Alton Brown is wrong, listen to The New York Times' Sam Sifton & stop brining your Thanksgiving bird

The Thanksgiving Heavyweight Champion of the Word shares his secrets for a knockout holiday

Published November 17, 2018 5:30PM (EST)

Sam Sifton (Getty/Mike Windle)
Sam Sifton (Getty/Mike Windle)

Sam Sifton knows Thanksgiving can be hard, not for him, for you. He’s the Food Editor at The New York Times and the founder of and, unlike some people, he wants to make your life a little bit easier this holiday season. So, as of right now, you no longer have to worry about brining that bird.

Sifton has been running the show on Thanksgiving since he was a young man with more ambition for the meal than experience preparing it. Early on, he and a squad of newly minted college graduates, and the odd doctoral candidate thrown in for good measure, committed to making a proper sit down dinner to celebrate our hinkty national harvest myth, even if fashioning a table for 20 required removing a couple of doors off their hinges and festooning them with bed sheets. That was then. Now he has written the book. “Thanksgiving: How To Cook It Well” is the last word on the subject. Sifton’s enthusiasm, akin to that of a war-weary career field officer, for the holiday is still somehow wonderfully infectious. He appeared on Salon Talks to walk us through the basics and imbue us with the confidence we’ll need to not just survive the night but deliver a meal folks will remember for years to come. Sifton sat down for a Salon Talk and shared the best (and worst) methods of holiday cookery.

I'm Manny Howard and this is Salon Talks. Today I'm thankful to have Sam Sifton, the food editor of the New York Times and the founder of NYT Cooking ...


The master of Thanksgiving, all things that are Thanksgiving and the author of this book, "Thanksgiving: How To Cook It Well," and we're going to talk about Thanksgiving.

Sam Sifton: Let's do it, yeah. I wrote a book about Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for the chance to talk about it once a year.

Every year there's an opportunity to read Thanksgiving.

Absolutely, if I'd written a book about leap year it'd be a little tough for me. This year on a regular cadence as it was last year, as it will be next year I get to trot out my truisms about the Thanksgiving holiday.

What are the most important truisms about the Thanksgiving holiday?

Everything is going to be okay. That really is the most important thing. They're not like us. We've cooked together and been pals together and thrown insane dinner parties together for decades now. It doesn't really make us nervous, well you make me nervous sometimes because Manny runs a little late sometimes. In general we know what we're doing and it doesn't thwart us in any way. For your average person in America this maybe the largest dinner party of the year. That is stress inducing. It needn't be. If you think about it, it's just a big chicken and a starch and the gravy which makes people nervous but we can talk through that and some cranberry sauce, done. Have some pie, go for a walk.

You know what people are capable of on Thanksgiving.

In terms of messing up?


Absolutely, I for years ran a kind of help desk at the New York Times where people could email me or call me in real time. This was interesting because the Butterball hotline which is the nearest kind of thing that I can imagine to that, employs like 250 or 300 people to service those who don't understand what do I do. It was just me and a cell phone and the internet. It was great. I definitely ran into some people who probably shouldn't have been cooking Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day for the first time. It's good to practice I think.

Cooking the frozen turkey?

Yeah, I got a lot of questions. It's 9 am the bird is frozen solid what do I do? The response to that is order Chinese food.

Yeah, this year.

Yeah or have the holiday on Saturday because you're not going to deal with that frozen bird.

Then there are all the highfalutin notions about how to cook a turkey. Some of which I've experimented with.

Well me too, I'm guilty of one of the great maybe canards of the modern Thanksgiving age which is this notion that you should brine the bird. I say in the book and I believe it to be true that brining is a little bit like the width of your tie or a tie at all or the length of a skirt, it comes and goes whether we brine, we don't brine. We have a story in the Times this week by Kim Severson that explores this kind of two decade run of pro brining.

It's just the to brine or not to brine, it's not all the trends.

No, it's just the brining trend. Her reporting indicates that it's food media elites like you and me and others who have proselytized the most about brining. Some people continue to believe that brining is like part of the religious or experience of making Thanksgiving. For myself at this point I don't have the time. You have a turkey the size of a toddler that you now have to keep cold in a liquid environment, a saline environment for 48 hours. I don't have that time.

