Bryan Voltaggio

Frederick chef Bryan Voltaggio holds Thanksgiving sweet potatoes with marshmallows and a pecan candy topping at a recent family Thanksgiving. (Handout, courtesy of the Voltaggio family / November 14, 2013)

It’s a great time of year, but it can also be one of the most stressful — especially if you’re organizing (and cooking!) Thanksgiving dinner on your own for the first time. Your parents keep calling with suggestions to the menu, your cousin really wants you to deep-fry that turkey — and how on earth do you incorporate veganism into such a meat-centric holiday? There’s just so much to do, and not enough time in the day to fit it all in.

Don’t panic. A professional is stepping up to provide some advice.

Executive chef and owner of four restaurants, including Frederick’s acclaimed VOLT, Bryan Voltaggio rose to fame on “Top Chef “ Season 6 and appeared again on “Top Chef Masters” Season 5. A protege of chef Charlie Palmer, Voltaggio was a 2010 James Beard Award finalist for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region. The Frederick native is an active member of Share Our Strength and No Kid Hungry, two campaigns that fight to end childhood hunger.

And he’s here with some tips to make sure everything goes smoothly.

Buying a bird

“One of the most important things about buying a turkey is knowing how many people you are cooking for,” Voltaggio says. “For a very large group, you may want to order two smaller turkeys so they can fit in your oven.

“Once you have established the quantity, then you get into the quality. There are so many different routes to go when thinking of purchasing a great bird. You may want to know if it is raised humanely and whether it’s full of additives. No one should be opposed to calling a local farmer who raises turkeys, because a smart business person would have had a few extra in the yard. I look for varietal turkeys that are part of a group of heritage breed turkeys. Look for a trusted source as well. I would suggest a Kentucky Red Bourbon Turkey. It’s the best for flavor and tends to dress out at 18-23 pounds for a tom and around 12-14 for a hen.”

Cooking/brining

“If you choose to brine your turkey, you need a least 12-14 hours of brining time to ensure you have penetrated the meat with the brine and that the brine is working in your favor. The brine should be retaining the moisture in the bird and not drawing it out. Your brine should not contain any acidic ingredients like cider, which will start to denature the protein, making it mushy, not tender. Using an intense-flavored broth of poultry is good, but a mild-flavored store-bought chicken stock might make you feel better, though it’s not helping to flavor the bird.

“To impart flavor into the meat, the proteins from the ‘stock’ need to be intense in order to be sure to get some of the flavor into the bird. Also, stay away from citrus in your brine. If you want citrus flavor, then use zest combined with salt in a mortar and pestle to season the bird after slicing, along with some fresh herbs and juniper.”

Great stuffing

“I like to use a custard base, eight yolks to one quart of cream, in order to create a lighter texture with my cornbread stuffing. When making stuffing, I have the vegetables sweated [gently cooked] ahead of time, a day or two before, and at the same time I am cutting my bread to dry out. That way I have all the pieces ready on the morning of the meal to simply mix together my custard, vegetables, maybe browned sausage, herbs and the bread, then simply place in the oven.”

Appetizers

“We do a family favorite every year: Sausage and Cheddar Afternoon Bites. They are made from breakfast sausage, sharp cheddar and sage. Try to use things that you have lying around that you know you will have in excess. The last thing you want is a fridge full of untouched ingredients after hours of cooking Thanksgiving dinner.”

Easy dessert

“Apple cobbler and vanilla ice cream. The cobbler you can prepare a day in advance; the filling and the topping can all be pre-made. On the afternoon of Thanksgiving, simply build the cobbler and bake. It’s an easy one-pot dessert that everyone loves.”

Drinks

“Before the dinner, I like to warm up with a bourbon-based cocktail like a Manhattan, something that is easy for all to understand and to make.

“I like wine with my turkey. I usually choose a pinot noir because it will complement the bird and all the ingredients on the table — cranberry sauce, rich mashed potatoes and roasted sprouts with bacon and mushrooms.”