Thanksgiving is inevitably going to involve a headache or two (totally worth it, of course), but there are ways to minimize stress. Coming prepared is one of them. Aside from putting together a handy list of expletives to be brought into service against family members and inanimate objects as necessary, you should also have your physical toolkit stocked and ready for deployment.
Here are 11 essential tools for your kitchen that will help your Thanksgiving run as smoothly and deliciously as possible.
In each case, I've given you my recommendation for specific brands of products along with my reasoning for selecting them. In most cases, performance and durability were my primary criteria—not only do you want something that works, but you want something that will work year after year. Price factored into the arrangement as well. If you can get something for cheap that works just as well as the expensive version, why not? Finally, since Thanksgiving is a holiday that's all about entertaining, for items that appear in the dining room, I picked things that would not only work well, but would look great while doing their job.
#1: Several Baking Dishes
Since you're going to be both cooking and serving almost all of your sides with them, a good baking or casserole dish needs to be both functional and attractive. The Le Creuset Stoneware collection fits that description. Made with high quality glazed ceramic, not only do they heat foods evenly (and more importantly, store that heat so your food stays hot even while you're trying to corral the family to the table), but their smooth glaze is practically non-stick, making them simple to clean up afterwards. An important consideration when you're stuffed with turkey!
I have a few of these guys in varying shapes, sizes, and colors so that even if I fudge a recipe I'll always find one that fits my needs. Check out all of our Thanksgiving side dish recipes here for some inspiration.
Don't want to shell out the dough for the fancy Le Creuset stuff? No worries! Though Pyrex Bakeware is lacking in the looks department, it will perform nearly as well in terms of even cooking and heat retention.
#2: Rimmed Baking Sheets or a Roasting Pan
Want to know the honest truth? I almost never use a traditional roasting pan for roasting meats. They're bulky, expensive, and moreover, when it comes to poultry, they don't even do a great job. A thick-gauge roasting pan with tall sides shields the sides and bottom of the bird, preventing them from crisping properly. You're far better off spatchcocking your turkey and roasting it on a wire rack set in an inexpensive rimmed baking sheet, like the Nordic Ware Naturals Big Sheet Baking Pan paired with the CIA Master's Collection 12- by 17-inch Wire Cooling Rack.
Just be aware: you'll want to keep a separate set of cooling racks for roasting meats and cooling baked goods.
If you do want to go the roasting pan route, the Calphalon Contemporary Stainless Roaster and Rack has a nice flat bottom that makes it easy to deglaze, sturdy construction, and handles that point inwards to make sure that you don't burn your knuckles on the sides of the oven when retrieving a hot turkey from its depths.
#3: A Thermapen
Splash-Proof Super-Fast Thermapen (Gray) Instant Read Thermometer, Perfect for Barbecue, Home and Professional CookingAvailable from Thermoworks
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A thermometer is the best way to guarantee that your turkey comes out flawlessly moist and juicy. To some of you who read my stuff regularly, I may sound like a broken record here, but for the rest of you, let me reiterate: A thermometer is the best way to guarantee that your turkey comes out flawlessly moist and juicy.
Whether you choose to brine your turkey or salt it (I recommend dry-brining), whether you roast it whole with stuffing or spatchcock it (I recommend spatchcocking), so long as you use a thermometer to ensure that the breast meat never rises above 150°F, your turkey will be juicier than any turkey you ever ate growing up. That's a guarantee.
The Splash-Proof Super-Fast Thermapen from Thermoworks is accurate, super fast, and nearly waterproof. I keep mine with me at all times.
And while I don't recommend relying exclusively on a leave-in probe thermometer (the metal can conduct heat into the meat, giving you a false positive reading), the Thermoworks Original Cooking Thermometer is a great option to have as a backup warning system. It features both temperature and timer-based alarms so you'll be sure not to accidentally overcook your bird.
#4: A Timer
A thermometer should be the be all end all in deciding whether your meat is cooked or not, but a loud, easy-to-read timer is a great tool to have for organization and reminders. The Polder Clock/Timer/Stopwatch is ideal for the task and includes both a magnet for sticking to the fridge, or a lanyard for tying around your neck so that you'll still get your reminder even when you sneak off from the family to drink your martini on the balcony in peace.
#5: A Sharp Knife
Folks ask me for knife recommendations all the time, and the honest answer I give them is that it's nearly impossible to recommend a knife that will be universally loved by all users. A good knife is an extension of your hand, and I guarantee you that your hand doesn't look or behave exactly like mine does.*
*and if it does, go wash it right now, you should be ashamed of where that thing has been!
