Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. But, because it holds wisdom that can be used every year, we’re bringing it back. Enjoy!
WASHINGTON — The holidays are on the horizon, and even in otherwise-unused kitchens, America is sweating the formidable task of cooking a big meal.
After all, cooking is so much trial and error, and there’s not much margin for the latter this time of year.
Thankfully, our great republic was blessed with “America’s Test Kitchen.”
For nearly two decades, the PBS favorite (seen on WETA-TV, Channel 26) has done its part to steer both the skilled and unskilled toward kitchen success.
So who who better than its co-hosts — Julia Collin Davison and Bridget Lancaster — to offer up holiday kitchen advice? They’ve cooked and tasted over 20,000 recipes(!) on the show, so they kinda know what they’re talking about.
The pair stopped by The Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center back in 2017 to discuss the bird, sides, desserts and big-meal best practices.
WTOP News is dusting off that interview this holiday season, because good cooking is timeless. Here are some of their tips to ensure successful culinary alchemy.
First of all, strategize.
“Nerd out on your organization,” Davison said. “Go note-crazy. Buy a notebook. Make timelines, and then you can relax.”
And don’t be shy about cooking long before the big day, they said.
“If you don’t plan and try to do as many things ahead, you’re going to be overwhelmed,” Lancaster said.
A few things that can be made ahead of time:
- Gravy — “It’s a game-changer,” Davison said. “Even if you’re going to someone else’s house, if you show up with a big pot of homemade turkey gravy, you’re a rock star.”
- Pie dough — Just wrap it in plastic wrap and put it in a resealable plastic bag. Take it out to thaw a few days beforehand. “The freezer’s your friend,” Lancaster said.
- Pie (day before) — It can help with apple and pecan pie, the pair suggested, allowing the flavors to settle. “I’ve never heard anybody complain that this pie was not baked on the same day,” Lancaster said.
Doin’ the mashed potato
- Davison isn’t shy about her potato preference: “Yukon gold has a slightly buttery flavor,” she said, “and has a very creamy texture.”
- Peel them the day before and leave them in the pot that you’ll boil them in, submerged in water. Replace the water the next day before they cook.
- Take advantage of a slow cooker. As you work on the rest of the meal, keep them warm with a low heat setting. And if you feel extra decadent, do what Davison did as a caterer: add pats of butter to enhance the flavor.
Other ways to use that slow cooker (and … heating pad?)
The stove and oven have only so much space. So take advantage of that slow cooker.
In addition to warming those taters, it’s great for keeping gravy, mulled cider and (of course) dips warm and toasty.
And what about stuff that’s been prepared and plated but not yet ready to be served? Set those plates on heating pads.
(Then leave one plugged in for your aching back while you’re doing the dishes, Davison suggested.)
- Rub salt on the bird (see a demonstration in the gallery below). This changes the structure of the meat, trapping moisture inside.
- Don’t use the pop-up timer. Testing showed that these timers don’t pop up until the internal temperature is around 180 degrees, which, they said, can leave it bone-dry after carry-over cooking. “Leave it in there, but ignore it,” Davison said.
- Instead, use a digital thermometer and temp it in a couple of places. (The ideal temperature for breast meat is 160 to 165 degrees, they said. Darker meat should be about 10 degrees warmer.)
- Do you have more than two drumstick aficionados in your family? Avoid holiday tragedy by building your own “Frankenturkey” with all the parts that your guests love. “I actually love to roast turkey parts instead of the whole turkey,” Lancaster said.
Got a vegetarian in the family? Go sideways
“You don’t need to replace the turkey,” Davison said. “You just need to put more things on the table. Maybe a few extra grains, maybe a few extra vegetables.”
Among their suggested sides:
- Cauliflower steaks: “They’re substantial. You can get them really brown. You serve them with a green sauce, like a salsa verde,” Davison said.
- Roasted butternut squash: Garnish it with brown butter, with nuts with herbs, or with a yogurt tahini sauce, among other things.
- Brussels sprouts: Roast and season them, or shave them into a slaw. Lancaster adds a hot dressing (e.g., hot onion and vinegar) and other autumnal flavors, such as cherries, walnuts and cheddar cheese.
Tips for procrastinators
For those who didn’t have time to plan (let alone prepare days in advance), you best be ready to buy those appetizers, dessert and gravy. Then focus on the essentials: turkey, stuffing and potatoes.
And regarding that turkey: If it’s still frozen 48 hours before dinner, “it’s probably not going to thaw all the way,” Lancaster said. Hit the supermarket for an unfrozen bird.
There’s no reason why it should all be on your shoulders, though, they said. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“Figure out what needs to get done and who might be able to help you,” Davison said, “and make it part of the fun.”
Watch “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cooks Country” on WETA. For some of the co-hosts’ favorite recipes, check out their book, “Cooking at Home with Bridget and Julia.”
You can hear audio of the complete interview below.
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