Thanksgiving Pro Hacks from Chef Aliya LeeKong

Thanksgiving Pro Hacks from Chef Aliya LeeKong

My secret to a smooth Thanksgiving is prepping way ahead. I do desserts on Tuesday and start the brine on the turkey, chop all vegetables and prep any casseroles on Wednesday. Then I finish everything off the day of.


1) Brine your turkey!

Brining is the best way to ensure that the turkey will stay moist and flavorful!  The only decision left is a dry brine vs. a wet brine.  Using a dry brine is basically pre-salting the turkey without any water.  Some say that this is the better method (it definitely saves space in the fridge…), and while it doesn’t always guarantee as juicy a bird as a wet brine, it does offer a much crispier skin when cooked.  The turkey sits in the fridge, uncovered, with the dry salt brine mix for up to 3 days prior to cooking.  The salt mixture will draw out the moisture from the bird.  The salt is then dissolved in this liquid and reabsorbed which helps to break down any tough proteins making it tender, juicy and flavorful.

With a wet brine, you add water to the equation and need a bag big enough to house the turkey and a pan (for a just-in-case-the-bag-bursts scenario).  This just means more room needed in the fridge that, quite frankly not a lot of us have around this time of year!  The turkey then bathes in the brine for up to 3 days and (I think) creates a juicer outcome.

I’ve used both techniques in the past and, honestly, I think the choice for brining depends on the cooking method.  For a traditional roast turkey, I say go with the wet brine – for the longer cooking time, you need the brine to plump up the moisture content.  For a spatchcocked or butterflied turkey (which cooks in less than half the time!), though,  I think a dry brine is the best way to go – you get the moisture you need and perfectly crisped skin!

What I love about both brines is that you can add whatever spices you want to create a personalized mix.  In the past, I have played around with allspice berries, juniper berries, fresh (or dry) herbs, garlic, chipotle peppers (grinded), citrus zest (orange, lemon, lime, etc…), star anise, cardamom… get the idea.  All you need to know is the ratio of salt to water for a wet brine (about 2- 2 1/2 cups salt to 1 gallon of water).  For a dry brine, I use a 1/2 cup kosher salt with 2 tablespoons baking powder as a ratio and don’t always use all of that salt, depending on the size of the turkey.

A few things: Always default to kosher salt here as this method needs the larger crystals to work; regular table salt is not ideal for this recipe.  Also, this is only good for a non-kosher, non-treated, fresh turkey.  If you aren’t buying a fresh one, make sure you read the label to see if it’s been pre-treated.

Finally, remember that there is no need to re-salt the turkey once you are ready to put it in the oven!  Usually with the wet brine, I rinse the turkey in and out and pat dry before stuffing it and putting it in the oven.  With the dry brine, I don’t rinse but only pat the skin dry before roasting.

2) Prep Your Veggies!

Prepping your veggies the night before is a no-brainer.  Making roasted Brussels sprouts?  Rinse and split them and store them in a freezer bag in the fridge.  Mashed potatoes?  Scrub and peel potatoes and keep them submerged in water in the fridge for max 12 hours.  Sauteed carrots?  Peel, chop and store in the fridge.   Same for any squash dishes (without skin).  I also love to chop all my onions, mushrooms, peppers, celery, carrots, etc and prep all of my herbs for the stuffing the night before. ( And speaking of stuffing, if you’re using fresh bread, cube it up and leave it out on a sheet pan overnight to crisp a bit.)

3) Casseroles

Casseroles are the best things to make ahead and store in the fridge.  I’m a big fan of baked mac n cheese that I infuse with lots of onions, garlic, chilies and top up with a crunchy breadcrumb-parm topping.  This is totally something I make the day before up to the point of baking.  Then, all I have to do is throw it into the oven while the turkey is resting (!) and have a beautiful, bubbling mac right in time.  Anything “creamed” stands up beautifully to being made ahead of time – think potato or other root vegetable au gratin, corn pudding, green bean casserole, broccoli and cheese.

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