Virginia Willis Blog

Turkey 101: All You Need to Know

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Turkey 101

The first time I ever brined a turkey was over 10 years ago. I had read about it in Cook’s Illustrated and was pretty curious, so we thought we’d give it a try. We made an overnight brine with salt, sugar, and spices. The result was a moist and tender bird with the most beautiful caramel-colored golden brown skin. I’ve wet-brined my turkey ever since! That’s step #1 for Turkey 101.

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What’s all this business about brining? Brining – soaking meat in a saltwater solution – is the key to a juicy, tender turkey. Salt causes the food proteins to form a complex mesh that traps the brine so the muscle fibers absorb additional liquid during the brining period. Some of this liquid is lost during cooking, but since the meat is juicier to begin with, it cooks up juicier at the end.

The size of the salt grains used in a brine is very important. Grains of table salt are very fine, while those of kosher salt are larger. The crystals of the two most widely available brands of kosher salt, Morton’s and Diamond Brand, differ. Half a cup of table salt is equal to 1 cup of Diamond Brand kosher salt or 3/4 cup Morton’s kosher salt. My recipes call for Diamond Brand because the conversion is easy at 2:1.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for brining – it all depends on how long you want to brine. However, keep in mind that the stronger and more concentrated the brining solution and the smaller the piece of meat, the shorter the brining period. A turkey is best brined in a weak solution for a longer period of time. For smaller pieces of meat, my philosophy is to use a strong brine that takes an hour or less.

I recommend an overnight brine for a turkey. Since most of us don’t have a refrigerator to place a turkey in a 5-gallon bucket, I suggest using a cooler with ice and ice packs. With a 10 to 14 pound turkey, dissolve 1 cup Diamond Brand kosher salt and 1/2 cup sugar in 1 gallon of hot water. Stir until dissolved, then add 1 gallon of ice water to cool the solution. Pour the brine into the bucket or cooler. Add the turkey and if that’s not enough liquid to submerge the turkey, repeat the process in a second container and pour the cooled brine over the bird. Store overnight in a cool place. If you store it outside, make sure to weigh down the lid of the cooler so a curious raccoon or other critter doesn’t take a peak, look-see, or nibble.

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What about Roasting? That’s my step #2 for Turkey 101.  I roast at a higher temperature to start, then reduce the heat to finish cooking. In general, the main point about roasting a big bird is food safety. I suggest using an instant read thermometer. Instant-read thermometers are indispensable when cooking a large piece of meat because, while the doneness of steaks and chicken breasts can often be gauged by touching the meat and feeling for firmness, a large piece of meat such as a turkey needs a thermometer to really register what’s inside. The plastic pop-up timers found in many turkeys are unreliable, often resulting in an overcooked bird. A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with an instant read thermometer. (I swear by my Thermapen.) Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

Here’s a general guideline for cooking times for  unstuffed birds: 
8 to 12 pounds 2¾ to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3¾ hours
14 to 18 pounds 3¾ to 4¼ hours
18 to 20 pounds 4¼ to 4½ hours
20 to 24 pounds 4½ to 5 hours

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First, once the turkey has reached the correct temperature, wrap it tightly in foil and let it rest for about 30 minutes to let the juices redistribute.

When carving a turkey, let the bird guide the way. That’s my step #3 for Turkey 101. This may sound a bit odd, but the parts should separate at the joints with little or no effort. If the bird is fighting you, the knife is not in the right place.

Place the turkey breast side up on a cutting board, preferably with a moat to catch the juices.  If the bird is hot, I use a clean kitchen towel to protect my hand and fingers instead of a carving fork, but you can use a fork or a set of tongs. I prefer to use the towel because it doesn’t tear the skin.

Pull the leg and thigh back to expose the joint that attaches it to the body.  Use a sharp knife to sever the thigh from the body, cutting through the separated joint. As you separate the leg, using the tip of the knife, be sure to get the “oyster,” a yummy nugget of delicious dark meat toward the back of the turkey, just above the thigh. Halve the leg quarter into the drumstick and thigh. Repeat the process with the other leg and thigh.

Place each leg quarter on the cutting board, skin side down. Use a chef’s knife to cut through the joint that connects the leg to the thigh. (It should be fairly easy to cut through the joint.) Look for a line of fat, and if the knife meets resistance, your knife is hitting bone and is not placed at the joint, which is easy to carve through. So, reposition the blade slightly and try again.

With the turkey breast still breast-side up on the cutting board, feel for the breastbone, which runs along the top center of the carcass. Begin separating one side of the breast from the body by cutting immediately alongside the breastbone with the tip of your knife. (You are removing the breast from the carcass, not cutting the breast on the carcass.) Work from the tail end of the bird toward the neck end. When you hit the wishbone, angle the knife and cut down along the wishbone toward the wing, then make a cut between the breast and the wing.

