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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, 2013 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.
Before you do anything, you may want to virtually thumb through our Thanksgiving Survival Guide, which has everything you need to know about Thanksgiving, from what turkey to buy to what recipes to make, to recommended wine pairings. It's a crazy good resource (if I do say so myself).
Done browsing? Good, now read on.
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.
Check out our Guide to Thanksgiving Pantry Essentials for tips on what to have on hand, when to buy it, and how to store it.
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!
What's the right bird for you? Check out our all-new Complete Guide to Turkeys 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 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 on the early side to lock in your order.
Are you planning on brining your bird? You might want to check out The Truth About Brining before you make up your mind!
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):
- Crisp-Skinned Butterflied Roast Turkey with Gravy, for those who value the juiciest meat and crispest skin with the least amount of effort over traditional presentation.
- Turkey Breast Porchetta paired with Red Wine-Braised Turkey Legs for those who want to take a break-down-the-bird approach to the holiday and are willing to put in some extra work for superior end results.
- Roast Turkey With Stuffing and Giblet Gravy, for the traditionalists.
- Cajun Smoked Turkey if you live in a year-round-smoking area or are willing to brave the elements in the name of flavor.
What About Sides?
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. I always like to mix up multiple heat sources (that is, some dishes that require an oven, some that can be heated stovetop, some that can be warmed in a slow cooker, etc.) so that there's no last-minute bottleneck.
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 Side Dishes page.
To get you started, here's a list of what I'm making this 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.
- Gingery Glazed Carrots (stovetop)
- Classic Sage and Sausage Stuffing (stovetop/oven)
- The Ultimate Green Bean Casserole (stovetop/oven)
- Ultra-Crispy New Potatoes With Garlic, Herbs, and Lemon (oven)
- Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Shallots with Balsamic Vinegar (oven)
- Fluffy Mashed Potatoes (microwave)
- Creamed Pearl Onions (oven)
- Easy Gravy (stovetop)
- Basic Cranberry sauce (room temperature)
- Beet and Citrus Salad with Pinenut Vinaigrette (room temperature)
- Roasted Pear Salad with Endive, Pomegranate, Stilton, and Hazelnut Vinaigrette (fridge)
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 classic from the list below, or check out the dozens of tested-and-true options we have here.
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; for a bigger crowd, we think a Cranberry Apple Slab Pie is a better bet.
- Cook's Illustrated's Foolproof Vodka Pie Dough
- The Food Lab's Easy Pie Dough (room temperature)
- Perfect Apple Pie
- Cranberry Apple Slab Pie
- Classic Pumpkin Pie
Keep 'Em Busy With Hors d'Oeuvres!
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 coming days and weeks:
- A big vegetable platter, along with homemade Green Goddess Dressing, Ranch Dressing, and Chunky Blue Cheese Dip
- Assorted nuts, cheeses, and charcuterie with Red Onion Jam
- Country Ham Biscuits (Oven)
- Great Deviled Eggs
10 DAYS OUT: Double Check Everything
Still got a bit of time on our hands, so relax!
- Follow up on 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.
- Check off your equipment list. Do you have all the tools you need to cook all of your dishes? This list of 11 Essential Thanksgiving Tools is a good place to start.
- 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 on a list of wines, beers, and cocktails you can serve.
- Last minute planning. 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 at the end of the week. 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.
ONE WEEK OUT: Take it Day by Day
If you've been 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. Check out our Taste Tests for some specific product recommendations. 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 or salt (if that's in the plans—check out The Truth About Brining here), or your frozen turkey completely thawed.
- If you don't have it frozen, make pie dough. Pie dough freezes very well, so make it today and 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, using any of our many variations.
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, do what I do and dry-brine your bird by salting it and leaving it in the fridge, for a similar juiciness-enhancing effect with less fuss and better flavor.
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 your 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 our Turkey Talk page for recipe ideas and tips.
- Make your pies. Bake off your pies and allow them to cool and rest at room temperature (or in the refrigerator, if that's what the recipes call for) until you need them on Thursday.
- 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 two hours 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 it's 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 porchetta, sweet potato casserole, or roasted sweet potatoes, fried Brussels sprouts or roasted—keep in mind the limitations of your kitchen.
The microwave shouldn't be forgotten either—it's ideal for heating things like mashed root vegetables. 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 microwave is best for heating liquids and long-cooked vegetable dishes 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're 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.
Most casseroles, including stuffing and green beans, can be cooked in advance and reheated just before serving to save you some last minute stress. If it has a crunchy topping like crumbs or fried onions, leave them off until the reheating phase.
THE FINAL COUNTDOWN: Day 0
Now I've got only four burners, a microwave, and an oven to complete all these dishes. Here's how it works.
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 1/2 hours before dinner: My Spatchcock Turkey hits the oven (if I were cooking a traditional turkey, Id've popped it in four hours before dinner).
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 about 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 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.
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.