The Food Lab Answers Thanksgiving Questions: On Leftovers, Family Traditions, Etc.

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

[Doodle: Robyn Lee]

More Food Lab Thanksgiving Answers

Turkey, Non-Turkey Mains, Gravy »
Sides and Desserts »

So we've gone over the mains, sides, and desserts. Now it's time to discuss the leftovers (because, really, what is Thanksgiving without the second, third, and fourth Thanksgivings?), the family traditions, the inter-family relations, and the elastic maternity pants you should be wearing. On to the answers!

On Leftovers

What's your favorite creative use for Thanksgiving leftovers? Nothing as simple as reheating a plate, but creative (i.e. Ross's leftover sandwich with the "moistmaker"). —JustinH at 3:53PM on 11/10/11

My favorite way to do it is to chop up all the side dishes, shred the leftover turkey, and make a leftover hash. We always have a ton of brussels sprouts and potatoes, and both of those are perfect ingredients for hash because they taste so delicious when browned to near the point of burning in a cast iron skillet. Top it off with a couple of eggs and a lot of gravy, and it's almost better than the actual meal the night before.

And for those of you wondering about the moist maker:

What is the best use for leftover stuffing? Also, if I'm going to put a huge amount of work into a meal, I'd like it to involve more pork than one generally finds at Thanksgiving. Any thoughts on pork based side dishes? —Drederick Tatum at 7:00PM on 11/10/11

Well Drederick (if that's even your real name), I'd like to help you, but I've never had the problem of leftover stuffing. Just doesn't happen in my family.

That said, I suggest killing two birds with one stone: Make a batch of stuffing (this recipe is good), replacing one pound of the bread with an extra pound and a half of sausage. Then, when you've got leftovers, turn it into a pork and stuffing sandwich the next day.


And Drederick, one more thing: I think you're a good man. I like you. I got nothing against you, but I'm definitely gonna make orphans of your children.

On Fashion

We all know that sweatpants are the optimal Thanksgiving day garb, but sometimes I need to put away the meatball stained sweats and dress up. What do you recommend to cover a rapidly expanding belly on this day of feasts? I'm leaning towards standard dress pants but am considering renting tuxedo pants for the genius adjustable waist band. Any wise tips? —ESNY1077 at 3:56PM on 11/10/11

Certainly, my good sir. Your idea of using a tuxedo is a wise one, particularly if it comes with a nylon cummerbund with which to conform to your expanding gut, however. Have you ever considered the benefits of owning a fine turkey suit. Not only is it seasonally appropriate, totally fashionable, and flattering, but it's also a fantastic way to hide the unsightly extra body fat that we can all put on around the holiday season.

Perhaps an even more dashing way to go about it would be to slip yourself into that getup then get all dolled up in an extra-large turkey-sized tuxedo. Just dig how dapper you'd be!

MATERNITY PANTS (Mackenzieblaine at 4:01PM on 11/10/11)

Yes indeed. Maternity pants.

On Inside Jokes

I've read raves for a recipe called Not Your Mothers Meatloaf. I was wondering if there was a similar recipe for Not Your Mothers Thanksgiving Turkey and if so, can you share? —ESNY1077 at 8:05PM on 11/10/11

What do you mean? You haven't seen this recipe?

On Holiday Wishes, Granting of

Would you consider posting your new Thanksgiving recipes or a quick list of links to the previous year's turkey day recipes a month and a half earlier for your loyal Canadian Serious Eaters? :) —henry.gomes at 10:11PM on 11/10/11

Your wish is our command.

On Traditions, Family

What's the traditional Thanksgiving feast that you grew up with? —CTMike at 10:59PM on 11/10/11

Overcooked turkey, pretty good stuffing with too many stray ingredients tossed into it, mashed potatoes served lukewarm, brussels sprouts, gravy spiked with soy sauce (I still make it like that), and perhaps another side dish or two that changed from year to year. Not too exciting, and probably just about the norm for most people in the country, except maybe the soy sauce.

On Inter-Family Relations

Any suggestions for recipes to try and bring my mom away (even the tiniest bit, e.g., corn bread stuffing was denied this year) from the only traditional dishes? —coppertone24 at 4:43PM on 11/10/11

Not knowing what your mother's traditional dishes are, this is a pretty tough question to answer, but have you checked out our Thanksgiving side dish recipes page? There are dozens of variations on all the classics. Even your mom should be able to find something that piques her interest.

