As wonderful as Thanksgiving is…it’s also a LOT of work. All that food, all those people, all those dishes (and pots and pans and skillets, etc.)…it’s easy to get confused about just how to handle everything AND have time to enjoy the holiday, too.
Here’s how to overcome a few of the holiday’s most common challenges…
1. How big of a turkey do I really need?
You want to be sure you have enough turkey but have no clue how many pounds you need for the number of guests you’re going to have.
If you need only enough turkey to make it through Thanksgiving dinner: Buy ¾ to 1 pound per person.
If you want enough leftovers for the long weekend: Calculate 1 pound (or slightly more) per person.
If you need a large turkey: Consider buying two 10- to 12-pound birds and roasting them side by side. Small turkeys cook (and defrost) much more quickly than supersize ones, and they tend to stay moister.
2. The turkey’s still frozen!
It’s 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Dinner is at 2 p.m. And the turkey, which has been thawing for days in the refrigerator, still feels frozen solid.
Give the bird a cold bath. Water is a much better conductor of heat than air in the refrigerator, so this method works faster, says Robert L. Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of What Einstein Told His Cook 2. Fill a large bucket or the kitchen sink with cool water and plunge the bird in, in the original wrapper, breast-side down.
If the turkey has been defrosting in the refrigerator for several days, a mere half-hour may do the trick. If you need to defrost a fully frozen turkey on the double, allow half an hour per pound. The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises changing the water every 30 minutes or so. (Birds labeled “fresh” can be chilled to 26° F, which explains why such turkeys can unexpectedly turn out to be partially frozen). The USDA suggests that you buy a fresh turkey no more than 2 days before you roast it. No matter how dire the situation, don’t thaw a turkey at room temperature.
If it’s early in the week and there’s no rush, thaw the turkey in the refrigerator. Keep it in the original packaging, and place it on a rimmed container to catch any juices, allowing approximately 5 hours per pound.
3. Do I need to baste this bird?
You want to put the bird in the oven and forget about it. Your husband wants to baste it at every commercial break.
It depends on your priorities. “Basting is purely a skin treatment,” says Wolke. Its only purpose is to facilitate browning and crisping. He adds that rubbing the turkey generously with oil or butter before you put it in the oven will do the job almost as well. (But be sure to pat the bird completely dry first; if the skin is wet, the fat won’t adhere.)
Not only is frequent basting a hassle but it can also wreak havoc with your cooking time. “If you do it every 20 minutes or so,” Wolke says, “you’re losing a lot of heat from the oven by opening the door frequently.” If you or that loved one in your kitchen insists on basting, cookbook author and chef Sara Moulton advises that you prevent excess heat from escaping by taking the entire pan out of the oven and closing the door.
4. How can I tell for sure if the turkey is done?
The drumsticks wiggle. The juices run clear. But you’re still not sure if the turkey is ready.
Take its temperature. “You need a thermometer for dependable accuracy,” says Moulton. Insert one oven-safe or instant-read thermometer in several places, being careful not to allow the tip to touch bone.
According to the USDA, turkey is cooked through when the internal temperature of a thigh reaches 180° F. (When gauging doneness, keep in mind that the meat continues to cook and subsequently rises a few degrees even after it comes out of the oven.)
5. What do I do if the turkey is no longer warm — but has yet to be served?
By the time you allow the bird its prescribed resting period, it’s no longer warm.
Workaround it. Before you slice turkey, it requires at least 20 minutes to rest and allow the juices to redistribute. The laws of physics stipulate that the meat will inevitably cool. Anderson points out that hot gravy and side dishes can go a long way toward solving the problem. Warming the serving dishes and plates helps, too. Run them under very hot water and dry them just before dinner.
Instead of cursing the resting time, consider it a blessing, since it allows you to turn your attention at the last minute to the side dishes.
6. What if I’ve run out of cooking room?
You have all those side dishes to cook and nowhere to cook them.
Plan ahead. “Obviously you can’t bake eight different things at eight different temperatures at the same time,” says Francine Maroukian, a former caterer and the author of Chef’s Secrets. You have to solve that problem when you’re creating the menu, not while you’re cooking it, she says. First, write up a list of all the things you’d like to make, then evaluate the number of burners and your oven space.
And don’t leave everything for the last minute; see what can be prepared in advance. “Everything or at least a lot can be done long before the kitchen starts to get stressful,” says Anderson.
Mashed potatoes can be made an hour or two ahead of time, transferred to a heat-proof serving bowl, and kept warm over a pot of simmering water, partially covered. For just-made flavor, Anderson suggests adding only the salt, pepper, and milk when you mash; stir in the butter when you’re ready to serve.
7. Help! This gravy has no flavor!
Your lump-free gravy looks great…but the taste? Not so much.
Reach for a couple of common kitchen vices. A splash of fortified alcohol (Madeira, sherry, port) will lend a mellow richness to your gravy. And lots of salt (and freshly ground black pepper, if desired) will emphasize whatever flavor your gravy already claims.
To ensure a better gravy next time, boost the flavor of the pan drippings by strewing thickly sliced carrots, onions, and celery in the pan beneath the raw bird, suggests Anderson. Add just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan and, while the turkey roasts, the vegetables will caramelize, lending a depth of flavor to the drippings. Strain and discard the vegetables, or puree them and stir them into the gravy for a thick, sweet sauce. From-scratch turkey stock also prevents bland gravy. You can make and freeze the stock weeks in advance if you use turkey wings, which are available at most meat counters during the holiday season.
8. Help! I need help!
Several guests have offered to help. But with all burners running, you don’t know where to begin to delegate. Sometimes, you think, it’s easier to do everything yourself.
Be prepared with a list of noncooking tasks, and make sure everything required is in plain sight. Someone else can easily deal with drinks, opening the wine while you bring the turkey to the table, or making coffee while you clear the dishes. Appoint a sheepdog to herd everyone to the table, and give a five-minute warning that you’re serving hot food, since a couple of guests always seem to straggle.
And when everything really is covered, ask if you can take a rain check on help until cleanup time.
9. How do I deal with all these dishes??
You’d rather linger at the table than face the mess in the kitchen, even if that means hearing your mother explain yet again what hairstyle she finds most flattering on you.
Don’t save all the cleaning for after the meal. If you sit down to dinner with the roasting pan soaking in the sink, you’re doomed. But by making some recipes early in the day, you’ll have time in between dishes to clean. Even if you don’t make anything in advance, stop and wash something every half hour or so. Most importantly, get the bulky items (the roasting pan, the pot you made the mashed potatoes in) out of the way before you eat. That way, says Anderson, “when the meal is over, all you’ve got is the basic dishes.”
If you have a cleanup crew, designate a runner to bring in the dishes, a second person to transfer leftovers to containers, and a third to do the cleanup. (And be prepared with aprons, rubber gloves, and dish towels.)
But beware of butterfingers. “Thanksgiving is a very greasy meal,” former caterer and author Francine Maroukian says. “It’s when the glasses break.”
Tempting as it may be to leave the cleanup until later much later, you should refrigerate the leftovers within two hours of cooking. Then pour yourself that cook’s glass of wine that you may have forgotten earlier and sit down. Finally, you can really give thanks.