While spending time with loved ones is the most important part of Thanksgiving, the food can really make or break the holiday. Nothing can put more of a damper on a fun, relaxing evening than a relative complaining about overcooked turkey after you’ve slaved away in the kitchen all day (sorry, Aunt Faye, your Thanksgiving invite has been revoked). But you can easily avoid this frustrating mishap — and several other common cooking errors — by following these simple Thanksgiving tips from notable D.C. chefs.
Thanksgiving Cluckup: Dried-out turkey
Pro tip: Brine the turkey
Brining can be time-consuming, but David Deshaies of Shaw’s Unconventional Diner says it’s an essential way to keep the turkey moist. “Use water with some salt and leave the turkey sitting for a few hours,” he says. The longer it sits, the more liquid will seep into the bird. Deshaies typically adds spices to the water — such as thyme, rosemary, garlic and peppercorns — before boiling the liquid, cooling it and adding the turkey.
Pro tip: Adjust the temperature
Marjorie Meek-Bradley of Smoked and Stacked in Shaw has a tried-and-true system: Cook the turkey low and slow, and give it a good searing at the end. “I take it out when it’s at 150 degrees, let it sit on the counter, and right before dinner I blast it in the oven” for 15 minutes at 450 degrees, she says. She also puts a small pan of water in the oven, which “gives it a steam roast, keeping the turkey juicy.”
Pro tip: Place foil on top
If you’re concerned about burning your turkey, Amy Brandwein of Italian restaurant Centrolina at CityCenterDC recommends placing a piece of aluminum foil on top of the bird. “That will save the day, and then take it off for the last 10 to 20 minutes of cooking,” she says.
Pro tip: Spatchcock the turkey
Let’s say you’re in a hurry and need a turkey done quickly. What do you do? “For the past couple years, I’ve spatchcocked a turkey to cook it faster and more evenly,” says Kevin Tien of Petworth restaurant Himitsu. To do this, Tien removes the turkey’s spine and lays the bird flat on a rack. For a turkey weighing 12 to 14 pounds, you can get it cooked in 30 minutes at 450-degree heat, or 90 minutes in 350-degree heat. He recommends cooking the turkey on a bed of root vegetables — such as carrots, potatoes and parsnips — for extra flavor.
If you mess up: Don’t panic, Tien says. A family tradition he relies on is using the dried-out meat to make a turkey pot pie. “Shred [the meat] up,” he says. “You can bake it by using frozen peas and carrots and add gravy and meat to the bottom of a pan, with a puff pastry on top.”
Thanksgiving Cluckup: Boring side dishes
Pro tip: Share your unique family traditions
Mashed potatoes, root vegetables and stuffing may be required, but your side dishes don’t have to stop there. Tien’s family shakes up dinner by mixing Vietnamese dishes with American foods. “We have a blend of turkey and a bunch of Asian sides,” he says. “My mom loves making fried spring rolls.” Meek-Bradley says her friends from Los Angeles bring an enchilada casserole. “We’ve been doing Thanksgiving for seven years now, and it’s like a blending of our two families,” she says.
Thanksgiving Cluckup: Hard, burnt pie crust
Pro tip: Use a chilled metal bowl
Kate Jacoby of plant-based H Street restaurant Fancy Radish says a flaky crust is mostly dependent on temperature. “People usually overwork the dough with their hands, not thinking that their hand is a lot warmer than a wooden or metal spoon,” she says. Jacoby recommends working the dough in a metal bowl that’s been pre-chilled in the fridge for as long as possible (or freezer if you’re pressed for time) to better control the temperature.
Pro tip: Easy on the water
Adding too much water can “toughen up the flour and make for a less delicate pie crust,” Jacoby says. She recommends adding 2 tablespoons of water when making a single pie crust. “You want [the dough] to remain soft, almost brittle, as it comes together in a ball, not stretchy and elastic,” she says.
Pro tip: Put foil around the rim
If the edge around the pie top isn’t covered before baking, it will burn quickly, Brandwein warns. “It should be covered because it can have the tendency to be overcooked before anything else,” she says.
If you mess up: If everything came out great except for the burnt crust edge, one option is to make a deconstructed pie, Jacoby says. “Treat it almost like a cheesecake,” she says. “Stamp out the center of the pie with a knife and then cut straight sides.”
Thanksgiving Cluckup: Bland gravy
Pro tip: Use pan drippings and stock
Brandwein has a family recipe for gravy that helps make the finished product more flavorful. “I usually make a brown turkey or chicken stock, reduce it, and put that into my pan drippings,” she says. Once you have your mixture and bring the drippings to a boil on the stove, add corn starch or Wondra flour until it thickens, Brandwein says, then add a piece of butter to make a mouthwatering gravy.
Thanksgiving Cluckup: Shortchanged vegans/vegetarians
Pro tip: Embrace the mushroom’s many varieties
Fancy Radish’s Richard Landau recommends making a mushroom pot roast. “You can’t do without mushrooms — to me they’re more iconic than the turkey,” he says. The trick is to use more than one kind. “Do a whole bunch of them: Put creminis in there and get some wild mushrooms, black trumpets, chanterelle, maitake or bluefoot,” he adds.
Pro tip: Add color to the meal
“Most Thanksgiving Day tables are not very pretty — everything is brown, gray and just not the most colorful table in the world,” Landau says. The solution? Add squashes, red peppers, zucchini and fresh herbs to the various meatless dishes.
Pro tip: Sunchokes are your friend
“Not enough people use sunchokes the right way,” Landau says. His recommendation? Make a sunchoke sauce instead of using canned gravy. This requires boiling the sunchokes in vegetable stock, adding olive oil, vegan butter and herbs, and then pureeing it in a blender.
Pro tip: Don’t deprive guests of dessert
For pies, Jacoby recommends using agar or cornstarch in lieu of eggs. When it comes to fats, “if you have a great vegan shortening and butter with olive oil, you can make a beautiful, very flaky, tasty pie crust,” she says. For a foolproof cream substitute, plant milk is the way to go.