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TV Chef Alton Brown Shares Tips On The Science Of Thanksgiving Dinner


We could give you some tips on how to properly cook your Thanksgiving meal, but frankly, it may be too late for that at this point in the day. So we're going to talk about the science behind cooking those traditional dishes with our friend Alton Brown. Welcome to the program.

ALTON BROWN: Thank you, Ari, for having me. Nice to talk to you again.

SHAPIRO: So you are currently on tour with a show called "Eat Your Science," which is on Broadway this week. Congratulations.

BROWN: Thank you very much. We're dark today. There's no show today, so I'm just sitting around thinking about turkey.

SHAPIRO: So we're going to work our way through the science of this meal, beginning with the centerpiece, the turkey itself.

BROWN: Excellent. The turkey - my number one thing that people don't get is take that sucker out of the refrigerator about three hours before you plan on cooking it. You know, my thing is I want to bring things up to room temperature, especially poultry, before I cook it because I want it to cook faster so that there's less moisture loss.

SHAPIRO: But I think a lot of people have been told that's dangerous, that'll promote bacterial growth, that's the way to make people sick.

BROWN: Well, you know what? Sure, it would if I took my turkey out of the refrigerator and, like, threw it in a dumpster or drug it down the street in New York for a while, yeah.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BROWN: I would have bacteria and, yeah, it would grow in what we call the danger zone, which is typically between 40 and 140. But if I'm getting something out of my refrigerator where it's been, you know, basically pretty clean and I'm putting it on my counter, what exactly is going to happen in that amount of time that going into a hot oven isn't going to kill? Nothing. I have been doing this for years. No one's ever gotten sick.

SHAPIRO: Well, we've got a lot of the meal left to go. Should we move on from the turkey?

BROWN: I'm following you.

SHAPIRO: I've got a question about cranberries.


SHAPIRO: If I want to make - I don't know - strawberry jam, I'm going to have to add something to strawberries to make it gelatinous and thick, right? I'm going to have to add pectin or something like that.

BROWN: That's right.

SHAPIRO: But if I want to make cranberry sauce, all I have to do is pop some cranberries in a little saucepan and when it cools off, it'll be thick and gelatinous. So what's up with cranberries?

BROWN: Cranberries contain a massive amount of natural pectins. They will gel all on their own, which is why you can basically make cranberry sauce out of filling, a pan with a little bit of water - I add honey to mine or sometimes maple syrup - a little bit of citrus zest and cook it till the berries kind of pop and start to fall apart. Stop, and that stuff will set up like Jell-O.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, it's amazing. Are there other fruits that do that?

BROWN: There are a few, but none that are as common at this time of year. There are other members...

SHAPIRO: Like quinces? Would quinces do that?

BROWN: Quinces do it - very good. And that's probably the only other one and kind of the classic American cannon. And it's funny, when you look back in history books or American cookery books, one of the reasons that the quinces and cranberries are used so often is because of their natural jelling properties.

SHAPIRO: All right, let's move on to gravy, which is persistently plagued by two problems. And I'd like you to tell us how science can solve either or both of them.


SHAPIRO: Problem number one - skin. And problem number two - lumps. Give us some wisdom.

BROWN: OK, lumps are caused by one thing and one thing alone - the improper addition of a starch.

SHAPIRO: Like flour or something.

BROWN: Like flour. And what tends to happen is that people will go - they've got hot broth, you know, they've added some liquid to their drippings, they've brought that up to heat. And then they try to add in a big clump of just kind of a handful of flour, and of course, it turns into library paste. What happens is that in each clump you've got the gelatinization of starches, which happens very quickly at the surface of the clump and it kind of forms a protective skin around this dry hunk of flour.

So what you've got to do is you need to either create a slurry in a cold liquid, which also works with cornstarch, or you've got to do your gravy in a very wide pan and kind of scatter the flour over the top and then very quickly whisk it in.

SHAPIRO: Skin on gravy.

BROWN: The skin is forming because of proteins, just like if you cook milk or anything else that's got a coagulant protein in it. That's going to - nice, I hate using the word coagulant...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BROWN: ...On Thanksgiving. I'm sorry, everybody. You know, this happens at the gravy boat stage - right? - or this happens when you're trying to keep it warm. So the way that I avoid this is I keep my gravy - the second it's done, I put it in a thermos, which will keep it hot and will prevent air from getting to the surface. And I keep it there till the last moment. The last thing that goes out to the table is the gravy, and I pour it out of the thermos and immediately move it in. And at that point...

SHAPIRO: You don't bring your "ThunderCats" thermos to the Thanksgiving table?

BROWN: I do not. Well, I keep the "ThunderCats" thermos safely in the kitchen.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's go to dessert, and let's talk about pie crust.

BROWN: Yum, pie crust.

SHAPIRO: And there have been long family feuds over butter, Crisco, lard, what to use in the pie crust.

BROWN: I am firmly in the lard camp. It must be what we call leaf lard, which is a specific kind of lard that resides around certain internal organs in the pig.

SHAPIRO: Like around the kidneys.

BROWN: Yeah, that's considered the jewel box of the fat...

SHAPIRO: The jewel of the lard.

BROWN: Yeah, the jewel of the lard is right around the kidneys. But this is a fat that has a very specific crystalline formation and a high melting point. OK, now butter typically melts around, you know, 90 Fahrenheit, as opposed to about 20 degrees higher for lard. So what that means is is that when you're working with it, the lard is going to stay more solid, which is great for flakiness. And it also means that it's going to stay in a solid form as it's baking a little bit longer, so that's why you get a much flakier crust.

SHAPIRO: All right, Alton Brown, thank you so much.

BROWN: Thanks, Ari, for having me.

SHAPIRO: That's Alton Brown of the Food Network, who is on Broadway this week with his show "Alton Brown Live: Eat Your Science." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.