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How to Intensify the Flavors of Your Thanksgiving Turkey

The stuffing, the gravy, and the skin offer three opportunities to pump up the flavor of your turkey dinner

Fine Cooking Issue 35
Photos: Ben Fink
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In my view, the secret to moist, delicious turkey isn’t in having a special roasting method but rather in finding ways to invest the bird with flavor.

In a way, a turkey is like a blank canvas, waiting to take on whatever palette of flavors you hand it. To create a really vibrant package, I take a three-pronged approach to my bird, making sure that each of the added components is truly packed with flavor. I start by rubbing the skin and inside cavity with sage, nutmeg, and pepper, an aromatic combination that transfers its volatile oils to the bird while releasing an uplifting fragrance into the kitchen. For the stuffing, I heighten interest with a few extra ingredients. For example, my sausage stuffing doesn’t stop at bread, sausage, and the usual lineup of aromatic vegetables. For deeper flavor, I also add fresh thyme leaves, Marsala wine, and the turkey liver (don’t worry, it’s optional). And instead of making a gravy of just pan drippings, roux, and stock, I enrich the sauce even further by whisking in Madeira or fresh herbs. These seemingly minor touches help elevate the turkey—and the whole meal—to something memorable and delicious, yet still traditional.

Since familiarity and comfort are important elements of the Thanksgiving meal, the two pairs of stuffing and gravy recipes I’m proposing take their cue from some cherished favorites. I do buck tradition on one point, though: I often bone the bird before stuffing it. It isn’t really that difficult, and it makes carving a snap.

Choose the bird and season it well

Turkeys these days sport all sorts of confusing monikers on the label: self-basting, free range, or all natural. I always look for the word natural, which means the bird has been only minimally processed, in contrast to self-basting birds, which have been injected with oil or water. Freerange birds must be ordered ahead from natural food stores and some groceries, but in my experience they have been leaner and drier than the more readily available “natural” birds. (For more about choosing a turkey, see Choosing a holiday turkey for freshness and taste. )

One more note about label reading: look for the words “includes giblets.” You’ll need those for making gravy.

As for size, I generally prefer smaller birds, mostly because larger ones won’t fit in my refrigerator. My rule of thumb is about one pound of turkey per person; if you want substantial seconds and leftovers, allow another half-pound per person. If you’re hosting a really big crowd and you have two ovens, consider roasting two smaller birds instead of one large one. (This will also provide a good excuse to try two kinds of dressing.)

A heavy-duty roasting pan is ideal. Last year, I determined that my turkey warranted something more substantial than a disposable aluminum pan, so I invested in a sturdy 18×13-inch pan made of enameled steel and outfitted with easyto-grasp handles. But with my boned and stuffed turkey installed in the pan for its maiden voyage, I discovered that the handles made the pan too wide for my oven. I retreated to the garage for a hammer. After a few well-aimed strikes, the handles were “customized” and the pan fit beautifully. But if I had it to do over  again, I’d measure before buying.

A roasting pan made of a heavyweight metal helps ensure that the drippings don’t burn while the turkey roasts, and it gives better results when it comes time to deglaze the pan for making gravy.  But if you don’t have one, don’t despair; the disposable aluminum ones will work.

Be liberal with the seasoning. I think that the most common mistake cooks make when roasting a turkey is using too little salt and pepper. After rinsing the bird thoroughly and patting it dry, I rub it with melted butter or olive oil and I season it with plenty of coarse salt, freshly ground black pepper, nutmeg, and dried sage. Sweet-smelling nutmeg amplifies the aromatic qualities of everything else, and sage seems to bring out the homey goodness of poultry. The warmth of thyme is a viable option as well, and since my grandmother is allergic to sage, this is a frequent substitution in my family.

Dry, day-old bread makes light, moist stuffing

If I were to give in to my own nostalgic urges every year, we’d always have cornbread stuffing. I like the sweet, nutty flavor and the connotations of my boyhood home in the Deep South (I grew up in the Florida panhandle). But the truth is, I’m happy with any well-made stuffing, as long as it’s moist and well seasoned.

Choose a good-quality bread, and buy it a couple of days in advance. I use a rustic ciabatta for the Italian sausage dressing, a bread that I’d just as soon eat plain as I would in a stuffing. French bread comes in all guises, from mediocre supermarket loaves that are empty of flavor  to excellent baguettes with crackly crusts and an irregular crumb. Obviously, go for the latter, if possible.

Thanksgiving is one event where it’s okay to buy the bread a few days early because you want dry, stale bread for stuffing so it can stand up to the added moisture without getting mushy, as fresh bread would. You could also cube fresh bread several hours before making the stuffing and let the cubes air-dry at room temperature, or toast them briefly in a low oven.

If you opt for cornbread  stuffing, make your own cornbread a day or two ahead. You can whip it up in about a half hour. Cornbreadcrumbles easily, so I cut it up into fairly large cubes, which naturally crumble into smaller bits during mixing.

For springier breads that don’t crumble, cut smaller cubes. When the cubes are too large, the dressing feels more like a hodgepodge of disparate ingredients and less like an ensemble. This is especially the case for dry stuffings that lack a binding element, like eggs.

These recipes make a lot of stuffing because there never seems to be enough of it. (Who was it who said, “I don’t want any more turkey, but I would like some more of that bread he ate”?) About a third of the dressing will fit inside a 12- to 14-lb. bird, and the rest can be cooked in a baking dish. While I don’t shovel in the dressing as if I were filling a sausage casing, I also don’t worry excessively about overpacking.

If you want to get a head start on the stuffing, you can cut up the bread, sauté the vegetables, and measure the seasonings in advance. To avoid soggy bread and spoilage, don’t combine the bread with the liquid components until you’re ready to stuff the bird. This is particularly important for dressings that are bound with eggs, like the cornbread stuffing.

Stuff both cavities—the author prefers to use his hands. Extra dressing bakes off in a separate dish.

Gravy: the final step before carving

No turkey dinner is complete without  gravy. And for me, no turkey gravy is complete without a rich base of stock made from the giblets. The idea of giblet gravy may be off-putting to some, but I strain out the giblets so they don’t affect the texture. The stock is so simple to make, and the timing so well coordinated with roasting the turkey, that I find it hard to imagine skipping this step.

As flavorful as it is, stock is too light to stand alone as a base for gravy. For real intensity of flavor, you need to incorporate the pan drippings, those dark, caramelized juices on the bottom of the roasting pan. For really smooth gravy that isn’t gummy, use a judicious hand with any thickeners and whisk constantly to avoid lumps. See the photos below for two thickening methods. In general, I use one Tbs. of flour for every cup of liquid in a gravy.

One way to thicken—a butter-flour paste

To thicken with a beurre manié (pronounced burr mahn-yay), knead equal parts soft butter and flour into a smooth paste.
Bring strained giblet stock and defatted, deglazed pan drippings to a boil and whisk in the beurre manié a bit at a time.

Another starts with a fat and flour roux

To thicken with a roux (pronounced roo), put the fat reserved from the pan drippings in a pan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour.
When the roux just begins to turn blond, whisk in strained giblet stock and defatted, deglazed pan drippings.


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