Your first Thanksgiving made easy with Bryan Voltaggio

The Baltimore Sun

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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”

After dinner

“After dinner, a shot of fernet is a good idea to help with the digestion. If you’re already not ready for a quick evening nap, the fernet will help.”

Leftovers I

“Days after Thanksgiving, when you are using the leftovers to make a sandwich from your turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and more, try sprinkling on a special blend to intensify the flavors. Take 1/4 cup of Maldon sea salt, three juniper berries and the zest of one orange and blend these in a spice grinder (or mortar and pestle), and sprinkle inside your sandwich.

“I always use a panini press when making the leftover sandwich — it’s great way to reheat the whole thing and get the great toasted crunch of the warm bread. I want a comforting warm turkey sandwich after coming in from the cold.”

Leftovers II

“Who doesn’t like turkey and rice soup? You have tons of flavor on the bird, so use the entire carcass to make the broth — and don't forget to drop in the leftover gravy and make a vegetable- and rice-fortified soup. It’s a comforting dish after fighting the lines on Black Friday, and if you use a slow cooker to make your soup, it’s ready when you come home.”

Time management

“I like to build my Thanksgiving over a few days and even up to a week. You can make cranberry sauce as soon as you see it in your grocery store, and it keeps in an airtight container for up to a week, so why not get that knocked out on the Monday before Thanksgiving?

“As for the rest: Make your stuffing on Monday and make cornbread on Monday or Tuesday and cut and leave to dry in your cold oven while at work. I say in the cold oven just in case the family dog is hungry. I would brine the turkey on Tuesday as well. Take out late Wednesday night before bed so the skin can dry a bit and you can then have it in your roasting pan ready for the oven the next day. Do things to fill the burners, like potato puree or sweet potatoes. Brussels sprouts are a good side dish because you can roast on the stove top. If you plan on making desserts like pies, bake those on Wednesday. Pies are always better the next day.

“Set yourself up for success and don’t try to do everything on Thursday; even your vegetable cuts and finishing garnishes can be staged in the refrigerator the night before. If you try to do everything at once, you will be cooking all day.”

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