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

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

A platter of carved turkey with a carving knife and fork, surrounded by pecan pie, green bean casserole, and salad

Our blow-by-blow guide takes the stress out of Thanksgiving. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik, except where noted]

The key to a successful Thanksgiving is planning. Know what needs to get done, when it needs to be done, and how much effort and time it's going to take you. There's no better way to derail a calm evening than by scrambling at the last minute to make sure your turkey is cooked through, the gravy isn't burning, or there are enough Martinis flowing into Grandpa's IV bag.

By far the best way to make sure your kitchen doesn't turn into a disaster site on the big day is to have a work schedule and stick to it. Many dishes can be completed halfway before assembling and finishing on the big day. Some dishes can even be made 100% in advance and served as they are or reheated when the time comes.

In this fully updated guide, I'll walk you through what dishes can be made when, some tips for Thanksgiving success, and a rundown of my own personal schedule of events so you can get an idea of where you should be.

Before you do anything, you may want to virtually thumb through our guide to Thanksgiving, 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.

7 Tips for Reducing Thanksgiving Stress

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 A baking dish of Thanksgiving stuffing with a spoon sticking out of it, next to turkey and a bowl of cranberry sauce

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When planning a Thanksgiving menu, it's always a balancing act between representing all the classics and satisfying all the members of your family. Whatever route you choose—whole turkey or turkey porchetta, sweet potato casserole or roasted sweet potatoes, creamed Brussels sprouts or roasted ones—keep in mind the limitations of your kitchen. Knowing what you're going to be cooking before you get started will save you a lot of headaches.

Whatever you do, don't bite off more than you can chew. If it all seems overwhelming, simplify. Nobody will think less of you for buying a few ready-made sides to save you some prep work.

Tip #2: Use All Your Heat Sources

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Overhead shot of a bowl of mashed potatoes and a dish of cranberry sauce

If there's one problem that people seem to have most often, 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 great for reheating liquids and long-cooked vegetable dishes that tend to burn on the stovetop or dry out in the oven. If you have a sous vide cooker, try using it to keep your mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes hot and ready to serve.

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.

Here are some suggested menus to get you started.

Tip #3: Stock Your Pantry

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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. Start your shopping, but know that no matter how meticulous you are, you're likely to forget something, burn something, drop something, or run out of something else, which means another trip to the store. Build time into your schedule for that second or third visit.

Turns out you don't have to make another trip? Great! You just bought yourself some well-deserved R&R.

Here's our guide to pantry essentials, and here's an easy printable checklist for you to use.

Tip #4: Think of Refrigeration

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We host Thanksgiving in my mother's apartment in New York. I don't know if you've seen many New York apartment kitchens, but they are not known for spaciousness. My mom is also not known for keeping an empty fridge, which means that finding room for all of those extra Thanksgiving drinks and ingredients is no easy task. Just like I try to maximize my heat sources in the kitchen, I also try to maximize my cooling resources.

Large coolers with a few large ice packs can easily double as refrigerators. Pack them with food, then place the ice packs on top (cooler air travels downward), cover the coolers, and replace the ice packs as necessary. If they're left undisturbed, that shouldn't be more than once or twice a day.

If the weather is right, a cold deck or garage can be used like a walk-in cooler, especially for things that don't need to be kept perfectly chilled, like fresh vegetables or butter.

Tip #5: Think of Presentation

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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?

Pull out all of your serving pieces and table decorations at least a day in advance so that you aren't scrambling at the last minute looking for that heirloom salad bowl while your Brussels sprouts are burning in the oven.

Tip #6: Think of Delegation

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For better or worse, I'm one of those folks who get uncomfortable when they're not at least helping out in the kitchen.... No, I'll be honest. I get uncomfortable if I'm not in total control of the kitchen, and it's been hard work to hold my own hand and tell myself, It's okay if your mom makes the mashed potatoes her way, or your sister adds too many fruits and nuts to the stuffing.

And delegating doesn't mean letting everyone into the kitchen! Ask people to bring snacks, drinks, and desserts. Ask for help setting the table or cleaning up hors d'oeuvres detritus. Ask that uncle to search for a great cocktail recipe and mix up a batch. That'll keep him out of your hair for at least half an hour, and you'll get a great drink in the process.

If you are asking people to bring dishes, make it clear that your oven will be occupied, and ask them to please bring dishes that can be served at room temperature. But, of course, leave that one corner of the oven empty, because you know at least one person is not going to follow instructions.

