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The Food Lab's Complete Guide to a Stress-Free Thanksgiving
UPDATE: Please see here for our updated Thanksgiving planning guide!
The key to a successful Thanksgiving is planning. Know what needs to get done, when it needs to be done, and how much manpower and time it's going to take you. There's no better way to derail a calm evening by scrambling at the last minute to make sure your turkey is cooked through, or the gravy isn't burning.
By far the best way to make sure your kitchen doesn't turn into a disaster site on the big day is to prepare everything as far in advance as you can. Some foods not only do well prepared in advance, but actually improve with a few days in the fridge.
There are many theories as to when to prep each individual item, but here's my own schedule of events starting three weeks before Thanksgiving.
Three Weeks Out: Advanced Planning
- Plan your menu! How are you preparing the turkey? Have you bought or pre-ordered one yet? Turkeys that come wrapped in vacuum-sealed plastic will generally have an expiration date at least a few weeks away, so you can get away with buying one now if you'd like and storing it in the fridge until the big day. If you want a specialty bird, make sure you talk to your farmer or butcher and lock in your order now.
For a complete guide on how to select a bird and the best ways to deal with it, check out my Turkey 101 guide.
- What about sides? How many side dishes do you want? When planning side dishes, try and get a good mix of make ahead and a la minute stuff, using a variety of cooking methods so that you don't find yourself cramped for oven space while your burners all sit empty. To get you started, here's a list of what I made last year, with links to all of the recipes. Later on, we'll get to the logistics of how to cook and serve them all 100% stress free.
Of course, we'll be adding a ton of new recipes to the site this month so keep an eye out for them. A complete list of our recommended Thanksgiving recipes from the past can be found in here.
Here's my Thanksgiving menu from 2010:
- Easy Herb-Rubbed Roasted Turkey (oven)
- Roasted Sweet potatoes (oven)
- Seared Brussels sprouts (stovetop)
- Mashed potatoes (microwave)
- Stuffing (stovetop/oven)
- Green bean casserole (stovetop/oven)
- Roasted beet salad (room temperature
- Green salad (from the fridge)
- Gravy (stovetop)
- Cranberry sauce (room temperature)
- Apple pie (room temperature)
- Pumpkin pie (from the fridge)
- Start shopping! Now is also a good time to take stock of your pantry. Draw up a shopping list for all of your side dishes, figure out what you need and what you already have, and start your shopping. I find holiday grocery shopping to be far less stressful if you get it in small installments instead of trying to battle through the crowds for basic pantry staples at the last minute. Non-perishable foods like nuts, pickles, certain cheeses olives, or canned goods can and should all be procured now so that you can get them off your mind and stop worrying about them.
- Also start thinking about presentation. Do you have all the dinnerware and glasses you need? Silverware? Tablecloths? Are you going to have to borrow or rent chairs or are you gonna spend the night watching gravy dribble down Grandma Ginny's blouse as she tries to eat while standing through the whole meal? Centerpieces, candles, decorations?
Two Weeks Out
Still got a bit of time on our hands, so relax!
- Double check invitations, You can start by cracking a cold one, sitting down at the computer, and emailing your family and guests to confirm who and who won't be there. Is anyone planning on bringing food or drink? Take note and plan your table accordingly.
- Prepare frozen foods in advance. You can do this all the week of, but why not get a jump start? Pie doughs freeze perfectly well, as does the roasted chicken or turkey stock you're going to use for your gravy.
- Get your drink on. Make sure you've got your wine, beer, and whatever ingredients you need to make cocktails handy. Go ahead and open up one of those bottles right now and take a nice long pull. You deserve it. Then shove a cork in it and get back to work. Check out our Thanksgiving Drinks Guide for recommendations to get you started.
- Last minute planning. Pull out your big roasting pan, figure out exactly which cooking vessels you'll need for which dish and have them clean and ready, clear out space in your fridge, and get ready, because this coming weekend, the final stretch begins.
- Thaw your turkey. A turkey can take a good few days in the fridge to thaw. You want it to be completely thawed and ready to brine, salt, or air-dry by the Sunday before thanksgiving, which means that if it's frozen, it needs to be transferred to the bottom rack of the fridge in a tray by Thursday night the week before Thanksgiving.
The Week Before
If you've been preparing for it following this guide—barring meddling relatives (who can never be accounted for)—there should be no reason whatsoever that the week of Thanksgiving will be anything but smooth sailing. Here's what you gotta do.
Saturday or Sunday
- Shop for remaining ingredients. You can safely buy most of your ingredients now. Onions, carrots, potatoes, celery, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and green beans, squash, even fresh-looking salad greens will last until Thursday provided you store them properly. Pick up cheeses and cured meats for an easy, no-prep hors d'oeuvre to serve while you're in the kitchen.
- Have your turkey ready. By Sunday, you should either have your fresh turkey in the fridge ready-to-brine, salt, or dry, or your frozen turkey completely thawed.
- Make the gravy. You can make gravy from the turkey necks and store it in the fridge until the day of. For a last minute flavor boost, add the deglazed pan drippings from the roast turkey.
- If you don't have it frozen, make pie dough. Pie dough freezes very well, so make it today, save it in the freezer until Wednesday when you bake your pies.
- Make soups and dips. Soups and appetizer dips improve with a few days in the fridge, so it's actually better to make them in advance.
