Chefs Dish Up Essential Thanksgiving Cooking Wisdom

Chefs Bill Telepan and Melissa Weller school us in the art of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving cooking is loaded—family pressures, a tricky bird to cook and oh so many sides. We feel you. So, we sat down with two of our favorite chefs, Bill Telepan of Telepan and Melissa Weller of Sadelle's, to talk Thanksgiving. The pair graciously took questions from readers over on Facebook, and here are the 11 best answers, including one on how to create a secret drink to down when family arrives.

What's the best way to brine a turkey? Wet or dry?

Bill: I'm not a briner, I'm just a salter. I think salting the turkey a few days in advance is sufficient. Leave it covered in the refrigerator. Pull it out at least a half hour before you're going to cook it and massage it with butter and then lightly salt it a bit more. Then, I start it in a 475 degree oven for a half hour, then turn it down to 325 until it's done. Make sure you have a meat thermometer.

Melissa: I like to brine and have been doing so forever. There's a Chez Panisse brine recipe I really like, and I've been using for a while. It's pretty standard, using kosher salt, brown sugar, crushed fresh garlic, juniper berries, thyme and rosemary. Stir the salt and sugar until it dissolves in the water, 24 hours ahead of time. I use a garbage bag in my crisper drawer to hold the brine and the turkey.

Any thoughts about buying pre-brined turkeys?

Bill: AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH [Bill leaves the room for a moment.]

Melissa: I think that's what a Butterball is. I think if you're desperate, you can do it, but I wouldn't recommend it.

I've heard of injecting ginger ale into the turkey to prevent dryness. What do you think?

Bill: I think the best thing to do with ginger ale is to empty the bottle and fill it with margaritas. Leave it in the fridge and then you'll have margaritas handy, especially when the family arrives.

Melissa: Can't you just cook the turkey properly and then you don't have to worry about injecting it with anything?

I need a new way to spruce up stuffing. And what is a great cranberry sauce recipe?

Melissa: Martha Stewart has a great cranberry sauce recipe from her magazine in 1995. It involves red pepper flakes, cinnamon sticks and other spices, and also uses fresh orange juice and brown sugar. The spices give it a nice kick.

Bill: We do a stuffing at the restaurant with sausage and mushrooms, but I also like to sweeten it up sometimes with some dried fruit or nuts. Chopping up the cooked gizzards is also really tasty, as well as adding lentils. Another, lighter option is to make a panzanella salad instead of stuffing, with raw vegetables, adding some of the turkey broth, etc.

How do I time all the dishes correctly? I want everything to be hot when I serve it.

Melissa and Bill: You have to let the turkey rest for about 30 minutes, so while that's resting you can put all of your sides into the oven to reheat them because you've made them in advance.

How much food should I make to ensure that each guest gets plenty to eat? I want to have leftovers, but not be left drowning in casseroles for a week afterward.

Bill: For turkey, I would say about two pounds per person, because you want people going home with some.

Melissa: I feel like you need to have all of the classic sides. You should have sweet potatoes, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green vegetables, root vegetables, some bread . . . Consider buying Tupperware in advance, so your guests can all take some home with them.

My youngest is allergic to dairy and soy. How do I make all my dishes without butter or cream?

Bill and Melissa: Just use olive oil in place of butter in all of the recipes. For dessert, you can make an olive oil pound cake, or maybe a flourless almond cake would work.

Should stuffing be stuffed in the turkey or cooked outside of it?

Bill: I would say make the stuffing outside of the turkey. Then, you can better control how the stuffing tastes, as well as control the cooking of the turkey better. Make a turkey broth to use in the stuffing. That way, you get the taste of the turkey without having to cook it inside of the bird.

What is the best way to make a pie crust for a pumpkin or squash pie?

Melissa: Par-bake the crust until it's pretty dark and golden before you put the filling in. The filling gets cooked at a lower temperature, so you won't be able to achieve that brown color on your crust during that baking period. Remember, when you're "blind baking" [that's what this technique is called] your crust, you want to put parchment paper or aluminum foil down and weigh down the bottom of the pie with beans to keep the crust from puffing up.

What do you suggest I do with leftovers?

Melissa: Divvy them up amongst your guests, in Tupperware containers, so they can take them home. Or, make turkey tetrazzini. It's a great, old-school classic.

Bill: I love turkey pot pie with biscuit crust.

If someone is hosting Thanksgiving for the first time, what's your best piece of advice to pull it off well?

Melissa: Make a schedule for yourself. You should start the weekend before. Make anything that can sit in your fridge. You can make cranberry sauce ahead of time for sure. Make a schedule for the day of, as well, so you know what you have to do when. Buy enough wine so everyone has a good time.

This interview has been edited for content and length. Looking for more Thanksgiving wisdom? Check out the full conversation over on Facebook and read more Thanksgiving recipes and tips.