Thanksgiving is one of those meals that have a lot going on, and there’s great importance in getting it right. This is Thanksgiving, after all! It’s one of the most anticipated meals of the year. And whether you trot out all the family-loved favorite recipes or your own variations on a theme, it’s a meal that makes memories.
So to up your chances of pulling it off without a hitch, here are a few tips that’ll make your day a bit easier and give you an idea of how long some preparation steps actually take. No need to wind up in a panic on Thanksgiving morning because you didn’t consider how long it would take to bring the turkey to room temperature before stuffing and roasting.
First decision is what kind of meal are you planning: a sit down for four, a buffet for 20 or more, or something in between? And of equal importance: Will you prepare the whole meal, or will you get volunteers to make appetizers, sides, salads, and desserts while you handle the turkey, stuffing or dressing, gravy, and—if you’re finicky—the mashed potatoes too?
For our purposes, let’s assume you are making everything.
Outline Your Menu
List each of the dishes in your menu in a bulleted outline. Then, in a subcategory of each bullet, list the ingredients for each dish and the amount needed. Total up like items such as sugar, flour, carrots, etc., and that’s your grocery list and plan of attack when you start cooking.
Go back to your outline and figure out the timing for preparation, beginning with those dishes that can be prepared several days ahead, one or two days ahead, and then those that must be prepared the day of the celebration. Decide which menu items could be made the weekend before and frozen without detriment. Pastry dough, rolls, and some root vegetable casseroles are good candidates for this type of advance work. Such things as cranberry sauce, dressings, and even mashed potatoes, yams, and sweet potatoes will remain fresh-tasting, even if done a couple of days before. That’ll leave you time and energy to concentrate on roasting the perfect turkey on Thanksgiving Day itself. Bread- or rice-based dressing/stuffing can be made the day before as long as you do not stuff the turkey until just before putting it into the oven.
Review our photo tutorial or our video How To: Roast a Turkey. It’s a step-by-step guide that helps you visualize your turkey preparation. Pay particular attention to the color of the turkey as it progresses through the various stages of cooking from pinkish-white to deep golden mahogany.
Handle with Care
Fresh turkeys always provide the best flavor and easiest preparation. But if you have frozen your turkey, be sure to allow sufficient time for it to thaw properly. Estimate a full 24 hours of defrosting time in your refrigerator for every 5 pounds of turkey weight.
Do not try to hurry the process by leaving the turkey out at room temperature. If the turkey is partially thawed, you can safely speed up defrosting in a cold-water bath in your kitchen sink. Change the water with fresh cold water about every 30 minutes.
And, if you haven’t heard it before, never—never, ever—stuff your turkey ahead of time or leave the stuffing in the turkey after it comes out of the oven. In fact, it’s best if you take all of the stuffing out when it comes out of the oven.
And should things go wrong, just take a breath and remember: It’s all in the recovery.
For example, one common mistake when making gravy is over-heating it to the point that it breaks (the solids separate from fats). Simply add a tablespoon or two of heavy cream fresh from the fridge and whisk it in briskly and thoroughly. It works miracles.
What are your tried-and-true Thanksgiving Day preparation strategies? Are you a check-list maniac, or do you tend to wing it? Do you like to prepare things in advance, and if so, how early do you get started? Does your Thanksgiving Day kitchen run like a well-oiled machine, or do you bask in happy chaos?