- Make the cranberry sauce. Cranberries have natural preservatives that give them an extraordinarily long shelf life. You can even make the sauce the week before if you'd like.
- If you choose to brine your bird, you should be being doing that today. Large birds can be brined in a cooler filled with water and ice packs (change the ice packs every 12 hours to make sure the water stays cooler than 40°F).
Take the day off! Watch a movie, play with the dog, rake the lawn, or just drink the day away, but don't let things get too out of hand: you'll need all your wits about you for wednesday and thursday.
- Get turkey ready for roasting. This can mean removing it from the brine and allowing it to air-dry overnight in the fridge, rubbing it with herb butter, or separating it into various parts, depending on how you like to cook your bird. Check out The Food Lab's Turkey Guide for recipe ideas and tips.
- Make your pies. Bake off your pies and allow them to cool and rest at room temperature until you need them on Thursday. Custard pies like pumpkin pie can be refrigerated overnight if desired.
- Dry your bread. Cut up your bread and set it out to stale and dry overnight to make dressing or stuffing the next day. (You can also just do this thursday morning in a low oven).
- Make salad dressings. If you're planning on having a couple salads, make the dressings today.
- Assemble your casseroles. Any casserole that can be finished in the oven like the dressing (or stuffing, if you prefer that nomenclature), green bean casseroles, sweet potato casserole—whatever—can be assembled ahead of time and refrigerated overnight. Pull 'em out of the fridge about an hour before you plan on baking them to let them come up to room temperature. Leave off any crunchy toppings like fried onions or bread crumbs until ready to bake (or even until after its baked).
- Basic vegetable prep. It's the final stretch, so have all your vegetables washed, cut, and ready. Brussels sprouts can be split or shredded. Carrots can be peeled and cut. Green beans (if they're not already in your casserole) can be trimmed and washed. Salad greens should be washed, spun, and ready to go. Like beet salads? Roast off those beets today and they'll be ready to serve tomorrow. You get the idea. The more organization and planning you do today, the less stressful tomorrow will be.
When planning a Thanksgiving menu, it's always a balancing act between making sure all of the classics are represented and all of the family members are happy. Whatever route you choose—whole turkey, turkey in parts, sweet potato casserole or roasted sweet potatoes, braised brussels sprouts or seared—keep in mind the limitations of your kitchen.
If there's one problem that people seem to have most, it's this: there's just not enough room in my kitchen. To solve this problem, I like to think of my kitchen as a system of individual energy-output devices, each one capable of heating foods in a different way. There's the oven, which is necessary for the turkey and useful for any casserole-type dishes. The burners are best for heating liquids and long-cooked vegetable dishes. The microwave shouldn't be forgotten either—it's ideal for heating things like mashed root vegetables that tend to burn on the stovetop or dry out in the oven.
Once you start thinking of different dishes in terms of how they are heated, you quickly realize that the key to successfully pulling off a big meal is to diversify. If you plan on five casseroles and a turkey, you're gonna run out of oven space. Don't do it! Instead, do some dishes that can be heated in the oven, others on the stovetop, others in the microwave, and some to be served cold or at room temperature. Choose hors d'oeuvres and appetizers that can be served at room temperature, or heated in the toaster oven.
The Final Hours
Now I've got only four burners, a microwave, and an oven to complete all these dishes. Here's how it works.
4 hours before dinner: My turkey goes into the oven and I make the mashed potatoes and set them aside (it's OK if they get a little cool). I take an hour to relax with a martini and chat to my sister about why cranberries belong in the sauce, not in the stuffing.
2 hours before dinner: My turkey is about an hour short of hitting 150°F. I remove my pre-made green bean casserole and dressing from the fridge and allow it to start coming to room temperature.
1 hour before dinner: My turkey is out of the oven. I place it to the side, tented with aluminum foil to rest, then deglaze the drippings from the pan and add it to my gravy that I've placed in a small saucepot on the corner of the stove (no need to heat it yet). Meanwhile, sliced sweet potatoes hit the lower rack of the oven to roast, while my two covered casseroles fill out the top rack. Beets come out of the fridge and into a large bowl. Cranberry sauce goes into its serving bowl on the table.
30 minutes before dinner: I sear my Brussels sprouts in a couple batches on the stovetop, spreading them out on a rimmed baking sheet after they are done. The covers come off of the casseroles to begin browning the tops.
15 minutes before dinner: The sweet potatoes are just about done so I remove them and bang the oven up to 500°F to re-crisp my turkey. Casseroles come out of the oven and get tented with foil (they stay plenty hot for the fifteen minutes until dinner), turkey goes in, mashed potatoes get zapped a few times in the microwave to reheat, and gravy goes over a low fire.
5 minutes before dinner: My Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes go back into the oven for one last five-minute jolt of heat while I begin carving the turkey.
Dinner time! The turkey is done carved, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts are piping hot in their serving bowls, the casseroles get uncovered, fried onions go on top of the green beans, mashed potatoes emerge from the microwave, gravy is transferred to a boat, cranberry sauce is already waiting for the action to start, the beets and greens are tossed with their respective vinaigrettes, wine is poured, and the
arguing joyful merriment ensues.
UPDATE: Please see here for our updated Thanksgiving planning guide!