Finish separating the breast by simultaneously pulling back on the meat and using short strokes of the knife tip to cut the meat away from the carcass. Place the whole breast on the cutting board. Slice the breast into 1/4-inch thick slices. (Do the same to remove the breast meat on the other side.)

Find the joint where the wings connect to the body and bend until the joint pops apart. Use a sharp knife to sever the wing from the body, cutting through the separated joint. Using a chef’s knife or your hands, remove whatever meat remains on the carcass. (Reserve the carcass for stock.) Arrange the legs, thighs, wings, and meat on a platter, pour over any accumulated juices to moisten the meat, or use in pan sauce, and serve.  (If you need more information, here’s a great video by Chef Brendan Walsh from the CIA on how to carve a turkey – he’s a fellow Blue Ribbon Advisory Board Member for Seafood Watch!)

Giving Thanks

Whether this will be your 1st bird or your 50th, I wish the best for you and yours. I am most grateful for my family, friends, and my many blessings.

Everyone has their “must-have” dish for Thanksgiving and for me, it’s Cornbread Dressing. My thoughts and suggestions on Cornbread Dressing are included in this piece by Kim Severson in the New York Times.  I’m also excited for my holiday feast that’s featured in Weight Watchers magazine this month – it’s on the newsstands, now!  And, if you have any additional questions about Turkey 101, I will be on the Food52 Thanksgiving Hotline on Wednesday night 23 November from 5 to 6 pm.

Lastly, as you start your holiday shopping, please know that my cookbooks are on sale online. For more information, check out my cookbooks page.  I’m happy to send you a signed and personalized bookplate if you shoot me a note to with “bookplate” in the subject heading.

Happy Thanksgiving and Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Virginia Willis

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Serves 8 to 10

1 cup kosher salt, more if needed
1/2 cup sugar, more if needed
1 gallon hot water, more if needed
1 gallon ice water, more if needed
1 12 to 14-pound turkey, neck reserved for stock
2 stalks celery
2 onions
1 carrot
5 cups chicken stock or water
1 apple, halved
2 sprigs fresh parsley
2 sprigs fresh thyme
4 fresh sage leaves
2 sprigs rosemary
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Apple Cider Gravy, recipe follows

Using a cooler or a 5-gallon food-safe bucket combine hot water with kosher salt and sugar as directed above. Add ice water and stir until combined and quite cold. Add the turkey, cover and chill for 8 to 10 hours. If using a cooler, make sure to add additional ice or frozen reusable ice packs to keep the turkey about 35°F.

(FYI – Make sure to place the ice packs in a sealable plastic bag before placing in the brine so there’s no chance of the ice pack rupturing and contaminating the turkey.)

Place the turkey neck in a medium saucepan and cover with chicken stock or water. Coarsely chop 1 stalk of the celery, 1 onion, and 1 carrot; add to the stock. As you prepare the remaining vegetables, add the stems and skins to the saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook until fragrant and flavorful, about 1 hour.

Heat oven to 425°F, place oven rack in lowest position. Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse inside and out with cold running water. Pat dry and season turkey inside and out with freshly ground pepper. Place remaining celery and onion, apple, parsley, thyme, sage, rosemary, and bay leaf in cavity. Working from large cavity end, run fingers between skin and flesh of breast to loosen skin without tearing. Put 2 tablespoons butter under skin and spread butter evenly. Tie drumsticks together with kitchen string and fold wings under the body. Place the turkey on rack in a large roasting pan. Add 1 cup of the stock to the roasting pan. Brush remaining 2 tablespoons butter over turkey, roast 30 minutes. . Reduce oven temperature to 350°F. Baste turkey with pan drippings and continue roasting, basting every 30 minutes, until a thigh registers 165°F on a thermometer, and additional 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Carefully tilt turkey to release any juices from inside cavity into roasting pan. Transfer turkey to serving platter. Discard celery, apple, parsley, thyme,  sage, rosemary, bay leaf and onion from cavity. Allow turkey to rest 30 minutes before carving. Serve with Apple Cider Gravy.


1 cup hard cider
4 cups turkey stock (see above)
2 large onions, finely chopped
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, more if needed
4 fresh sage leaves, chopped
1/3 cup all-purpose flour

Remove rack from roasting pan and pour pan juices through a sieve into a 1-quart glass measure. Place roasting pan across two burners over high heat, add cider and deglaze pan, stirring and scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Cook until reduced to 1/2 cup, about 5 minutes. Pour cider through sieve into glass measure with pan juices, skim fat, reserving 1/4 cup. Add enough turkey stock to drippings to equal 4 cups.