All you need is a garbage bag, right?

Although garbage bags leak ...

It's a bad look.

It's a bad look. You need a cooler and you need ice but then the ice dilutes the brine.

The garbage bag.

There's all kinds of stuff going on here. The truth of the matter is at the end of that experience yes you will have a moister bird ...


A little saltier ...


Definitely spongier. You have some textural issues that you've got to face when you brine. Guess what, I'm not brining. Salt the outside of the bird. Put it in the fridge unadorned. Allow it to dry for as long as you can, the surface of the bird to dry. Then get it into a hot oven where that dry skin will crisp like a blister around the meat and you'll end up doing pretty well by yourself.

That sounds delicious.

It is delicious.

This member of the food media elite once brined turkey and then deep fried it.

Yes, this is why occasionally when cooking with Manny I'm deeply terrified. I was with you when we cooked that brined turkey in hot oil on a street, on a sidewalk in north Williamsburg. I'm here to tell you what happened is that the moisture in the breasts were, it ...


It turned to steam and literally blew the breast off the turkey.

The oil straight up the middle of the hollow bird.

Everything went wrong.

The super heated oil pulsing through the hollow of  the bird and spouting like a volcano.

We were wearing shoes which was good.

Not necessarily always the case.

 learned some stuff. I learned some stuff. The proper medium for soaking up that oil on a sidewalk that hot is kitty litter. I believe the fireman taught me that.

If you happen to puncture the bottom of the aluminum pot with a candy thermometer or the ...


Then the super heated oil makes contact with the propane flame ...

You got a big fire.

It's a cloud of fire.

Yeah, that was a lot of fire. We weren't cooking traditionally, I've deep fried successfully a lot of turkeys since. Doing so in a stainless steel pot is really the business. An aluminum pot is good. We were not actually doing it in an aluminum pot but in one of those sort of enameled crab pots.

That's right.

I think that what happens with those is the enamel chips off and leaves kind of raw steel which then rusts and becomes kind of weak. When you put the candy thermometer in like a dart, it did indeed puncture the bottom of the pot allowing some four to five gallons of peanut oil ...

Super heated peanut oil.

Yeah, probably it was running a little hot like 400 degree oil to come in contact with the 30,000 BTU propane. Yeah, I learned about the kitty litter from the fireman and I believe we went to chicken wings after that and fed some police officers. It was quite a night.

Well when you make it up and you don't have to make it up as you go along if you read Thanksgiving ...

That's correct. It's all in there. Safety first.

Safety first, you won't have that problem if you have a look at the annual Thanksgiving roll out you do at the Times.


The other day, the first issue of the Thanksgiving gala, weekly episodes of how to make Thanksgiving perfect started appearing in our inboxes and in my case on the front stoop because I still get the paper.

Thank you for that.

Yes. Every year I'm just blown away by the work that must go into creating that section. I'm just hoping you can talk a little bit about the fun parts of that terrible work.

It's not actually terrible work. The terrible work is the emptiness of my brain and our staff's brain when Thanksgiving is over and we've got about three or four days before we realize you know what's going to happen next year, Thanksgiving again. What are we going to do? What fantastical new thing can we come up with? I'm really invested in this idea that for Thanksgiving we're not going to come up with junky ideas. We're not going to say salmon for Thanksgiving. We're not going to invent recipes out of whole cloth to try and create trends, brining notwithstanding. Figuring out what reporter has a good story or what editor has a good angle or what reporter and editor combination can come up with something cool is paramount to us. We start quite early. I think we had this Thanksgiving buttoned up, that is to say we knew what we were doing by the end of summer, which actually when you think about is probably late if you were talking to Adam Rapoport who edits Bon Appetit, my nemesis, no a great guy. They're a full year ahead. In the newspaper game we can be a little looser but still, we were done with our Thanksgiving ideation by summer.

That's great because there's always going to be pies, is that what you ...

