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The Food Lab's Complete Guide to a Stress-Free Thanksgiving, 2012 Edition

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If it seems like I do one of these Thanksgiving planning guides every year, that's because I do. Such is the nature of annual holidays.

But here we go. I present The Not-All-New-But-Completely-Updated Food Lab's Complete Guide To A Stress-Free Thanksgiving, 2012 Edition.

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 And Start Shopping!

Now is the 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 I 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.

Read on for menu planning options.

Think of 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?

Pick Your Turkey!

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What's the right bird for you? Sheck out our all new guide to natural, kosher, or self-basting birds and figure out which one you'll be going for, then go ahead and buy it. Frozen birds can be stored in the freezer until a week out (whereupon they should be moved to the fridge or a cooler to defrost), and 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 you start prepping it for 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.

Here are some of my favorite turkey recipes to get you started (or stay tuned to our Thanksgiving Planning Page in the upcoming weeks for more options):

What About Sides?

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The key to successful Thanksgiving side dishes is to make sure your menu includes many items that can be made in advance—most casseroles can be constructed in the morning or even the day before Thanksgiving, just requiring a trip to the oven while the turkey rests.

Other sides can be cooked in advance and served briefly reheated, or even at room temperature.

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 on our Thanksgiving Planning Page.

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 percent stress free.

Desserts

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Pies are the classic thanksgiving choice, and happen to be ideally suited for the situation, since they can be made a day ahead, stored and served at room temperature. You can go with a cliass from the list below, or check out our Pie of the Week column for a whole slew of delicious looking options.

For your crust, a frozen crust will do in a pinch (check out our taste test here), but for best results, go for homemade. The vodka-based recipe I developed for Cook's Illustrated will do you well (get the complete recipe here), though I've personally moved on to what I believe to be a superior crust in The Food Lab: The Science of Pie Dough.

If apple pie is your bag, check out our guides to picking the best apples, as well as turning those apples into perfect apple pie filling, or for a bigger crowd a Cranberry Apple Slab Pie is a better bet.

Keep 'Em Busy With Hors D'oeuvres!

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The best way to keep those annoying relatives out of your way in the kitchen (you know the ones) is to make sure there's plenty of food to be passed around before you sit down to dinner. Some carefully planned hors d'oeuvres that take little work the day-of will keep sticky fingers busy, ensuring that your perfectly roasted potatoes and brussels sprouts don't get snagged before they make it to the table.

Here's what I had out on the table last year, and yes, we'll offer more options on our Thanksgiving Planning Page in the upcoming days and weeks:

TWO WEEKS OUT: Double Check Everything

Still got a bit of time on our hands, so relax!

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

Monday

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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). Alternatively, salt your bird and leave it in the fridge for a similar juiciness-enhancing effect.

Tuesday

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.

Wednesday

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Thursday

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 COUNTDOWN: Day 0

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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, I make the mashed potatoes and set them aside (it's OK if they get a little cool for now), I par-boil my crispy roast potatoes to get them ready for roasting

I also pull out my green bean casserole and stuffing casserole from the fridge to get 'em ready to pop in the oven. 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 sear off my braised leeks and add them to the oven, then I spread my roasted brussels sprouts onto a rimmed baking sheet, and do the same with my par-boiled crispy roast potatoes.

I add my casseroles to the bottom rack of the oven to cook off while the turkey finishes.

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). I also pull out the casseroles, cover them in foil, and keep them in a warm spot in my kitchen, swatting at my dad's hand as he reaches for a green bean.

I bang the oven up to 500°F and throw my potatoes in, letting them roast for 20 minutes before flipping them and adding my brussels sprouts. Meanwhile, I start glazing my carrots, holding them warm off to the side once they're done.

Beets come out of the fridge and into a large bowl. Cranberry sauce goes into its serving bowl on the table.

15 minutes before dinner: Potatoes and sprouts are out of the oven and into serving bowls. Oven back down to 350°F. The foil covers come off the casseroles and they go for one last trip to the oven to crisp up their tops. The mashed potatoes get zapped in the microwave a few times to reheat.

Dinner time! The turkey is done carved, roast 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 pear salads are tossed with their respective vinaigrettes, wine is poured, and the arguing joyful merriment ensues.

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