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Strategies for cooking the perfect Thanksgiving turkey

Some swear by roasting with nothing more than butter and herbs; others by smoking, poaching, grilling or even frying.

The search for the perfectly cooked turkey — moist and flavorful with a golden, crusty skin — is intrinsic to the Thanksgiving experience.

John Gurnee, chef de cuisine at LB Steak in Menlo Park, thinks the best path to take is simplicity.

"As far as turkey cooking tips, I feel you really only need three things: herbs, butter and salt," he said. "After that it's time and temperature."

Gurnee said he starts by rubbing fresh butter under the skin, along with some chopped herbs. He recommends sage, thyme and a little bit of rosemary. The combination results in a compound butter, which goes a long way with flavor and color.

Last up: "a liberal amount of salt for flavoring," Gurnee said.

"I think that's basically all you need for a great tasting turkey, beyond cooking it correctly and not desecrating it in the oven. Obviously there's a million recipes and magazines that have glazes and whatever, but simple is good for the home cook."

Gale Tan, the former culinary manager for Sur La Table Palo Alto who now runs a local pop-up dinner company, also suggests a low-stress, albeit unconventional, way for cooking turkey: using Pam Cooking Spray.

Used right, the familiar cooking spray can help make a moist, flavorful turkey, Tan said. (Trust her; in 2000, she won a Pam Cooking Spray contest using this method to cook a turkey in two hours.)

After purchasing a turkey ("You've got to splurge on your turkey," Tan said, who prefers the Butterball brand), thaw it overnight in the refrigerator.

On Thanksgiving Day, start by seasoning the bird, rubbing any spices or herbs over it. Then go to town with the Pam — which also comes in flavors, such as lemon and butter — and spray the entire turkey.

Put the turkey into a roasting pan, tent it with aluminum foil (spray the foil with Pam as well, as it might come into contact with the bird) and put it into the oven at a very high heat (500 degrees or even a little higher).

Tan said her go-to bird poundage to cooking time ratio is an hour or hour-and-a-half for every eight pounds, but it also depends on the oven. Two hours is a safe guideline as well — put it in for two hours and make sure to check it along the way, she said.

After the two hours, pull the Pam-coated bird out and test its internal temperature, aiming for 165 degrees. Take off the aluminum foil tent.

This is where Tan — a product of culinary school and years of gourmet cooking — might depart from what the home cook is willing to do. To get that ever-coveted golden skin color, Tan uses a culinary torch.

"Some people don't want to do that, so they put it back into the oven and turn it on at 400 and broil it," she said. "(But) it's not even a color that you get compared to if you actually use a torch."

The benefits of the Pam method: no basting necessary and it doesn't take the whole day to cook.

"The best part is you end up with a product that's extremely moist," Tan added. "It's very moist; it's very flavorful because you're not killing the turkey or overcooking the turkey beyond what's necessary."

Beyond the bird, Tan said she always cooks the stuffing separately rather than inside to avoid it ending up like "mush." (Plus, if any family members or guests are vegetarian, they might not eat a stuffing that was basted in turkey juices.) She dresses up a classic stuffing by adding oysters.

Mark Bubert, owner of Dittmer's Gourmet Meats & Wurst-Haus in Los Altos, said cooking the stuffing inside the turkey simply isn't healthy, because it doesn't get up to the proper temperature.

Bubert makes a few sausages in bulk for Thanksgiving, meant as stuffing additions: chorizo, Nuremberg bratwurst ("a sausage most of my clientele are addicted to," he said), hot Italian, mild Italian, regular pork, sage and chicken portobello mushroom.

Smoking a turkey at home is also an option, or buying one already smoked from Dittmer's, where they're smoked for 10-12 hours. Dittmer's gets their birds from Diestel Family Turkey Ranch — a well-known, sustainable turkey farm in Sonora, Calif. — and smokes them for $4.69 per pound.

Bubert said he smokes them on a rack above an apple juice, apple cider and sometimes apricot nectar mixture, and then use the drippings from the turkey and remaining juice to make a sauce.

"It's amazing," he said. "It's simple."

He added that his mother does the Thanksgiving cooking, but his two tips are to cook the turkey upside down ("all the juices go into the breast,") and start with the best quality turkey (from Diestel Ranch, in his opinion).

Tan said for those with smaller families or having "Thanksgiving for two," it's not necessary to buy an entire turkey.

Instead, buy turkey breast — or duck, as an alternative — and smoke it in a wok.

Line the bottom of the wok completely with foil. Combine a cup of rice, half a cup of tea leaves, some cinnamon and any other spices and half a cup of sugar; stir and put it in the bottom of the wok. Put a rack on top of the wok with the turkey or duck breast resting on top before covering the entire contraption with the wok lid (or tent it with foil to avoid cleaning the lid).

Turn on the heat at medium/medium low and leave it for 20 minutes.

"So what happens is the brown sugar melts and caramelizes, heats up the spices, the rice, the tea, the herbs that you've got under there, without touching the breast," Tan said.

After the 20 minutes, turn off the heat and let it sit for 10 minutes.

"It condenses — with the heat and everything, there's condensation inside," she said. "So when you take off the foil tent, you've got a smoked turkey breast or duck breast. That's the poor man's smoker."

For the unconventional Thanksgiving diner: The wok smoking method can work with sausages, prawns, crab cakes and more, Tan said.

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