I asked my husband what food makes Thanksgiving for him since it is my family's year. His answer duck (why couldn't it have been green bean casserole?). We have a large Asian market in town so I thought that may be the best place to purchase. What kind do I buy and how should I prepare? Any tips are appreciated. —Cami_D at 5:10PM on 11/10/11

I'm not sure what city you're in, but most likely you'll be able to find Pekin ducks, with which you can make great Peking duck at home. That recipe is from about a year ago and would be great for the holidays. That said, you'll have trouble feeding more than say, eight people or so out of a regular oven since ducks don't have all that much meat on them. You can feed three to four max off of each duck.


Just as with any poultry, the keys to good roasting are to make sure the skin is dry before you start, and to use a thermometer as it cooks!

Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws. All the "good" and "traditional" dishes have been spoken for. Everyone brings their "specialty". Being the newest addition to the family, I am consistently stumped as to what to contribute. I have previously made bread pudding, chocolate mousse pie & cranberry sauce. The bread pudding & the cranberry sauce got good reactions...but I want these guys to be like "Melissa...make THAT (enter unknown item)!!!" So...any suggestions for a knock your socks off contribution to Thanksgiving that isn't dressing, mac&cheese, turkey, sweet potatoes, green beans (etc.)????? fyi: I was considering making homemade yeast rolls...until I remembered the sis-in-law makes garlic & herb bread. :( bummed. The s.o. says I should just eat & enjoy, that I don't need to contribute. I don't know how to do that. LOL —melissalara01 at 6:58PM on 11/10/11

Make an awesome salad! I mentioned the roasted pear, bitter greens, and pomegranate salad I make almost every year, and it's always pretty freaking awesome (if I say so myself). My mom always requests it and now even asks for it year round. Maybe you can make this your dish. The recipe will be up on the site on Wednesday, so stay tuned!

I f I eat a huge amount of turkey, and OD on tryptophan, and go to bed and never wake up, will my MIL care? No. If I eat waaaay too much mashed potatoes and sweet potato casserole, and my ankles bloat, and am unable to walk, will my MIL care? No. If I drink down so much gravy that my teeth acquire an unpleasant coating and I am unable to smile in public ever again, will my MIL care? No. If I make an extra thick and silky smooth pumpkin pie, covered with pecan praline, in a buttery, leaf lard crust, and drop it on the way into the house on Thanksgiving afternoon, will my MIL care? Yes, she laughed her a** off. Why, Kenji, why, do I even try? —mao1213 at 7:43PM on 11/10/11

You dropped the pumpkin pie? A-hahahahahaha! That's hilarious!

Mao1213, I'd like to meet this mother-in-law of yours.

Do you believe the children are our future and that we should teach them well and let them lead the way? —film_score at 11:01PM on 11/10/11

Absolutely not. And I believe we should relentlessly crush all the beauty they possess inside. The last thing we want is for the little buggers to get a sense of pride.

So if tryptophan was really the culprit, you'd be falling asleep every single time you ate chicken (or pumpkin seeds, for that matter). It's the over-eating that makes us drowsy.

On Bowling

I've seen a lot of themed Thanksgiving menus recently: all-vegetarian, Indian inspired, Italian inspired, etc. Who is your favorite literary character and what would you put in a themed Thanksgiving menu to serve him/her? —tigereats at 7:45PM on 11/10/11

Ugh... that's a really tough question. I mean, my favorite writer is Vonnegut, but his characters aren't exactly the type that you want to "favorite" (to use the parlance of our times). Perhaps someone from the Hitchhiker's Trilogy of Five?


No, I've got it. I'd go with The Dude. I'd probably stir up a Caucasian, herb-smoke a turkey, then say fuck it to the rest.

On Budgets, Monetary, Spatial, and Energetic

Do you have any suggestions for dealing with particular foodies and small, junky kitchens/grad school budgets? My sister is coming to my small, kind of junky kitchen to help me cook Thanksgiving, and is making outrageous requests, like: I must buy a ricer because mashed potatoes MUST be riced. If i had megabucks I would buy my own ricer but it is not in the cards right now. —nommingudon at 5:07PM on 11/10/11

The best way to deal with snooty foodies is to just ignore them. If your sister requires a ricer, she can bring it herself. Seriously, Thanksgiving is about family and non-fussy comforting food that should be enjoyed, not analyzed (this is all rich coming from someone who comes from a never-agree-upon-any-food family like mine).

If she causes you too much trouble, just do what I do to my sister. Maker her wear the turkey.


