"My aunt, I remember the first turkey she made. We went to her house. Everything was beautiful. She pulled out the turkey. It looked great. But she forgot to take out the giblets," recalls Emily Richards of Guelph, Ont.
"I think that's one of the most common first-time turkey stories I've heard," says the professional home economist. "And it's something that some recipes might not even include because that's something that's an assumption or if you've seen someone make a turkey, you know.
"It's those little things like that that once you know them you'll feel a little bit more comfortable in continuing on," she adds.
Richards rinses the giblets and neck and boils them in water while the big bird is cooking, then uses the liquid to make flavourful gravy.
"If you don't want to deal with the giblets, the utility turkeys tend to not have the giblet bags," she explains. "The tip of the wing might be snipped off or there might be a little puncture in the skin. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the turkey. In processing it might have got a little nip or a tuck and those are the ones you tend to see a lot more discounted or sold frozen most often.
"If I'm cooking more than one, for the price it's awesome to get them," she says, adding she often cooks a couple turkeys and also makes stock during cold weather months. The meat can be frozen and the stock can be used in soups and stews.
Richards is a seasoned host but acknowledges that the first time having family and friends over for Thanksgiving dinner can be nerve-racking.
Figure out how many people are attending your feast to determine the size of turkey and number of potatoes you'll need. Plan your menu and draw up a shopping list so you don't forget anything.
If guests offer to contribute to the meal, take them up on it. You can keep control over the menu by asking them to bring a side dish or salad to accompany your turkey, mashed potatoes and dessert, but you'll ease your work load.
Guests bringing a dish should keep in mind that oven space is often at a premium when a holiday meal is being prepared. Consider toting a slow cooker filled with a squash soup or a side dish that simply needs reheating. While the turkey is resting after being removed from the oven (20 to 30 minutes depending on its size) and before being carved, the oven temperature can be increased to 220 C (425 F) to quickly reheat shallow dishes of vegetables or side dishes.
Another common error Richards points to is dry meat as a result of overcooking. The best remedy is to insert an instant-read thermometer in the thigh area where the dark meat is, being careful not to touch bone. If the bird starts to get dark on top before it's cooked, tent it with foil.
"I like cooking my turkey at 325 F (160 C) for the whole time, but there's other methods where you start at higher heat and then turn it down. In the end, I find I get a nice golden brown colour at that constant temperature," says Richards.
A fresh herb aficionado, Richards likes to rub the turkey skin with a bit of canola oil or butter or a combination and then rosemary and sage. Sometimes she'll brush the turkey with an orange glaze along with the herb rub.
"Putting a lemon or orange inside the cavity gives it a nice little citrus tone as well," she says. You can also infuse it with a ginger flavour by placing slices of fresh ginger in the cavity if you're not stuffing the gobbler.
"Then there's people that enjoy the plain and simple as well — a little salt and pepper and oil or butter is always nice too."
Her children — Matthew, 11, Nicholas, 8, and Adriana, 6 — are traditionalists when it comes to mashed potatoes, turkey, gravy and stuffing for Thanksgiving. But Richards likes to experiment with side dishes and extend flavours from one dish to another.
"If I'm using a little bit of rosemary in my turkey I like to try to let it appear in one of the side dishes that I'm having. If I'm doing something like a squash I'll saute some garlic and rosemary and toss it with maple syrup, so to me that's a nice marriage because now the rosemary is prevalent in the turkey but it's also coming out a little bit in the squash. ...
"Sage is obviously a popular one at Thanksgiving too. My sister does this awesome apple and turnip mash and then she puts a little bit of sage in because I tend to put sage in the turkey as well or in the stuffing so it kind of reappears a couple of times. To me that's how everything can kind of go together."
Holiday meals tend to be rich with all the trimmings, but turkey itself "is the best and leanest protein that you're enjoying," Richards says.
Roasted, skinless, boneless turkey is low in fat and sodium, a source of several essential nutrients and contains no carbohydrates, says the Ontario Turkey producers website. The website (makeitsuper.ca) contains a wealth of information on such topics as how long it takes to thaw turkey and how to prepare and cook a whole turkey or turkey parts using various techniques like roasting, brining and deep-frying.
Outdoor grilling over indirect heat also frees up the oven for side dishes. Another way to reduce cooking time and achieve a crispy skin is spatchcocking, or remove the backbone so that the turkey can lie flat. Use good-quality kitchen shears or ask your butcher to do it.