Digg ran a question and answer session with food scientist J. Kenji López-Alt on Monday, and we recommend scanning the whole thing. But here are some highlights (as well as tips and tricks we found on our own):
1. Don't be duped into buying a "natural" or "hormone-free" bird (and definitely roll your eyes at anyone advertising a "gmo-free" turkey). What you really care about is making sure that your turkey is antibiotic-free. That's because the overuse of antibiotics in farming is basically a scourge on our health and wellness. Seriously: Don't let your Thanksgiving feast contribute to the evolution of the next superbug.
As López-Alt explains, "organic" birds are a safe bet for avoiding antibiotics and making sure your dinner got some fresh air on occasion.
2. Consider brining, but also consider not brining. Brining is supposed to make your bird juicier, but it also means your bird is basically just full of water. One alternative: Just pat your turkey dry and rub it with salt right before cooking. Osmosis will draw juices out for you. If you're going to brine, at least do it in something more flavorful than saltwater.
3. Consider spatchcocking. I'm skeptical of this, but I'll be trying it myself this year: López-Alt points out that flattening the bird creates faster, more even cooking. And since more skin is on top, more skin gets crispy.
4. Keep chemistry on your side. Make sure you know all the easy substitutions you can make if you run out of a baking ingredient.
This practice is scientifically sound and will make your crusts turn out better. If you want your pies to be extra delicious, try an alcohol with a nice flavor (bourbon apple pies, anyone) instead of plain old vodka.
Science step two: Eating the food
Here's a big fat debunk to annoy your know-it-all relatives with on the big day: Turkey doesn't make you sleepy. It does have tryptophan, which can trigger sleep -- but cheddar cheese actually has more tryptophan than turkey does, and you don't conk out every time you eat grilled cheese (I hope). It's actually the sudden carb overload that makes you feel comatose. Read more about what overeating does to your poor lump of a body here.
So how does all the debauchery measure up when it's time to get on the scale? It's hard to put on a significant amount of weight from just one day of eating, no matter how crazy you go. Holiday weight gain -- which maxes out at a couple of pounds for most folks -- probably has more to due with days of eating leftovers followed by a slow roll into the Christmas eating season than it does with your actually Thanksgiving meal.
Science step three: Booze
Maybe you're trying to keep the peace at your dinner party, and maybe you're a terrible cook who has to bring something to the meal. Either way, choose your booze wisely: Wine chemistry is no joke, and scientists estimate that a single glass can contain thousands of chemical compounds that create unique flavor. I don't have some secret to reveal to you about the best kind of wine to drink with turkey, but be sure to ask someone at the liquor store who seems like they know some stuff. You don't want those thousands of flavor compounds to clash with the meal.
If you go with sparkling wine, make sure to get glasses that are the right shape: Those bubbles release important flavor compounds, and you want to maximize their impact.
And a word of warning re: beer -- just because it's chilly out doesn't mean it can't go skunky. Foul-tasting beer is actually a victim of sunlight, not heat. So keep your Thanksgiving brew away from the window.
Science step four: Being thankful and stuff
It's not like anyone has actually proven that being grateful for good things in your life will make you live longer, but some studies suggest that such an outlook can have positive health benefits. I'm not saying you need to go around the table and make a thing of it, but there's no harm in taking a moment to reflect on what you've got to be thankful for -- even if the only thing that comes to mind is some perfectly crisped, juicy turkey.