Families gathering around the dinner table on Thanksgiving enjoy a common food culture: roasted turkey, sweet cranberry sauce, succulent squash, fluffy stuffing, buttery potatoes, and freshly baked pumpkin pie. It's the oldest menu Americans know, and perhaps because we're aware of its origins, we don't often think about the chemistry of its components or about how science can heighten our Thanksgiving experience.
On NOVA scienceNOW's "Can I Eat That," premiering October 31, David Pogue, with the help of America's Test Kitchen, uses a dash of science to prepare several Thanksgiving dinners to ensure that everyone is full and happy by the end of the meal. Below are the exact recipes used in the show. You can use them as basic guidelines to the iconic Thanksgiving dinner, or in the interest of variety, as inspiration to deviate a little from traditional fare (via international examples or unusual twists on old favorites).
The Test Kitchen crew focused on the chemical properties of onions, turkey, and stuffing independent of one another. But to many food mixers and mashers, flavor pairing is more cutting-edge terrain. It can help answer such perennial questions as: Why does everything on the Thanksgiving table taste so good together? And why is this particular combination so satisfying?
Last December, Scientific Reports published a study that hypothesized that ingredients sharing flavor compounds are more likely to taste yummy together than ingredients that do not. Although the paper's authors acknowledged that "the scientific analysis of any art, including the art of cooking, is unlikely to be capable of explaining every aspect of the artistic creativity involved," and that how food is prepared plays an important role, they claimed that some basic flavor traits might supersede those factors.
Their "flavor network," which you can view by following this link, reveals some not-so-surprising facts about Thanksgiving food. Though cranberries and turkey are not directly connected, certain meats share flavor compounds with wine, which in turn shares flavor compounds with various fruits. Meats have strong ties to potatoes, onions, yeast, and beans. Cucumbers--which, like pumpkin and squash, belong to the Cucurbitaceae family of vegetables--share flavor compounds with butter, which is connected to meats and wheat. And it seems that apples, too, closely resemble wine in their composition.
The flavor network map exposes the way some parts of Thanksgiving dinner open up the palate and make the meal less monochromatic. Spices in pumpkin pie--cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice--cluster in one part of the schematic near nuts, herbs, flowers, and a few vegetables but away from most of the meal's ingredients. The same holds true for cranberry sauce, which has close ties with other fruits, kelp, and some of seafood. The map might also explain optional side dishes, like shrimp, cheese dishes, and citrus elements; orange is the only fruit on the map that shares flavor compounds with nutmeg. Which brings us to the post-meal food coma. According to the study's flavor network, tea and coffee tie together the various Thanksgiving food groups--meats, spices, and alcohol. Fittingly--and perhaps unwittingly--our after-dinner customs may help tie everything together.
With the food map as a guide, you can start to concoct your own Thanksgiving meal, perhaps one with an Asian-American flair, which would balance the Western practice of pairing ingredients with shared flavor compounds with the Eastern tradition of using ingredients with more disparate flavor compounds. Such mixing and matching may be why tabouli tastes so good--its ingredients (wheat, lemon, tomato, and parsley) are scattered across the map, but all have ties to more centered ingredients like tea.
Recipes for a NOVA scienceNOW Thanksgiving
ROASTED BRINED TURKEY
This recipe is designed for a natural turkey, not treated with salt or chemicals. If using a self-basting turkey (such as a frozen Butterball) or kosher turkey, do not brine in step 1, and season with salt after brushing with melted butter in step 5. Resist the temptation to tent the roasted turkey with foil while it rests on the carving board. Covering the bird will make the skin soggy.
1 cup salt
1 (12- to 14-pound) turkey, neck, giblets, and tailpiece removed and reserved for gravy
2 onions, chopped coarse
2 carrots, peeled and chopped coarse
2 celery ribs, chopped coarse
6 sprigs fresh thyme
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1-1 1/2 cups water
1 recipe Giblet Pan Gravy
1. Dissolve salt in 2 gallons cold water in large container. Submerge turkey in brine, cover, and refrigerate or store in very cool spot (40 degrees or less) for 6 to 12 hours.
2. Set wire rack in rimmed baking sheet. Remove turkey from brine and pat dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Place turkey on prepared wire rack. Refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 8 hours or overnight.
3. Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Line V-rack with heavy-duty aluminum foil and poke holes in foil. Set V-rack in roasting pan and spray foil with vegetable oil spray.
4. Toss half of onions, half of carrots, half of celery, and thyme with 1 tablespoon melted butter in bowl and place inside turkey. Tie legs together with kitchen twine and tuck wings behind back. Scatter remaining vegetables in pan.
5. Pour water over vegetable mixture in pan. Brush turkey breast with 1 tablespoon melted butter, then place turkey breast side down on V-rack. Brush with remaining 1 tablespoon butter.
6. Roast turkey for 45 minutes. Remove pan from oven. Using 2 large wads of paper towels, turn turkey breast side up. If liquid in pan has totally evaporated, add another 1/2 cup water. Return turkey to oven and roast until breast registers 160 degrees and thighs register 175 degrees, 50 minutes to 1 hour.
