Tips, Tricks + Recipes for Thanksgiving from Chef Michele DiPietro of Whole Foods Market

16 Nov

All photos are courtesy of Whole Foods Market

Ready to plan out your Thanksgiving meal and head to the store to get your shopping done?  Yeah, you and half of the country!  Before you head out, check out our interview with Chef Michele DiPietro, Associate Culinary Concepts Coordinator for Whole Foods Market Northeast Region.  She lays out tips for finding the perfect turkey, different ways to cook and prepare your bird, easy sides, and even a cranberry sauce with candied ginger that will wow your guests.  Check out the food she mentions at these Whole Foods Market locations.

How do you go about finding that perfect turkey for your meal?

Easy – I buy it every year at Whole Foods Market!  I generally opt for the “Free Range” version, but have tried most of our varieties and love them all.  I grew up on fresh, never frozen turkeys, so always prefer one, but of course, a frozen turkey can be great as well.  The trick is really in the cooking process – if you get it right, almost any turkey can be moist and flavorful.  One thing that I haven’t yet tried are the different heirloom turkeys available today that some people claim apparently have a much richer flavor …. maybe next year!

As for amounts, I generally go by the “2 lbs per person” recommendation (then add couple more pounds! WE love leftovers, right???).

What are some of your favorite ways to prep or season the turkey before you cook it?

I always make a highly seasoned “compound” butter ahead of time to season the turkey.  (It’s really just a fancy name for a flavored butter.)  This is where you can be as creative as you want with spices and herbs and flavorings.  I generally stay pretty traditional for Thanksgiving and use lots of chopped sage, thyme, marjoram, rosemary and parsley, a little fresh lemon juice, chopped garlic, salt and black pepper, but other great combinations are chipotle lime,  white wine and roasted garlic, or sun-dried tomato and basil.  Whatever your choice is, just bring some butter to room temperature in a bowl, mash the flavorings in with a fork, then refrigerate it until ready to use.  The great thing about compound butters is they last a really long time, so feel free to make it way in advance of the big dinner.  When it’s time to prep the turkey, bring the flavored butter back to room temperature so that it is soft and easy to work with, then rub it liberally all over and under the turkey skin.

I also love to put lots of large chunks of carrots, celery and onions (and even whole garlic cloves) in the turkey cavity and around the turkey in the roasting pan — these veggies add great flavor to the natural juices that drip off the turkey during roasting.  These juices are the same that are used for both basting the bird and making gravy, so the more seasoning and flavor the butter!  (Oh, I mean, “better”!)

Roasting your turkey is probably the most popular method for Thanksgiving.  What tips can you share to get the perfect golden brown color while still keeping the meat nice and juicy?

First, if you don’t have a meat thermometer – buy one!

Next, place your seasoned turkey, breast side up, in a really hot oven (425ͦF-450ͦF) until the skin has browned to your liking (about 15-25 minutes).  You will need to keep a very close eye on the bird during this time so that it does not burn.)

Then, remove the roasting pan from the oven, turn the oven down to 325ͦF, and cover the pan completely in aluminum foil.  Give the oven a couple minutes to reduce in temperature, then return the pan to the oven.

The turkey will now roast on the inside slowly at the lower temperature, retaining a lot of its juices and staying moist during the process.  I like to baste the turkey with its natural juices several times during roasting.

**Something important to keep in mind is that this method of initial high temperature roasting/browning of the turkey ends up giving the overall cooking process a “boost” – meaning that the turkey takes less time than you would think to finish cooking.  So, I suggest calculating about 12 minutes per pound for the remaining cooking time.

When the timer goes off, insert your meat thermometer into the thickest part of the bird, where the thigh and leg meet.  Stop before touching the bone.  (This is the part of the bird that takes the longest to cook, so taking the temperature here is very important.)  The turkey is finished cooking when the thermometer reads 165ͦF.  If it is not yet there, return the turkey to the oven for more cooking.  Check it again in about 15-20 minutes.

We also know that people swear by frying their turkeys.  What advice could you give our fans so that they don’t burn down their house in the process?

Plain and simple, make sure your bird is dry. If you purchased a bird that was previously frozen, it must be 100%, without a doubt defrosted!

Is there any other way to cook the turkey that you feel people should be aware of?

It’s become quite popular to have a butcher “break-down” the turkey and then to cook the resulting parts separately.  This is quite logical, really, since a turkey breast will ALWAYS cook faster than the dark meat of a leg and thigh that is right up against the bone.  In fact, this is why it is so hard to cook a whole turkey well!  You do lose the presentation and “oooh and ahhhh” factor with this method, but you will also probably be a lot less stressed about the whole process.  My cousin cooked the parts separately last year and then proclaimed that she would never ever cook a whole turkey again!

The seasoning of the turkey parts will remain the same as for a whole bird.  The most important factor to consider is that the different parts will take different lengths of time to cook.  And, they will all take less time to cook than a whole turkey.  I still suggest starting with a high heat method to get the browning effect of the skin, but then check the internal temperatures of the parts every hour or so with your meat thermometer once you have covered the pan and reduced the heat.

Now, onto sides.  What are your thoughts:  stuffing inside or outside of the turkey?