Using a large sauté pan over medium heat, add butter. Sauté onions, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add sage and cook, 1 minute. Add turkey stock mixture and any turkey juices accumulated on platter and bring to a boil. Using a small bowl whisk together flour and reserved 1/4 cup fat. Whisk into gravy, reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

Want to keep up with my culinary wanderings and wonderings? Lets connect on  Facebook , Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Copyright © 2016 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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Classic Egg Recipes and a Crack at Big Bad Breakfast

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Breakfast is the most important meal of the day — and the one we have the least time to prepare for and the shortest time to eat. Studies show that eating a healthy breakfast gets you off on the right start and can lead to improved concentration and enhanced performance from the classroom to the boardroom. For a lot of folks breakfast consists of a coffee from a drive-thru on the way to work. And, needless to say a monster chemical-laden biscuit sandwiched with flavorless meat, pre-cooked eggs, and processed cheese is most definitely not the answer. This week I am sharing three classic breakfast egg recipes that will get you going sunny side up.

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Egg it On

Eggs have long been a fundamental way to start your day. While in culinary school, one of the first dishes we learned to make was scrambled eggs. (Mama got a good laugh out of that one.) What? Scrambled eggs in culinary school!? YES! The key to moist and tender scrambled eggs is to cook them slowly and gently — and a double boiler is your secret weapon. Scrambled Eggs in a Double Boiler are unbelievably good.  

Why is this? Eggs are essentially water and protein. As eggs cook, the protein strands unfold and then get tangled up with each other. If you overcook the eggs, the protein strands become too tight and tangled, forcing the water out and resulting in dry, rubbery eggs. The lower the heat, the less likely the water is to be forced out.  A double boiler protects the egg from direct heat. It takes longer, but with constant, careful stirring the results are delicate curds and creamier eggs. 

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Easy Does It

Another simple and delicious method of cooking eggs are Shirred Eggs, the technique of baking eggs in a ramekin. With a minimum of hands-on time you can make a fresh, hot breakfast while your coffee is brewing. Baked Eggs are as simple as putting a dollop of something tasty on the bottom of a ramekin — it could be store-bought salsa, tomato puree, cooked greens, chopped ham, last night’s leftover vegetables, you name it — and topping it with an egg. Pop it the oven for about 10 minutes until the white is set but the yoke is still runny. It’s just that simple.

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Big Bad Breakfast

My friend and colleague chef John Currence has a new book called Big Bad Breakfast: The Most Important Book of the Day inspired by his restaurants Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford, Mississippi and Birmingham, Alabama. Now, you’re probably a bit confused. John is a rock star chef — you’ve seen him on Top Chef Masters,  you’ve seen him featured in every food magazine on the rack, you know he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef of the South  — and he’s written a book about lowly breakfast? Yes, he has and it’s really fantastic.

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His new cookbook Big Bad Breakfast: The Most Important Book of the Day is packed with a slew of mouth-watering breakfast recipes including biscuits, cinnamon rolls, coffee cake, classic eggs, grits, and yes, even breakfast cocktails. Paired with Ed Anderson’s glorious photography and John’s smart, witty writing Big Bad Breakfast illuminates why the Southern breakfast is one of America’s most valuable culinary contributions.

In the introduction John recounts what occurred during the very opening moments of BBB in Oxford. He divulges that he told his shocked wife Bess that of all of his restaurants that this was going to “put us on the map.” Now, this wasn’t unbridled ego. He goes on and explains that “BBB is not going to vie for awards or be lauded in a roomful of puffy white men in tuxedos.” But, he knew “it was a place people wanted, even if they didn’t know it themselves.”

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Proper Respect

John believes that breakfast should be “revered, respected, and adored.” He asserts that in the 1970s dining out stopped being an experience and became a simple fuel stop — and that breakfast suffered the worst. He set out to do something about it, first with the BBB restaurants, and now, with his cookbook. That’s one of the things I love about John the most. He didn’t just decide to open a breakfast joint. It was a thoughtful process.

John has been a long-time hero of mine for his work on social justice issues. He thinks about what is right and wrong in this world and takes a firm (and sometimes profanity-laced) stand. He’s a good man and I have tremendous admiration for him for his conviction. He’s  a wicked talented chef, a proud fellow member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and a real leader in the field of modern American hospitality. John feels things strongly — even about something as seemingly simple as breakfast.

Weekday to weekend –  we’ve got you covered. I’m sharing recipes for three classic breakfast egg recipes: Scrambled Eggs in a Double Boiler, Shirred Eggs, and John’s French Omelet. Give them a try – and make sure to order up a copy of Big Bad Breakfast, you’ll be glad you did.

Bon Appétit Y’all!

Virginia Willis


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Scrambled Eggs in a Double Boiler

Serves 1

3 large eggs
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Place a couple of inches of water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium high heat. Place a heatproof bowl or the top the double-boiler over the simmering water.  Add the butter and let melt. Crack the eggs into a 2nd bowl and season with salt and pepper; whisk until smooth. Pour the eggs into the double boiler and stir to combine with the butter. Using a wooden spoon, silicone spatula, or whisk cook the eggs, stirring often for small curds and less frequently for larger curds, until the eggs are set, 5 to 7 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.


