequent meals. To satisfy those who go for dark meat, consider getting a small whole turkey. You might have especially good luck with a local farmer. If the ideas of a white-meat-only breast or too-big whole turkey don’t appeal to you, there are other options. You might consider a duck breast or whole duck, which is smaller, with rich, gamey flavor. Or go the ultimate route for single- or small-serving poultry and cook Cornish hens.

This Roast-Turkey Gravy can be made a day in advance; it starts with a dark roux and is finished with turkey drippings. (Jennifer Chase for The Washington Post)

How can I make gravy in advance?
Easy, peasy: Roast extra turkey wings until deeply browned and crisped. Toss them into a pot of at least four cups of broth with your favorite aromatics: celery, onion, fresh herbs, a bay leaf, whole black peppercorns. For a flavor boost, add ½ cup of dry red wine or Madeira or unsweetened apple cider. Cook, strain and discard the solids. Then melt eight tablespoons of unsalted butter in a separate saucepan and whisk in ½ cup of low-protein flour, like Wondra or pastry flour, to form a smooth roux; it needs to be cooked over medium heat for a few minutes to lose its floury taste. Whisk in your enriched stock and cook until thickened, which should take no more than 20 minutes. Season, cool, refrigerate or freeze. Once the bird comes out of the oven, you might want to whisk strained pan drippings into the reheated gravy, then season with salt and pepper.

You can also make gravy with chicken broth (finish with turkey drippings to boost the flavor); you can even make vegan gravy, with beans.

How do I carve the turkey?
Watch this video.

Watch more!
Carving a Thanksgiving turkey is easy. Seriously. Here's how to do it. (Jayne Orenstein, Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

I need a cocktail.
How about three? Try our recipes for Cranberry-Ginger PunchThanksgiving Daiquiri and Crimson Crane. If none of those suit your fancy, go classic with one of the seven essential cocktails every drinker should know how to make. (We think a Negroni, for example, would be right at home during a Thanksgiving meal.)

How do I make the best, fluffiest, creamiest mashed potatoes?
Watch and learn:

Watch more!
Washington Post Food and Dining Editor Joe Yonan shows PostTV how to whip up buttery, creamy mashed potatoes. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

How do I make a perfect pie crust?
A few pointers: Keep things cool. Rotate the crust 90 degrees periodically as you’re rolling it. Make your crusts in advance. And if something does go wrong, roll with it.

If pie crust stresses you out, then don’t make it! Try apple crumb bars, pear tarte tatin made with purchased puff pastry dough, or pumpkin pie made with a (very easy) gingersnap crust. Leave crust out altogether with a Maple and Pumpkin Custard.

This Cranberry Apple Lattice Pie can be made in several stages, starting as far as two weeks in advance. The finished pie can be made one day before serving. (Jennifer Chase for The Washington Post)

How do I pack food to bring to Friendsgiving?
If your celebration is done potluck-style, it’s important to effectively pack your dish to avoid spillage. This is a nice meal, though, so showing up with a few takeout containers’ worth of Brussels sprouts won’t cut it. Bring a serving dish and serving utensils; if you’ve got something that needs to be reheated, tell your host so you can coordinate stove or oven space; you can usually pack the item right in its cooking dish for easy reheating.

Turkey. To avoid spills, pour the pan drippings into a lidded container. Transport the turkey on its baking pan or sheet, tented with aluminum foil. There is no need to reheat the turkey (it might overcook the bird). Reheat the drippings on the stove for gravy or stuffing. Bring a carving board, carving tools and a serving platter.
Mashed potatoes. Bring the mashed potatoes in a pot for reheating (you may need to add some extra milk); if your pot is pretty, serve them straight from there — the residual heat will help to keep the potatoes warm at the table.
Gravy. Pack it in a Thermos or other insulated container.
Cranberry sauce. A simple airtight container or zip-top bag will do, along with a serving container.
Soup
. Bring it in a pot to reheat on the stove, with a ladle for serving.
Rolls or biscuits. Pack in a serving basket and cover with nice napkins or a towel.
Sides. Many can be packed in airtight containers or zip-top bags tucked right into their serving containers; just check with the host about what you’ll reheat it in, if needed. Casseroles, dressings and the like can transition easily from oven to table.
Pie. If you’re without a dedicated pie box, small shipping boxes make for useful and discardable pie containers. You might set the pie on a bed of crumbled tissue paper or newspaper for added cushion.

What can I make ahead?
Cranberry sauce. Most cranberry relishes and sauces can be refrigerated for up to a week.
Gravy. You can make your gravy (or most of it, minus the drippings) a few days early.
Bread. Bake your bread or rolls a day or two in advance; wrap in foil and warm in the oven before serving. You can also bake several days in advance and freeze — just set your bread out to defrost at room temperature on Wednesday.
Pies and other desserts. Most pies can be made two or more days in advance. Or make a cake or cookies.
Turkey. Start brining the day before.
Stuffing. Advance work depends on the recipe. Some stuffings can be made wholly in advance; others should be made up to the point of adding the liquid. Reheat or finish baking on Thursday.
Sides. Shred radicchio and slice radishes for a slaw or roast some squash for a hearty salad; blanch or steam green beans or Brussels sprouts. Think about elements that can be prepped or finished ahead of time, then do it!

What kind of meal can I make at the last minute?
A pretty good one! Click on the above link for our tips, tricks and recipes (including a method for cooking your turkey from frozen. Yes, frozen.)

What can I do with leftovers?
Send home extras with your friends and family. Make a Thanksgiving hash. Use vegetables as a taco or sandwich filling, or blend them into purée for soup. Turn bread into croutons or bread crumbs or strata. Eat pie for breakfast. Make breakfast cookiesWe could go on.

More things Thanksgiving from Food:

11 Thanksgiving turkey recipes to please a crowd of any size

Hearty vegetarian and vegan mains to satisfy at Thanksgiving

Add some color to your Thanksgiving table with one of these side dishes

Potatoes mashed, smashed, pureed or roasted for your Thanksgiving feast

Our favorite Thanksgiving stuffing recipes will help you think outside the box

Thanksgiving stuffing (or dressing) is the dish that best reflects America’s diversity

Ready your bread baskets: Our best roll, muffin and corn bread recipes for Thanksgiving

Make your cranberry sauce early — it keeps for at least a week in the fridge

The pies, cakes and cookies to make this Thanksgiving

What wine to serve at Thanksgiving? Try one or more of these strategies.


Kara Elder is the editorial aide for Food.

Becky Krystal covers food for the Going Out Guide and Weekend and Food sections. In her spare time she loves to, of course, eat and cook.

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