AAHHH!  — STUFFING!!  … my favorite part of the meal and the one that I insist on contributing every year.  Quite frankly, I would be happy with a plate of stuffing and gravy for Thanksgiving dinner, so be aware that my answer here may be skewed.  I am most definitely an outside-the-turkey stuffing girl.  So, yes, it’s not really a “stuffing” at all, but rather a “dressing” or, in my case since I always use eggs, more like a “super-hearty savory bread pudding” of sorts.  How could there ever be enough stuffing, anyway, if you only filled the cavity of the bird?  My stuffing dishes are generally overflowing lasagna pans with enough to feed 3 families or more.  Maybe it’s my Italian-American, carb-loving self, but stuffing to me is the ultimate in post-Thanksgiving food that you want leftover.  (I learned at a very young age that I love cold stuffing as much as hot stuffing, I am embarrassed to admit…)  In any case, it should be outside the turkey and it should be plentiful.  This year, mine will be made with a variety of mushrooms, Italian sausage, lots of herbs, and a combo of torn challah breads and baguettes.  I am considering mixing in some chopped sautéed spinach as well.

As for other Thanksgiving Day sides, it’s fun to try a new twist here and there on a traditional favorite or perhaps incorporate a unique accent to the meal before, during or after.  It could be risky, so I suggest experimenting with only one dish and going more-or-less classic with the rest.   Here are some of my favorites:

Instead of mashed potatoes, coarsely smash roasted butternut squash with creamy mascarpone cheese, maple syrup and a touch of brandy.  Serve gingerbread instead of dinner rolls for a slightly “sweet” twist to the meal.

Make a Brussels sprout (raw) slaw instead of a roasted or cooked dish to offset all the heated, heavier foods.  Mix it with flavors of the season (dried cranberries, toasted pecans and apple cider vinegar).

Make a fresh cranberry sauce with crystallized ginger as the sweetener.  (Check out the recipe below)

Or, try quite obviously non-seasonal ingredients in a very traditional dish.  For example, last year I made my stuffing (“dressing”) with the flavors of spring and summer and it was a huge hit (artichokes, fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, olives, baby spinach, green onion, garlic, pecorino cheese and tons of basil).

Cranberry sauce in jelly form or chunky with whole cranberries?

Honestly, neither.  Texture is a really big component of flavor for me, and I never enjoyed jellied foods because I couldn’t stomach the texture.  And, wholeberry cranberry sauce is not “sauce-y” enough for me.  For years now, I have been making cranberry sauce from scratch, and the result can be described as “saucy with a few chunks”.  I wish more people realized how easy and quick it is to make this dish  at home, since it  is so superior to the canned versions.  I know many adults that have never even tried a fresh cranberry sauce!  And, it lasts forever and freezes well, so having extra around for turkey sandwiches down the road could be great motivation to try your hand at it this year.  My secret ingredient?  Nothing too crazy, but I do use a fair amount of brandy and orange liqueur to round out the flavors, and I like pure maple syrup to offset the natural bitterness of the cranberries.  Also – lots of orange zest.

White or dark meat?

DARK MEAT!  Even as a little girl, I always preferred the flavor and texture of dark meat over white.  After all, who can argue that a fattier piece of meat isn’t more flavorful than a lean one?!   Plus, I think that breast (white) meat is better than dark meat on sandwiches the next day, so I am always happy to help that cause and nibble on the dark on Turkey Day.

Now, sometimes home chefs are overwhelmed creating six or more dishes for Thanksgiving.  What kind of sides could you get that are easy to prepare or find at your store?

That’s easy!  We have so many traditional and innovative ready-to-heat-and-eat sides in our Prepared Foods Department at Whole Foods Market.  If you’d like to focus on the turkey roasting and not all the prep involved with some of the side dishes, you can buy Green Beans with Almonds, Creamed Spinach with Roasted Garlic and Roasted Butternut Squash with Dried Cranberries in any of our stores — all complete and ready to heat up just in time for your guests.  And, of course, we have a few varieties of mashed potatoes to choose from (Classic, Red Bliss and Maple Bourbon Sweet) along with two stuffings (Traditional New England and Cornbread with Sausage and Spinach).  For something a little different, check out the individual Roasted Corn Pudding – creamy and delicious and made with caramelized shallots for a twist on the classic.  Our homemade Cornbread also makes a great addition to the holiday meal. Order your holiday meal from Whole Foods Market here:

Cranberry Sauce with Candied Ginger, 

Yield 2 ½ cups


½ cup orange juice

½ cup triple sec or other orange liqueur (alternatively, use the same amount of orange juice)

1 ¼ cup loosely-packed brown sugar

1 – 12 oz bag cranberries, rinsed (about 3 ½ cups)

1 ½ tsp ground ginger

Zest from 1 orange (about 1 Tbsp)

1 cup crystallized ginger, chopped into small pieces (reserve small amount for serving – see “Garnishing Tip” below)


  • Combine the orange juice, triple sec and brown sugar in a saucepan over medium heat and add the cranberries after the sugar has dissolved.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
  • After about 10 minutes, add the ground ginger and about 1/3 the crystallized ginger.  Simmer for about 10-20 minutes longer or until all cranberries have popped and sauce has reached your desired consistency.  Simmer less time for a chunkier sauce and more time for a smoother sauce.  (Hint:  You can help pop the cranberries by mashing them lightly with a fork.)
  • Remove pan from the heat, stir in the orange zest and remaining crystallized ginger, and cool.
  • Bring the cranberry sauce to room temperature before serving.
  • GARNISHING TIP:  Just before serving, top off the cranberry sauce with some additional chopped crystallized ginger for a great presentation.

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