What's the best way for someone on a diet to handle Thanksgiving? —DanielJ at 5:51PM on 11/10/11

Seriously, if there's one day of the year to forget about your diet, it's Thanksgiving. Give yourself a break and cut loose!

My inlaws are coming into town. i love to cook, and really want to impress them, but i have only one small oven, just large enough for the turkey. what are some good stovetop side dishes, or side dishes that can be made in advance? —jonsa at 8:00PM on 11/10/11

Honestly, even in a small oven, with good planning you can cook for many, many people. I cook for at least a dozen every year in an oven with four burners and just enough space for a turkey. Take a look at this Thanksgiving planning guide for tips on how to organize your cooking space and make the most of what you have.

I liked your idea of thinking about maximum amounts of food based on heating elements available, but given the size of my kitchen, and the number of people for whom I have to cook, I was wondering what your thoughts are on foods which are best for re-heating, and how best to prepare them for that trip into the microwave or to reheat into the oven.

I had planned the following:

Turkey, Mashed potatoes, Eggplant parm for the vegetarians, Corn Pudding, Clam Chowder, Squash, Indian pudding, and Gravy. —CptBuck at 11:15PM on 11/10/11

Here you go:

Turkey doesn't reheat well. This one you'll want to slow roast, remove from the oven, tent with foil, and let rest for 30 to 45 minutes while you reheat the remaining food.
Mashed potatoes do great in the microwave. Just stir them every few minutes as they heat up in a large bowl.
Eggplant parm for the vegetarians should be reheated in its casserole dish. Pull it out of the fridge when the turkey goes in the oven so that it's at room temperature by the time the turkey comes out to rest. Pop it into the oven at around 350°F covered with foil, and it should be hot and ready to go by the time the turkey is done resting.
Corn Pudding can be made in a casserole dish and reheated in the oven along with the eggplant parm.
Clam Chowder can easily be made ahead and just reheated in a pot on the stove during the last 15 minutes or so of turkey resting.
Squash is pretty non-descriptive so I can't be much help here. Roasted squash? Mashed squash? Squash soup? If roasted, you can have it on a rimmed baking sheet and toss it in the oven while the eggplant and pudding reheat. If you have enough racks, give it its own. If not, throw the tray right on top of the casserole dish holding the eggplant.
Indian pudding I'm assuming you're serving for dessert, so just reheat it in the oven while you're all eating the main course.
Gravy can be reheated in a small pot on the stovetop.

What would you say would be a good menu for college students? We're on a budget and want to make smaller scale thanksgiving dinner? Any recommendations —DeSze at 11:51PM on 11/10/11

I'd stick to roasting just turkey legs instead of trying to get a whole turkey. They're generally much cheaper than the whole birds. Asides from that, there's not really much that's expensive in a thanksgiving meal. Just make everything from scratch and you'll save plenty of money. Potatoes are cheap, bread for stuffing is cheap, brussels sprouts are cheap, I think you're in the clear.

On Myths, Busting Of

I have heard that tryptophan in turkeys actually has a very minimal effect and it's merely the overeating that makes people tired. T/F? sweeteats34 at 7:24PM on 11/10/11


Turkey doesn't actually contain any more tryptophan than many other foods. Here are some common amounts, per 100 grams.

  • Bacalao (dried cod): 0.70
  • Pumpkin seeds: 0.57
  • Parmesan: 0.56
  • Sesame seeds: 0.37
  • Pork: 0.25
  • Turkey: 0.24
  • Chicken: 0.24
  • Beef: 0.23
  • Salmon: 0.22
  • Eggs: 0.17

On Food Safety

What do you do when you drop your uncooked, fully marinated turkey on the floor? —DivineGigi at 11:18PM on 11/10/11


Depends, did someone see you do it or not? If nobody saw you, you're in the clear. Pick it up, wipe it down and pretend it never happened.

Then again, if someone did see you do it, either remind them that Julia Child herself did the same thing, or make some stupid joke about how this year you decided to make Turkey Florentine (haha, get it? Get it?).

On Readers

This is your Nth time using that caricature. are you by in some chance implying that we look like potatoes with tusks? —myk v. at 11:21PM on 11/10/11

I'm not entirely sure that you understand the meaning of the mathematical term "nth." Perhaps you meant to say "2nd" instead, in which case you are entirely accurate. Also, I've met some of you guys. I can assure you that the drawing is completely representative of reality. Might as well be a photograph.