Yeah, there is in the world of printing newspapers there's this cool relatively new to us way of cutting the paper, the broad sheet paper into a run of eight pages or four pages and four on the other side, right. When you open a newspaper to its centerfold and it's just a single piece of paper that's two or four with the opposite sides. Here we're doubling that. It's a double double truck. We call that a pano eight or a panoramic eight page section.

It's all pies!

This year it's all pies and what's cool about it and why we're using the pano eight, why we used the pano eight to show those pies is that if you divide those pages up using math, you see that you're pretty much at a full size pie if you do eight pies across four pages with the recipes on the other side. It worked out great. They're super beautiful. I've seen already on social media that people are trying out some of the Ombre pies and the like. I think that's a kind of neat way to bring color and excitement into your Thanksgiving feast.

Yeah, there's some beautiful color, there's some knock out pies.

Well that's important because Thanksgiving is a study in beige, right. You've got the golden brown turkey ...

The copper at one end and the sand at the other.

What do you do? There's some red that you get from the cranberry sauce but using the different colors of apple and getting some citrus in there and the like, it kind of brightens things up.

Yeah, it's great.

It is great. We had Melissa Clark's Thanksgiving was one of our things, we cast her in the role of Martha Stewart for Thanksgiving 2018.

Not a hard fit for her.


She's a master, Melissa.

She's a Doyen. She's fantastic. We did that. We had the pie-stravaganza 00:12:10. We've got this bringing expose coming up. As usual we're doing a story that explores what Thanksgiving really means and is and to do that Julia Moskin is reporting with a family that's cooking its first Thanksgiving in the United States.

That's great.

Syrian refugees who are cooking their first Thanksgiving in the United States and what happens to their experience with the bird and with the dishes will for them no doubt become a tradition that is in my mind exactly as American as anyone else's. I'm a big traditionalist and I say hey I'm a traditionalist meaning I want there to be turkey on the plate. As far as what that tradition actually is, I think it's unique to each person, to each family. Each one of those Thanksgivings is as authentically American as the last. Those Thanksgivings change, as people fall in and out of love, as new members of the family appear, as friends appear and disappear and the like and each one leaves something to the experience that then becomes part of a tradition, ever changing.

In order to draw back the curtain my guess is that people who know Sam Sifton's dedication to Thanksgiving, will you please describe your Thanksgiving and what the process is?

My Thanksgiving and my Thanksgiving traditions date back a long time. I went off to college as if to a new country. I didn't come back much to Brooklyn where we grew up. I spent college away and that was mostly for reasons of work. I had outside jobs that kept me close to campus during the holiday season. I lived off campus in a big house full of graduate students and the like. There was a big Thanksgiving feast that happened there for the three or four years that I celebrated it. It to me introduced a world that was as far away from that Norman Rockwell Freedom from Want, kids in ties situation as could be imagined. I realized that Thanksgiving actually could be a celebration of family and friends and neighborhood and diverse cultures coming together. I decided at that point as a kid that this was going to be how I celebrated Thanksgiving moving forward. I got out of college and my mother wanted me to come to Thanksgiving. "No!" ...


Busy! I run Thanksgiving. You're welcome to come to mine. Over the course of the years it has grown and grown and grown. This notion that I always welcome the stranger, that anyone is welcome at any time, come, turned out people took that seriously and so now there, it's 30 plus generally every time. There's a core group of people who come every year. You're looking at one of them here. Everyone plays his or her role. I haven't baked a pie for Thanksgiving in 15 years probably. I haven't made a stuffing in 15 or 20 years. I've got a mashed potato guy, I got an oyster guy.

I'm the rodeo clown, really. I take people out of your kitchen.

I hope this is only broadcast on the dark web because I want to just, there is some truth to what you said. There, for some cooks, control freak cooks such as yourself or me you don't always want people in the kitchen crowding you too tight.

As much as you love them.

As much as you love them.

You do.

I don't have a ton of extra time. I'm very busy tending to the nation's Thanksgiving needs. Therefore, the cobbler's kids go shoeless, I'm kind of rushing to get my Thanksgiving together. I got a fair amount to do on the day. Coming up with this fiddle that sees all of the guests pulled out into the yard to eat oysters shucked by the oyster master stunt clown Manny Howard clears the room for me for this intense period of work that lets me get everything ready for the final moment to get onto the table.