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Shirred Eggs

Serves 1

2 tablespoons charred tomato salsa, or the filling of your choice
1 large egg
Red pepper flakes, Piment d’Espelette, or ground chilies, to taste
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat the oven to 350°F. Place the filling in the bottom of a heatproof ramekin. Crack an egg on top and season with red pepper, salt, and pepper. Transfer to the oven and bake until the whites are set but the yolk is still runny, or to your taste, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.


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French Omelet

Serves 1

1cup asparagus tips, trimmed to 1 inch pieces
1cup thin-sliced bacon,chopped (a smoky-flavored bacon is ideal)
3 tablespoons sliced shallot
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
Salt and black pepper
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons whole milk
Pinch of salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons clarified butter  or your preferred cooking fat
1cup grated Gruyère cheese
Set up an ice bath by adding ice and cold water to a large bowl. To make the filling: In a small saucepan, combine 6 cups of water and enough salt to bring the water to the salinity of seawater. Bring to a boil. Add the asparagus tips and cook for 1 minute, then remove and plunge into the ice bath to stop the cooking. Remove from the ice bath and set aside.
Warm a skillet over medium heat for 1 minute. Place the bacon in the pan and cook, stirring constantly, until lightly brown, about 2 minutes Add the shallot and cook, stirring, until it begins to turn transparent, about1 minute. Stir in the asparagus and thyme and season lightly with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat, cover, and set aside.
To make the omelet, whisk together the eggs, milk, salt,and pepper in a bowl until well combined and the whites are no longer stringy and the egg begins to hold bubbles when whisked, about a minute or so. Warm the clarified butter in a nonstick 10-inch skillet over low heat for 1 minute. Pour the egg mixture into the pan and allow to sit for about 30 seconds. Stir the eggs with the back of a fork, while continually swirling the pan in a circular motion, so the uncooked egg filling the cracks left by the cooked egg being pulled away from the surface. When the egg is about 70 percent cooked, about 112  minutes, stop stirring, but continue swirling the pan for another 30 seconds. Remove the pan from the heat briefly and place the filling and cheese in the center of the omelet. Fold the sides of the omelet to cover the filling. Slide the omelet onto a plate, seam side down, and serve immediately. 
“Reprinted with permission from Big Bad Breakfast by John Currence, copyright © 2016.Photography by Ed Anderson. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC.”
BBB photos by Ed Anderson.
Other photos by Virginia Willis


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Copyright © 2016 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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Fall Vegetable Recipes and a Dip into Poole’s Diner

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It’s Fall, Y’all!

Yep, well someone forgot to tell Mother Nature because it hit 90° yesterday in Atlanta. Fall officially starts today and yes, it is a bit cooler in some parts of the country. Autumn is perhaps my favorite season. I love the change to cooler weather — and how it changes things up in the kitchen. As okra and tomatoes disappear from the farmer’s market I yearn to cook root vegetables and winter greens. I have yet to meet a collard green I don’t like. Fall vegetables need a bit more attention than summer ones. Summer vegetables hardly need cooking. A flash in the pan, a quick dip in boiling water, or even sliced and served raw — summer vegetables are simple. Fall vegetables need a tad more work. Fall vegetable recipes use braising, roasting, and a little more cooking effort to bring out their full, rich flavors.  (more…)

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Salmon Recipes for Weeknight Cooking

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Salmon Recipes

Shrimp, salmon, and tuna are the big three when it comes to seafood consumed in the US. The term “Salmon Recipes” consistently ranks in the top recipe searches on Google. It’s easy to see why. Salmon is not too fishy, but  just fishy enough for most people. It’s good and good for you; we need to eat less meat, more fish. It’s widely available and folks aren’t too scared to cook it. Sorry, Charlie, but truth is that salmon has become the “chicken of the sea.” However, all salmon is not the same. There’s a big difference in the farm-raised and wild salmon.  Although some farm-raised salmon gets a good ranking by Seafood Watch the truth is that it’s pretty complicated, even for chefs and educators. (And, that includes the cases upon cases of filets at Costco, too.) My advice? Best practice is to look for wild Alaska salmon. (more…)

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Potato Salad Recipes for Labor Day


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Picnic Side Dishes

Ah, potato salad. The absolute wonders of potato salad. So many choices, so many styles! Different kinds of potatoes. Different drippy dressings. Different shapes. Wildly different potato salad flavors include the pungent pop of vinegar; creamy concoctions comprised of mayonnaise, hard-cooked egg, and sour cream; the salty, smoky kiss of bacon; and the crispy, crunchy bite of finely chopped onion and celery. All very different — and all very, very delicious. (more…)

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