Holy cow, Thanksgiving is a week from today!! How did that happen?? Well, I’m hosting again this year, which I’m very excited about. I realized that I’ve actually racked up a bit of hosting experience, including major holidays, and I wanted to give y’all my top tips for making it a peaceful, stress-free, delicious day. I’ve learned a lot over the years and I hope imparting some of my hard-won (and sometimes painfully won) knowledge will help at least one person.
1) Be realistic about your skill level and kitchen equipment.
Biting off more than you can chew is one of the easiest ways to frustrate yourself. Set yourself up for success. To me, success includes not only putting out great food but also getting to the table still in one piece emotionally speaking. The food doesn’t have to be complicated to be yummy and appreciated. If you are a novice or inexperienced cook, I would recommend perusing Allrecipes, as they have many very easy and uncomplicated recipes. And even if you are more experienced, still be mindful of not over-complicating things. Also, keep your kitchen stash in mind when meal planning. Don’t plan on popovers if you don’t have a popover pan, for instance. Make sure your roasting pan is large enough for the bird(s). That kind of thing.
2) Make accommodations for guests with dietary restrictions.
Thanksgiving is a dairy-eating, dessert-scarfing, carb-loving, carnivore-friendly event, is it not? In picturing a typical Thanksgiving spread, I personally would not prefer to be someone who did not or could not fit that description. But many people do not, for one reason or another, and I definitely want to include them and make them feel welcome. Ask your guests beforehand if you’re not sure. If you’re hosting a vegetarian or vegan, you don’t have to serve up a tofu-turkey in lieu of a real bird, just make sure you have plenty of side dishes that will fill them up. Make sure your side dishes don’t include animal products; so no chicken stock in the gravy and no lard in the pie crusts. Google can be your buddy here, because the food blogosphere is full of recipes for lactose- and gluten-free desserts that still look yummy, as well as holiday-appropriate vegan dishes. I will admit to not having too much experience serving guests with dietary restrictions, but my best advice is to just talk to them and be very gracious. They will appreciate it.
3) Test drive recipes beforehand if at all possible.
I’m sure no one’s doing this with a whole bird, and I certainly don’t blame you, but if you can test drive any side dishes, appetizers, or desserts beforehand, it will be a huge benefit. You’ll find out if a recipe just plain doesn’t work, which will save you tons of stress on the big day. You’ll also learn if a recipe needs tweaking. But I think most importantly you will learn real, actual timings of recipes. Sometimes the time listed on the recipe itself doesn’t have much to do with reality. You’ll find out how long the prep really takes and how long it actually cooks. It’s very worth it to get this experience, I’ve found. You also walk into the day more confident because you know what to expect from the recipes.
4) Print any online recipes.
I’ll admit, I’m as guilty as anyone of not doing this. I just set up my tablet or netbook on the breakfast bar and get to cooking. I would highly advise not doing this on Thanksgiving though. You know that Murphy’s Law will come into play, and even though it’s never happened before, that will be the one time when your computer locks up or your tablet battery dies in the middle of cooking. And then you’re screwed. Save yourself the trouble and just print them ahead of time. That way you won’t have to worry.
5) Organize, organize, organize.
A few days before the Thursday, take an hour to organize your dinner prep. Spread out all your recipes and make notes on timings, oven temperatures, rest times, and what can be prepped ahead. Also make some notes about how many cutting boards you’ll need and how many times you think you’ll need a clean knife. Also take into account which pots and pans and utensils will be used for each dish. Taking this step ahead of time ensures that you have a better handle on how to structure the day, the order in which to cook each dish, and this hopefully means lower stress and getting all the dishes to the table in a timely manner and at the appropriate temperatures. Also, it makes unexpected recipe steps much less likely to crop up on you. I’ve neglected to take this step before; please don’t ask how that one went.
6) Prep ahead, prep ahead, prep ahead.
Figure out what steps can be prepped ahead, and I say if they can be done, then do them. Take the day or even the evening before, and prep prep prep. Lots of dishes can be prepared the day before and sit in the fridge until you are ready to bake them off (like green bean casserole). Dough for biscuits or dinner rolls can sit in the fridge overnight. Do your research and see what steps can be taken the night before. The more you can do ahead of time, the more relaxing Thanksgiving morning will be.
7) Make your pies the day before.
I know the chefs and cooks on Food Network make pie crust look nearly effortless, but I can assure you, it’s not. In non-TV world, pie is harder than it looks and only gets easy with practice. I could write a whole book on my pie disasters, from the crust not cooperating, to the pie shell not fitting the pan, from the filling seeping underneath the shell, to the filling overflowing, and that’s just the cooking aspect. Part Two will be about cutting and serving the damn thing. Also, I can tell you that pies are unpredictable. One works beautifully, the next one flops, and with no rhyme or reason. I’m not trying to scare anyone, I’m just trying to stress how much I highly recommend making them the day before; that way, if you have a flopper, you can run to the store and buy one, or you still may have time for a do-over.
8) Make sure you’re stocked up on the basics.
Basics include paper towels, clean kitchen towels, hand soap, dishwasher soap, ice, cooking spray, butter, olive oil and plenty of chicken or vegetable stock. The last thing you want to have happen is to be in the middle of dinner prep and run out of one of those essential things. Also, please make sure you have not run out of Band-Aids, gauze, and burn salve. While it’s unpleasant to think about cutting or burning yourself, especially on Thanksgiving, unfortunately it does occasionally happen. I have definitely been there. Make sure you can take care of things quickly if it does occur.
9) Be choosy and thoughtful when picking an extra set of hands in the kitchen.
Does your mom constantly nag and drive you crazy? Is your cousin a bossy know-it-all? Perhaps they shouldn’t be your kitchen helpers. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you know you’re going to be frustrated and emotionally spent before you even sit down to dinner. Make sure your kitchen is a calm, peaceful environment. When those particular family members offer to help, tell them they can keep the kids out of your hair, or take the dog out, or set the table for you. It’s a win-win. They really will be helpful, yet they won’t drive you nuts.
10) Set the table early.
I can’t stress this one enough, especially if you are using nice china and stemware. It’s very easy to underestimate the time it will take to set up a nice, fancy table, so please do yourself a favor and get it out of the way ahead of time. Or better yet, have someone do it for you while you’re cooking.
11) Meet my new best friend, the turkey breast.
Turkey breasts are infinitely easier to cook than a whole turkey. Trust me, I’ve done the leg work. I go for a turkey breast every time now. Delicious, easy to prepare, cooks evenly, and cooks in a fraction of the time as a whole bird. It’s a win. And if you’re serving twenty people, then just make multiple turkey breasts in a roasting pan; your cook time won’t lengthen at all, and your prep time will lengthen only slightly. I love to make a compound butter and shove it under the skin. Then I place the breast in a cast-iron skillet skin side up. Roast with a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast. The great thing is that you can adjust the oven temperature as needed for your other side dishes, and as long as you keep it in the range of 350 to 425 F, you should be fine. It’ll take about an hour to an hour and a half. Then, you take it out, let it rest on a cutting board tented with foil, and make an amazing gravy with the drippings in the cast-iron skillet. Contrary to a whole bird, carving a breast couldn’t be simpler.
12) Use a meat thermometer.
Do not ever, I repeat EVER, trust that pop-out thing that they’re putting in turkeys these days. Those things are worthless, in my estimation (and experience!). Invest in a meat thermometer for the turkey. And don’t worry, you will get lots of use out of it, so it won’t be a one-time use gadget that just takes up room in your already crowded cupboard drawers. But, I say even if you do only use it once, it would still be worth it. Your turkey will not be dry or underdone if you go this route.