Chef Ryan's Tips for Cooking the Thanksgiving Feast

Top Tips for the Thanksgiving Feast from Chef Ryan Epp

Chef Ryan Epp, of Verve Wine + Provisions in Chicago, shares his top three tips to improve your holiday spread, how to brine a turkey, an elevated alternative to mashed potatoes, and the holy grail of how-to-prep advice. 

Chef Ryan Epp of Verve Wine + Provisions in Chicago, Photo by @alldilaleePhoto Credit: @alldilalee 

Do you have any advice for people that have one oven at home, but want to serve several dishes hot and ready at the same time?

This is one of the more challenging things to accomplish without proper planning. A successful Thanksgiving feast (or any large meal for that matter) is all about the mise en place, or prep work that goes on behind the scenes long before the table is set. 

Those who want things hot and ready at the same time shouldn't plan on making all of the sides on the day of the big event. Preparation of stuffing, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, and pies can be done one to two days in advance. 

Temper sides (one to two hours) while the turkey is in the oven. When it is almost done, throw in the pre-cooked items and heat them up. It's also always a good idea to rest the bird for 15-20 minutes post-oven, which also provides extra time to heat up the last minute items.  


How can a home cook take something classic and make it special, without going overboard on tricky ingredients?

Special doesn't always mean luxury or expensive. Instead of thinking truffle or caviar, find the best products you can from a local farm. Even though the weather is changing here in the midwest, the farmer's markets are still going strong. Grabbing some heirloom apples for your pie, freshly dug potatoes for your mash, or the last of the field greens for that side salad goes a long way. Food is always more exciting when you know where it comes from.

There is no substitute for quality ingredients — no amount of truffle oil will ever cover that. That said, a little technique outside of your comfort zone also goes a long way. Try deboning your turkey and tying it back up before roasting; you won't go back. If that sounds like too much, a 24-hour brine imparts moisture and flavor into those sometimes tricky birds.

Farmers Market Haul + Go-To Wine, Fresh Ingredients are always Best

What’s the deal with brining the turkey? How is that done?

Brine your bird. Always brine your bird. 

It's a simple ratio: 2 gallons of water to 1 cup salt and 1.5 cups sugar. Make sure your bird is fully submerged and refrigerated and let it hang out in there for 24 hours. Go wild here, use brown sugar if you want. Add rosemary and thyme. Throw in some orange peel, black peppercorns, and bay leaves. Keep the ratio the same and add whatever flavors you desire. 

Once brined, setting the turkey on a rack uncovered for a day or two will also help to dry out the skin. I know most folks think they don't have space in their fridge for this, but I assure you, you can make space. I know, I've done it in an NYC apartment. Keep it on the bottom shelves away from anything raw that won't be cooked, scrub the fridge out with hot soapy water, and use those Clorox wipes you hoarded during the pandemic.

The last secret here — the skin will never truly be "crispy," got it? We are looking for juicy meat and a nice golden brown crust but I promise you no expensive oven or miracle rub will work, so focus your attention on the main event...the meat. A brush of clarified butter during the cooking process will make the skin look golden, but taking the time to brine and properly air-dry your bird is most important.

 Brine Your Turkey, Always Brine Your Turkey for Thanksgiving

Do you have an interesting way to add a new dimension to a tried-and-true holiday dish?

Smashed Potato is a simpler, more rustic, but ever-so-satisfying rendition of classic mash. Grab some yukon gold potatoes (from your local farmer) dice them into even chunks (don't peel them; the skin has all the flavor), boil them in salted water until tender, drain, and rustically smash together with some quality unsalted butter, a few hearty slashes of buttermilk, and some salt and black pepper to taste.  

To summarize:

Buy quality ingredients. 

From your bird to your spuds, get them from someone whose name you know. You can taste the difference.

Mise en place is your mantra. 

Set yourself up for success behind the scenes before the table is set. Do as much prep ahead of time as you can.  

Step outside your comfort zone. 

Try something new. It might not come out exactly how you imagined. That's ok—you tried—and you learned.

 

“A chef can’t make great food without great products.” ~ from A Conversation With Chef Ryan Epp Of Verve Wine + Provisions In Chicago

 

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