That's right. You follow your own advice which is not to carve the turkey at the table.

This is a paramount rule, do not carve the turkey at the table. It was Rockwell who did this to us as a nation with that painting.

You don't think anybody ever carved a turkey at the table before?! ...

No, I don't because most people had servants and then they didn't have servants and then here was the Freedom from Want painting, the grandma with the turkey and the kindly grandfather looking over and they've got the carving knives and they're going to do this thing right at the table which is often disastrous. There's not enough room. You're cutting the meat of the breast in the wrong direction. It's a surgical process. It should be done in a surgical theater or a kitchen. Show them the bird and then repair to the kitchen to take the breasts off the carcass and cut them against the grain, a million things that are good can happen when you do that including the chance to kind of soak everything with a little turkey stock before it goes back out so that they have hot, moist meat when they eat.

Right. Now I'll just take one point of exception with this: Most people probably did not have servants.

Well, in the sort of fancy worlds that the Rockwell guys are, yeah they did. It is true that most people didn't have servants, yes you are correct in that, Manny Howard.

This is Salon. It's very important that I, I'm staying away from the do we talk about Trump at the table thing.

Yeah, well yeah ...

I've got to, you know, I have been avoiding mentioning how to navigate conversations about Trump!

I would prefer that politics stay away from the table. One of the things that's interesting about American families, we're talking right now about what a divided nation that we have. The midterm elections showed us plain how fiercely divided we are, how obvious those divisions are and how deep they run. What's amazing about Thanksgiving, our biggest travel day of the year as a nation is that the division is going to become subverted by kind of big city elites returning to their family homesteads in more rural and suburban communities that may have voted redder than the communities that they come from. It's going to be, this year, last year this was the case as well, the year before that it was the case, that the specter of politics is going to hang over a lot of these meals. What I say rather than asking people to avoid politics at the table is just to listen, right. You're not going to litigate any issue. You're not going to solve immigration at your Thanksgiving table nor for that matter are you going to convince your uncle Pete from the ranch that the caravan is not actually filled with middle eastern terrorists. You just need to listen. That's your best way through politics.

Maybe you can suggest a playlist for people to play in their heads as they're listening so that they don't ...

The sort of, 'dooo beee doooo beee doooo' [mugging music blocking one's hearing] that kind of thing?

Yeah, heavy bass thing, something that ...

Yeah, white noise is ...

Crashing ocean.

White noise versus white power, these are the ways to do it. No, I think what's interesting is you can be amazed in listening to discover how sensible crazy uncle Peter is ...

Before the drinking.

While at the same time registering where the pain points are, what insanity he believes or you may believe. You're not going to solve any of this stuff. Now you brought up the drink, the drink is, this too is an issue where you need to, if you think that aunt Martha is not going to have that fourth glass of wine that she has every year you're insane. It's going to happen. You need to make allowances for that.

Now you don't drink until dinner time. You spend all day slaving and you don't have anything on the side.

That's correct. It's a job. There are a lot of people, there are 32 people looking for, 32, 35, 30 people, there are a lot of people looking for ...

Thirty-six, 37, 38, 39.

You know, there are a lot of people looking to have a good meal with their family and friends. I respect that. It's not a celebration for me until it is. That's when the meal is on the table. Then, you know that scene, there's a great scene in one of those what's her name and what's his name movies, the black and whites where he's ahead by a martini and she arrives and says I'll have three. That's me.

Yeah, well I run a prosecco bar on the side of the oyster shucking tent.

Which people love.

I tend not to get going until after ...

That's wise.

'Cause there's, oyster knives and parties are a complicated combination.

Yeah and you're in charge of them. You want to keep it good.

It's like cats, you're never in charge, you're just being supportive. Listen, thank you so much for taking time out of what I know is a very busy season.

It's a pleasure to be here, it's a pleasure to talk Thanksgiving always. It's a pleasure and I think a duty to end where we started by saying everything is going to be okay.

By Manny Howard

Manny Howard is the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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