Thanksgiving is a combination of magic and madness. It’s a day when many of us pour our love into one of the most elaborate meals we are likely to make all year. The reward is a beautiful spread of brown, orange and yellow foods that are best eaten in piles. The risk is preparing that spread against the pressures of time, hungry guests and multitasking.
Since I want you to enjoy your meal as much as possible, I’ve put together a little guide on how to make Thanksgiving planning as easy as (pumpkin) pie.
Study your Recipes
Once you’ve figured out which dishes you’re responsible for, make sure to read up on them. The last thing you want is to realize midway through a recipe, that your butter was supposed to have been at room temperature. Or that you actually should have baked that pumpkin pie yesterday because it needs to chill overnight, and it’s 10 am on Thanksgiving morning. Though it can’t prevent mishaps altogether, having knowledge of your recipes makes things a lot easier, especially when recreational eating is involved.
Make a Schedule
You’ve commanded your recipes so now it’s time to schedule them. Figure out what can be made ahead of time. If you’re making stock for gravy, make it now and pop it in the freezer (just don’t forget to take it out a couple of days ahead so it can defrost properly). The same goes for pie and pastry dough. Cranberry sauce, pies and cheesecakes can all be made and refrigerated a day or two ahead. Though in full disclosure, I’d recommend canberry sauce (pictured) over anything resembling an actual berry. C’mon, it’s Thanksgiving!
Turkeys are huge and can retain a lot of heat for a good amount of time, so don’t be afraid to tent your turkey and let it sit awhile (say, 30-60 minutes) before carving. This will give you time to focus on your side dishes—and scarf down an appetizer or two for sustenance. As a big fan of turkey skin, I recommend Alton Brown’s carving technique—just make sure to use a super sharp knife to keep the skin from sliding around. A roll of nearby paper towels is also a good idea.
Then there are those non-food items. Schedule time to shower, do the dishes and set the table. If you’re able, set the table on Wednesday night. Or ask your most loyal friend or relative to lend a hand. Try and locate your serving dishes ahead of time to avoid turning your kitchen upside down at the last minute. As for that shower, try to do it first thing. Anything can happen when cooking a feast, and you don’t want to make that call between finishing your cooking tasks and being presentable.
Plan Your Other Meals
Cooking a feast is a lot of work, so try to plan your Wednesday dinner and Thursday breakfast ahead of time. It’s times like these that make crock pots, takeout and grilled cheese sandwiches your best friends. Think quick-and-easy with as few dirty dishes as possible.
Take it Easy on the Appetizers
It’s tempting to go above and beyond, but try not to get your guests too full before the big meal. Put out some nuts, olives, cheeses and other small snacks. If you really want to impress your guests, give these onion tartlets a whirl. You can prepare the onions on Wednesday and bake the tartlets either before or after the turkey goes in. They’re great at room temperature and they only require about 20 minutes of precious oven time.
No matter how hard you plan, there are going to be mishaps. Last Thanksgiving, I noticed that I’d brought every necessary ingredient and cooking tool to prepare dinner at my in-laws’ house except kitchen twine. We scrounged around for a bit and decided to tie the turkey legs together with some embroidery floss from my mother-in-law’s craft bin. It looked a little weird, but it worked!
The legs on that same turkey came out a little drier than I’d hoped.
I prepared my turkey for roasting the same way I prepare my chickens—an exfoliating salt and water scrub, a generous paper towel blotting, and a hefty sprinkle of salt all over before leaving the bird uncovered in the refrigerator to dry out the skin. Since it was my first try on a much larger bird, I left it fully uncovered for a full 24 hours. I learned on Thanksgiving morning that while turkey breast is fine (if not, better) if left uncovered for 12-24 hours before roasting, the legs dry out much more quickly.
I didn’t say anything to my fellow eaters, and they didn’t say anything to me. But I have since resolved to cover my turkey’s legs with a small shield of plastic wrap until 6-8 hours before roasting.
I have also resolved (thanks to Julia Child’s wise words) never to apologize for mishaps like these. Learning to cook has a lot to do with making mistakes, and if we’re only ever cooking one turkey a year, those mistakes are guaranteed to happen on Thanksgiving. Just serve the food and smile—it’s possible your guests may not even notice. And if it helps, make a little extra gravy!
And on the Subject of etiquette…
Guests, please keep your phones away at dinner. It can be difficult for hosts to ask this of their guests, so please, just do it. There’s a good chance your host feels really awkward about serving you unexpectedly dry turkey legs, and it would make his or her day to know the food and company are being enjoyed. The internet will still be around after dinner, but the sights, sounds and smells of your delicious Thanksgiving meal will not. Enjoy them!
Alton Brown’s turkey roasting technique is my favorite. I recommend lowering the oven to 325°, rather than the suggested 350°. If you rub down the skin with a little canola oil (a step I skipped last year), the turkey will look a lot like Norman Rockwell’s—beautifully crisp and golden brown.