Tip #7: Remember What's Important

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This is the most important thing. I frequently get asked these two questions: Do you ever make mistakes while you're cooking? and How do you deal with the embarrassment of serving less-than-perfect food?

The answer to the first question is all the freakin' time. I'm human. I mess up. And I'm not about to throw out edible food just because it's slightly imperfect. As for the second question? I just keep it in perspective. If I'm serving food to other people, then I've already won, and there's nothing to be embarrassed about.

I strongly believe that once we're past a basic subsistence level, the entire purpose of food is to bring people together over the table to enjoy each other's company. Food is about nourishing our bodies and our souls, and about helping us create memories and bonds with our friends and family. If you're all sitting at the table around a meal, if you're all talking and communicating (or, more likely, arguing), then the food has already done its job.

So the turkey came out a little dry. Who cares. It's ultimately unimportant. The dry turkey may stick in your throat momentarily, but those relationships will stick with you forever (along with maybe one or two "Hey, you remember that time Kenji served us that sawdust turkey?" stories).

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The Best Simple Roast Turkey With Gravy Recipe

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

The Turkey: To Brine or Not to Brine?

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Are you planning on brining your bird? You might want to check out The Truth About Brining before you make up your mind, or jump straight into the action with our Quick and Dirty Guide to Brining.

Whether you're going with a Spatchcocked Roast Turkey (my favorite), a Classic Easy Roast Turkey, a Deep-Fried Turkey, or a Smoked Turkey, or even if you're getting fancy with a Sous Vide Turkey or Deep-Fried Turkey Porchetta, our turkey guide has you covered with turkey recipes and techniques galore!

Turkey? No Thanks, I'm Vegetarian/Vegan

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Vegetables Wellington (The Ultimate Vegan Plant-Based Holiday Roast) Recipe

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

No turkey? No problem! This 100% vegan vegetables Wellington is a real showstopper and can be made in advance up until the baking step. Wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for up to three days before baking.

We also have an entire vegan menu planned out for you, should you want to follow it.

Vegetarians will be happy with a wider range of our turkey alternatives. For a vegetarian centerpiece main dish, you can't do better than Sasha's stuffed pumpkins. Not only are these pumpkins, filled with a mixture of mushrooms, kale, Gruyère, and kabocha squash purée, both delicious and eye-poppingly impressive, they can be fully made and refrigerated up to two days in advance. (Bring them back to room temperature and reheat them in a 350°F/180°C oven until warmed through for serving.)

For a nontraditional but crowd-pleasing vegetarian main that doesn't require as much assembly, how about a sweet potato and bean chili; the creamiest, cheesiest baked macaroni and cheese; or the best darn squash lasagna you've ever tasted?

Menu Options: Sides and Dessert

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Close-up of a dish of baked macaroni and cheese

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 the morning of Thanksgiving, or even the day before, requiring just 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. In keeping with the spirit of tip #2 above, I always like to mix up multiple heat sources—that is, some dishes that require an oven, some that can be heated on the stovetop, some that can be warmed in a slow cooker, et cetera—so that there's no last-minute bottleneck. Here's a quick list of a few of my favorites.

Make-Ahead Dishes Served With No Reheating

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Close-up of a salad of roasted pears, frisee, pomegranate seeds, and blue cheese

Make-Ahead Dishes Finished or Reheated in the Oven

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Green bean casserole, with mashed potatoes and carved turkey in the background

Make-Ahead Dishes Finished on the Stovetop

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Overhead shot of a bowl of creamy cauliflower soup topped with bacon and scallions

All of the following dishes can also be reheated sous vide. To reheat dishes sous vide, seal them in heavy-duty plastic zipper-lock or vacuum bags, refrigerate until needed, then drop them into a 150°F (66°C) water bath controlled with a sous vide circulator. (Incidentally, sous vide is also one of our favorite methods for reheating mashed potatoes, which are otherwise notoriously resistant to making ahead of time. Mashed potatoes can also be reheated by folding them into hot cream on the stovetop, or making them into a casserole.)

Give Me Dessert!

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A slice of gooey apple pie on a plate, next to the remainder of the pie in a glass pie dish

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

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.

A frozen pie crust will do in a pinch (check out our taste test here), but for best results, you'll want to go homemade.

My Easy Pie Dough is the one I use, but if you prefer a more hands-on approach, check out Stella's Old-Fashioned Flaky Pie Dough. (Mine uses a food processor.) As I've written before, it's not that one pie crust is necessarily better than the other; it's just about your taste and what equipment you have on hand.