7. Remove turkey from oven. Gently tip turkey so that any accumulated juices in cavity run into pan. Transfer turkey to carving board and let rest, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Carve turkey and serve with gravy.
GIBLET PAN GRAVY
Makes about six cups
Complete step 1 up to a day ahead, if desired. Begin step 3 once the bird has been removed from the oven and is resting on a carving board.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Reserved turkey giblets, neck, and tailpiece
1 onion, chopped
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
2 sprigs fresh thyme
8 sprigs fresh parsley
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 cup dry white wine
Salt and pepper
1. Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add giblets, neck, and tailpiece and cook until golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Stir in onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until turkey parts and onion release their juices, about 15 minutes. Stir in broth, water, thyme, and parsley, bring to boil, and adjust heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, skimming any impurities that may rise to surface, until broth is rich and flavorful, about 30 minutes longer. Strain broth into large container and reserve giblets. When cool enough to handle, chop giblets. Refrigerate giblets and broth until ready to use. (Broth can be stored in refrigerator for up to 1 day.)
2. While turkey is roasting, return reserved turkey broth to simmer in saucepan. Melt butter in separate large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly (mixture will froth and then thin out again), until nutty brown and fragrant, 10 to 15 minutes. Vigorously whisk all but 1 cup of hot broth into flour mixture. Bring to boil, then continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until gravy is lightly thickened and very flavorful, about 30 minutes longer. Set aside until turkey is done.
3. When turkey has been transferred to carving board to rest, spoon out and discard as much fat as possible from pan, leaving caramelized herbs and vegetables. Place pan over 2 burners set on medium-high heat. Return gravy to simmer. Add wine to pan of caramelized vegetables, scraping up any browned bits. Bring to boil and cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add remaining 1 cup turkey broth, bring to simmer, and cook for 15 minutes; strain pan juices into gravy, pressing as much juice as possible out of vegetables. Stir reserved giblets into gravy and return to boil. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
BREAD STUFFING WITH FRESH HERBS
Two pounds of chicken wings can be substituted for the turkey wings. If using chicken wings, separate them into 2 sections (it's not necessary to separate the tips) and poke each segment 4 or 5 times. Also, increase the amount of broth to 3 cups, reduce the amount of butter to 4 tablespoons, and cook the stuffing for only 60 minutes (the wings should register over 175 degrees at the end of cooking). Use the meat from the cooked wings to make salad or soup.
2 pounds (20 to 22 slices) hearty white sandwich bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 16 cups)
3 pounds turkey wings, divided at joints
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for baking dish
1 large onion, chopped fine
3 celery ribs, chopped fine
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
1 teaspoon pepper
2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1. Adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 250 degrees. Spread bread cubes in even layer on 2 rimmed baking sheets. Bake until edges have dried but centers are slightly moist (cubes should yield to pressure), 45 to 60 minutes, stirring several times during baking. (Bread can be toasted up to 1 day in advance.) Transfer to large bowl and increase oven temperature to 375 degrees.
2. Use tip of paring knife to poke 10 to 15 holes in each wing segment. Heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until it begins to shimmer. Add wings in single layer and cook until golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Flip wings and continue to cook until golden brown on second side, 4 to 6 minutes longer. Transfer wings to medium bowl and set aside.
3. Return skillet to medium-high heat and add butter. When foaming subsides, add onion, celery, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened but not browned, 7 to 9 minutes. Add thyme, sage, and pepper; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 1 cup broth and bring to simmer, using wooden spoon to scrape browned bits from bottom of pan. Add vegetable mixture to bowl with dried bread and toss to combine.
4. Grease 13 by 9-inch baking dish with butter. In medium bowl, whisk eggs, remaining 11/2 cups broth, remaining 11/2 teaspoons salt, and any accumulated juices from wings until combined. Add egg/broth mixture and parsley to bread mixture and gently toss to combine; transfer to greased baking dish. Arrange wings on top of stuffing, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and place baking dish on rimmed baking sheet.
5. Bake on lower-middle rack until thickest part of wings registers 175 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 60 to 75 minutes. Remove foil and transfer wings to dinner plate to reserve for another use. Using fork, gently fluff stuffing. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.
CLASSIC MASHED POTATOES
Russet potatoes make fluffier mashed potatoes, but Yukon Golds have an appealing buttery flavor and can be used.
2 pounds russet potatoes
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup half-and-half, warmed
Salt and pepper
1. Place potatoes in large saucepan and cover with 1 inch cold water. Bring to boil over high heat, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until potatoes are just tender (paring knife can be slipped in and out of potatoes with little resistance), 20 to 30 minutes. Drain.
2. Set ricer or food mill over now-empty saucepan. Using potholder (to hold potatoes) and paring knife, peel skins from potatoes. Working in batches, cut peeled potatoes into large chunks and press or mill into saucepan.
3. Stir in butter until incorporated. Gently whisk in half-and-half, add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and season with pepper to taste. Serve.