You do not need a restaurant-quality kitchen to cook Thanksgiving properly. You probably have most of the equipment you need already. But there are a few tools and supplies that will make the journey easier. Here are the absolute essentials.
1. THE KITCHEN
Pots and Pans
Heavy-bottomed pots and pans of various sizes are crucial for a successful Thanksgiving. The very first thing you are going to do on Thanksgiving morning is pull the turkey neck from the carcass of the bird you are going to cook and use it to start a small stock that will bubble all day in a corner of the stove, ready for use as a dressing moisturizer, or meat heater, or gravy enhancer. And you are going to need a pot for that. (See page 19.)
You are going to need another pot to melt butter, or to keep your basting sauce warm. You will make cranberry sauce in a pot. You may blanch green beans in one. Potatoes for mashing will cook in a pot, and probably something else as well. And you will need pans to brown sausage for dressing, or to glaze carrots, or to fry Brussels sprouts or make gravy. The list can get long.
The pots and pans need not be expensive, and they certainly may be borrowed from friends or brought by relatives. But the pots all should have lids, and ideally heavy bottoms that heat evenly, without hot spots that can cause scorching. (Those enameled cast-iron numbers that people give for wedding presents are far and away the best.) As for pans, I prefer heavy stainless or cast-iron. But you should have tasted the parsnips I made one year in a battered nonstick pan of supermarket heritage that someone found under a sink, its handle covered in rust. That dish was perfect. So long as you are careful with it, even a cheap pan can perform like an expensive one.
Of course, you are going to need something in which to cook the turkey, and in which to roast vegetables and cook the dressing. I have huge French-style roasting pans—big, heavy pans with high sides and racks that I use to cook roasts and vegetables. (You get married, you can have these things as well.) To make gravy, I sometimes pull the meat from the pan and let it rest on a platter, then put the pan itself on my stovetop and use it as I would a sauté pan.
Huge French-style roasting pans are great. But they are not necessary. What is necessary: a pan that is larger than the bird you are going to cook, with sides high enough to contain the drippings that bird is going to give off during the process of cooking it, and enough strength to hold the bird without collapsing when you take it out of the oven.
You can get one of these pans at the supermarket for about what it costs to buy a quart of milk: a throwaway aluminum roasting pan. If you are cooking a turkey larger than 15 pounds, buy two pans and place one inside the other. These pans are not ideal, in part because they are not rigid, and in part because they do not come with those big V-shaped racks that hold the turkey above the cooking surface, which allows for uniform browning. But they are not awful. They work. Simply line the area that will be underneath the turkey with a small bed of thick-sliced onions to keep the skin from sticking as you roast.
Other things you will need roasting pans for during Thanksgiving: dressing; butternut squash; sweet potatoes; Brussels sprouts; anything you wish to brown in the high heat of the oven. A roasting pan that is too small to hold the turkey can come in handy here, as can smaller throwaway versions from the market, which can be reused after dinner for leftovers and eventual reheating.
Give thanks for aluminum, then, but also plan. Sketch out a menu on a piece of paper and figure for each dish what kind of pot or pan you are going to need to make it, and when in the course of the day. This will give you some sense of whether you are going to need to call cousin Janie and borrow her Dutch oven for the sprouts.
Take a brief run through your kitchen cabinets. You should have: wooden spoons for stirring and a narrow kitchen fork or pair of tongs for poking and turning things. You will benefit from having a ladle or big spoon for dealing with drippings, and a colander in which to drain potatoes and green beans. (You don’t need a baster, though they’re nice.) A nest of mixing bowls is also a good thing to have, for mixing ingredients for the dressing, or to hold apples sliced for the pie, or for draining off stock, or both.
And of course you will need something with which to mash potatoes, for a Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes is hardly a Thanksgiving at all. I use a stand mixer, which brings a nice whipped quality to the dish, but it is not a tool everyone has, nor one that everyone needs. I have mashed potatoes with a fork. It takes a long time. Better to invest in a sturdy potato masher. It will pay dividends for years.
There is a lot of peeling and chopping and cutting to Thanksgiving, even before the bird comes to the table, so you will need knives. At the end of the day, you will need a carving knife for the turkey—something long and thin and sharp. You will need a peeler for the carrots and the squash and the potatoes. You may also desire a paring knife, for messing with apples or chestnuts.
But the most important knife to have at Thanksgiving is a chef’s knife, which means a knife of between 8 and 10 inches in length, with a wide blade.
There are three main shapes for these. French chef’s knives have relatively straight blades, with only a small curve to their sharp edge. They resemble long triangles. German-style chef’s knives have more curvature. They resemble closed lobster claws. Japanese santoku knives, in contrast, have what’s called a sheep’s-foot shape, for the drop at the knife’s tip from the dull side to the cutting edge.
Which of these knives is best for Thanksgiving has little to do with the cost of the knife. It has everything to do with how the knives feel in your hand, and how comfortable you are using them in a variety of tasks. Knife selection is a business of trial and error. I have some wickedly expensive German and Japanese knives. They are beautiful tools, hold their edges well, have amazing balance in my hand. But I do not use them nearly as much as I do the cheap, plastic-handled 8-inch chef’s knife I bought in a commercial kitchen supply store 20 years ago for $8 and that now costs $19 online. It has never let me down.
A heavy-duty plastic cutting board the size of your local newspaper is a marvelous thing for a daylong cooking project like Thanksgiving because it is easily cleaned and nonabsorbent. But those old wooden butcher blocks and grandma’s carving boards will work, too. Just clean them as you go, between every task. This is the most important thing to do as you cook, for reasons of both mental and physical health. Keep your work area clean, always.
2. THE PANTRY
There are reasons why restaurant food tastes better than the food we cook at home. Two of them are salt and pepper. A third is fat. Restaurant cooks use all three with a heavier hand than most home cooks, with the result that their food often has bigger, more intense flavor than anything cooked at home. Those big flavors, and an accompanying buttery richness, can help mark the occasion of dining out as a special one, different from other days and meals.
Thanksgiving is different from other days and meals. You ought to prepare for it, right from the start.
Salt and Pepper
All the recipes in this book call for and were tested with coarse salt, often known as kosher salt: thick-grained, irregularly sized, and easily pinched, with real texture. (Compare with sea salt, if you like, but sea salt is generally more expensive.) Of course you can use table salt—the thin, iodized stuff of fast-food salt packets—but know that because of its tiny crystals there is much more salt in a single teaspoon of the iodized variety than in a single teaspoon of its coarse cousin. Iodized salt tastes sharper and saltier on the tongue, and it lacks crunch as well. Some bakers revere it for how easily it dissolves. But for the purposes of Thanksgiving, we shall remain steadfast and coarse.
The flavor of black pepper is best when it is freshly ground. All kitchens should have a pepper grinder, and if that is the case you might as well make it a good one. That is a good thing to tell yourself, anyway, when you come home with a nickel-plated cast-aluminum pepper mill from Perfex that costs about what dinner for two would run in the sort of restaurant where jackets are required. Still, you can get a perfectly good pepper grinder at a housewares store for less than the cost of an airport meal. Do so.
Copyright © 2012 by Sam Sifton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.