If apple pie is your bag, check out our guides to picking the best apples, as well as how to turn those apples into a great apple pie.

Here are a few more recipes to get you started.

Pick Your 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 a great list of hors d'oeuvres to get you (and your dinner) started.

The Week Before Thanksgiving: Start Your Countdown

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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've gotta do. First off, you still have a bit of time on your 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 will and won't be there. Is anyone planning on bringing food or drink? Take note and plan your table accordingly.
  • Check off your equipment list. Do you have all the tools you need to cook all of your dishes? This list of 18 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 cocktails, wines, and beers 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 is when the final stretch begins.
  • Start thawing out 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.

Thanksgiving Week: Monday

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  • 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 can improve with a few days in the fridge (or, at the very least, they don't get worse), so making them in advance is ideal.
  • Make the cranberry sauce. Cranberries have natural preservatives that give them an extraordinarily long shelf life. You can even make your cranberry sauce the week before Thanksgiving if you'd like, using any of our many variations.
  • If you choose to brine your bird, you should be 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/4°C). For a saltier but moister bird, brine for up to 36 hours before removing from the brine, patting dry, and letting the turkey rest overnight, uncovered, on a rack in the fridge. If you want a less salty but still moist bird, brine for up to 18 hours and let it rest, uncovered, in the fridge until ready to roast on Thursday. 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. If you're dry-brining, hold off until Wednesday night.

Thanksgiving Week: Tuesday

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If you didn't check off everything from the Monday checklist, finish it off today. Got everything done on time? Then 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.

Thanksgiving Week: Wednesday

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  • Get your turkey ready for roasting. If it's been brined, remove it from the brine, pat it dry with paper towels, and place it on a rack, uncovered, in the fridge overnight. If you're dry-brining, do the same, sprinkling it with salt and/or baking powder before it hits the fridge (here are complete instructions). If you are flavoring the bird, go ahead and rub it with that herb butter right now. That way, all you've got to do is throw it in the oven tomorrow. Check out the turkey recipes and techniques portion of our guide for more 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 of salads, make the dressings today.
  • Assemble your casseroles. Any of the side dishes listed here can be assembled ahead of time, refrigerated overnight, and finished off in the oven. In fact, most casseroles can be made in advance 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 baking).
  • Do your 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 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.

Thursday: THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

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Gravy being poured from a small pitcher onto sliced turkey breast, on a plate with a dish of cranberry sauce

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

I have only four burners, a microwave, and an oven to complete all these dishes. Here's how it works.

Four hours before dinner: I drop my sealed bag of mashed potatoes and mashed sweet potatoes into my sous vide water bath, set at 150°F (66°C). I parboil my new potatoes to get them ready for roasting

I also pull out my green bean casserole and stuffing from the fridge to get 'em ready to pop in the oven. I take an hour to relax with a Martini and chat with my sister about why cranberries belong in the sauce, not the stuffing.

Two and a half hours before dinner: My spatchcocked turkey hits the oven. (If I were cooking a traditional turkey, I would've popped it in four hours before dinner.)

Two hours before dinner: I start my creamed pearl onions, then spread my Brussels sprouts onto a rimmed baking sheet for roasting, and do the same with my parboiled potatoes prior to roasting.

My bacon-braised green beans hit the Dutch oven to cook.

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

One 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 them to my gravy, which 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 turn the oven up to high heat and throw my potatoes in, letting them begin roasting before adding my Brussels sprouts. Meanwhile, I place my precooked glazed carrots in a skillet to reheat, keeping them warm and off to the side once they're done.

My Carrot and Rye Berry Salad goes into a bowl, ready for the dinner table. The ingredients for my Roasted Pear and Endive Salad also go into a salad bowl, and the premade vinaigrette comes out of the fridge.

Fifteen minutes before dinner: Potatoes and sprouts are out of the oven and into serving bowls. Oven's back down to 350°F (180°C). I take the foil covers off the casseroles and send them on one last trip to the oven to crisp up their tops. The mashed potatoes get zapped in the microwave a few times to reheat. The salad gets tossed with its vinaigrette and transferred to a serving bowl.

Dinnertime! The turkey is carved, roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts are piping-hot in their serving bowls, the casseroles are uncovered, fried onions are 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 salads are tossed, the pies are back in the kitchen until after the meal, the wine is poured—and the arguing joyful merriment ensues.