That said, there are a few things to look for in a good knife. A forged (not stamped) blade for durability and longevity. A full tang (that's the part of the blade that extends into the handle) for balance. A riveted handle that will not fall off after a few years of use, and enough heft to power through tough tasks.** For a carving knife, add to that list a thin, relatively long blade to make slicing thin pieces of turkey simple, along with a granton edge (those are the little dimples cut into the metal) to allow slices to fall from the blade easily. The Wusthof Classic 2-Piece Hollow-Ground Carving Set covers all those bases and comes with an excellent forchette for serving as well.
**You'll notice that the Forschner Victorinox Fibrox knives that come highly recommended from a certain magazine don't fit any of those criteria.
#6: A Cutting Board
High quality wood is the best material for a cutting board if you're looking for functionality, durability, safety,* and plain good looks for serving. And forget those puny foot-wide boards that provide barely enough room to slice a single carrot. When we're talking Thanksgiving prep, we're talking volume. A large cutting board will make working in the kitchen much more pleasant.
*Wood is actually less prone to host bacteria than plastic due to its natural antibacterial properties.
There are plenty of options out there, but the most attractive and durable one I've come across is the Ironwood Gourmet Acacia Wood Large End Grain Prep Station. It's huge, it's sturdy, it's got rubberized feet so you don't have to worry about slippage, and it's pretty enough that you can serve directly off of it at the dining room table.
Like all wooden work surfaces, you'll want to keep it seasoned with mineral oil to keep its surface pretty and clean.
#7: Pie Plates
We've got dozens and dozens of pie recipes for the holidays, but guess what? You can't make any of them without a pie plate to bake them in. Most of our recipes are designed to be baked in glass or ceramic pie plates (rather than aluminum plates, which can transfer heat too quickly), and the simple functional elegance of the Pyrex 9 1/2-inch Pie Plate can't be beat, especially for the price!
#8: A Scale
Did you know that depending on how you scoop up a cup of flour, its weight can vary by as much as 50%? A good digital scale will make inaccuracies like that a thing of the past, guaranteeing more consistent, accurate results. Not only that, but using a scale means fewer dirty bowls and measuring cups. Hooray!
Things to look for in a good scale: at least 1 gram or 1/8th ounce accuracy, a capacity of at least seven to eight pounds, a tare (zero) function, measurements in both metric (g) and imperial (lb) units, a large, easy-to-read display, and a flat design for storage. The Oxo Good Grips Food Scale with Pull-out Display has got all of that, plus a neat pull-out display that allows you to read measurements with ease, even when weighing large, bulky items that would otherwise obscure the screen.
#9: Metal Prep Bowls
Wanna know why television cooks use glass mixing bowls? It's not because they're better than the more inexpensive metal version. It's for one reason only: metal bowls are too reflective and make life difficult for the camera operators. Go into any professional kitchen and you'll find that mixing bowls are exclusively metal. They're lighter, take up less space, and last longer (and yes, modern microwaves can even handle metal!).
I used to work in one of those television kitchens. Guess how many of our glass bowls had chipped or flaked edges? At least half of them. You probably don't want to think about where those chipped edges ended up.
Moral: Leave the glass bowls on the shelf and grab yourself a metal set. If you've got access to a restaurant supply store, you'll find that the metal bowls are cheaper than anywhere else. If not, these Light Weight Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls come in good sizes and should do you just fine.
#10: Rolling Pin
It might not have that classic cartoon-farmer's-wife-chasing-the-fox look of a ball-bearing style rolling pin, but French rolling pins with their tapered edges are more maneuverable, easier to store and clean, lighter, and more durable which in my book, makes them superior.
I've had my Ateco 20-Inch Length Maple French Rolling Pin for years and can't imagine ever replacing it (at least, not until a brilliant new design comes around).
#11: Containers For Leftovers
Don't you hate looking into your cabinet and finding dozens of different sized containers, none of which have matching lids? In my kitchen, I keep a few flat deli-style containers for packed lunches, and stacks and stacks of round, stackable cup, pint, and quart-sized round Reditainer Deli Food Containers> for all of my storage needs. They have one-size-fits all lids, are reusable, and are easily stackable, minimizing storage space in the cupboard and in the fridge. Not only that, but they're cheap!
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.