Depending on when you read this, you’ve got about a week to get it in gear if you’re cooking Thanksgiving dinner. From long experience, the two of us – one a professionally trained and proficient chef, the other pretty much a kitchen dilettante – have found that planning is everything. Even just thinking out your moves ahead of time helps you have a plan of attack on the day of thanking and giving. Bon courage, mes amis!
On the weekend before the big day, take a look at your roasting pan, vegetable peeler, serving dishes, tablecloth, etc. Can you even find them? Are they clean? If you do it now, you’ll have time to replace anything that’s jacked and a chance to give everything a good scrub, so you can hit the ground running on Thursday.
Hunger is the best pickle
Eat a lot of salads in the week leading up to the big day. It will make the meal that much more satisfying and may ameliorate any weight gain and/or gluttony pain.
Don’t assume that you’ll be able to flip seamlessly between your recipes on a laptop/iPad; when your hands are plunged ass-deep into a raw turkey, you’re not going to want to touch that tablet or trackpad. Confiscate an entire wall (take down the art – no one will miss it) and tape every recipe to it. Not only will you end up super-organized, you’ll look like a badass.
If there’s any time to splurge on expensive fresh herbs or grab that precious can of jumbo lump crab meat, it’s Thanksgiving, the eating holiday. If your cooking skills are going to be front and center, you’ll want the best ingredients to overshadow the shortcomings and spotlight your shining moments. So go ahead; you have our permission to splash out for quality.
Too many cooks
Inevitably, whoever is in your house is going to want to help in the kitchen. They just will. It’s nice of them, but if you’re the controlling type, it can make you edgy. So plan for it: Highlight a couple of steps in each recipe or mentally set aside some easy tasks (like peeling potatoes or watching over the simmering cranberry compote) that won’t jeopardize the meal – or your relationship with that person.
Timing is everything
Another chef’s trick. Figure out ahead of time (i.e., before you even chop an onion) which dishes will go in the oven when, and at what temperatures; what you can prep while something else cooks; and which dishes need “active cooking” (watching or stirring) while something else “passive cooks” (simmers, bakes, etc.). Make a timeline and add it to your badass map wall. Purchase a few cheapo kitchen timers if needed – just don’t forget to label which dish goes to which timer.
Rest that bird
This is not optional. Pretty much everything else is (stuffing, brining, roasting, carving), but not this ultra-important step. Here’s why (science moment!): When a protein cooks, the strands of the proteins shrink and coil up to become tighter (read: tougher). When the proteins are taken from the heat source, they start to relax, which makes room for the juices and tenderizes the meat. So, if you want a tender, juicy bird, let it hang on the counter for between 20 and 40 minutes after cooking. Cover it loosely with foil, but don’t seal in the heat unless you want a turkey with soggy skin.
If your bird is over the magic number (165 degrees), it’s overcooked; if it’s under, you’ll be sending everyone home with more than just leftovers. Buy an instant-read thermometer, and take the turkey’s temperature between the thigh and the breast (and for the love of God, don’t rely on that piece of pop-up plastic Perdue buries in the breast meat). It’s done when the thermometer reads 155 degrees; while it rests, the turkey’s internal temperature will rise to the safe zone of 165 degrees during resting. (Yet another reason why resting isn’t optional.)
If you brine your turkey, you are going to have very salty pan drippings, so be careful when you gravy. In fact, maybe you should make the gravy ahead of time with a turkey neck? Not to mention no one will be breathing down your neck because they’re ready to eat NOW. That last-minute gravy scramble can be a drag. Gravy freezes well and it’s a make-or-break element of Thanksgiving dinner.
Plenty of reasons to do this: You can’t replicate a favorite, you’re a holiday-cooking novice, or you just want to relieve a little pressure. Whatever the reason, it’s cool. Obsessed with Boston Market’s mac & cheese? Clean out their case on Nov. 26. Can’t wrap your wings around the main event? Consider ordering a smoked turkey from Bubbalou’s or a deep-fried bird from Bojangles. (Really. But do it now.)
Switch it up
Change something this year. If you usually do a sit-down-pass-around dinner, consider a buffet. If you’re afraid serving buffet-style will result in Dad being finished before Mom even sits down, try plating in the kitchen, restaurant-style. If you have the space and furniture to eat outdoors, do it – this is the best time of the year in Florida, and if you have out-of-town visitors, they’ll be thrilled. Add at least one brand-new dish to the traditional menu. The point is, don’t be afraid to do something different – that’s how traditions are born.
Your makeup probably isn’t going to get done and your kitchen is going to look like the zombie apocalypse. Your table will probably not resemble the inspirational display at Williams-Sonoma. You’re probably going to be so tired by the end of it all, you won’t even want to eat. This is sad, but true, so find one or two concessions that will make your life easier and embrace them. If it’s using paper plates and napkins, go for it. If it’s bringing in fast-food breakfast to get everyone out of your hair first thing in the morning, do it.
Remember what you’re thankful for. That advice may be cornier than cornbread stuffing, but it’s the whole reason you’re doing this.