The Ultimate Guide to Thanksgiving

The best way to cook a stress-free Thanksgiving dinner is to think ahead. Here, some tips, techniques, and game plans that will help you host your best turkey day yet.

Tips for Planning Your Thanksgiving Menu

When you host Thanksgiving, you’re in charge of creating the menu. Whether you’re cooking one dish or the whole feast, you need a solid pan.

Think about oven space. If you’re responsible for roasting the turkey and only have one oven, be sure you have a solid plan for how and when the oven will be used. And don’t discount a toaster oven, some of which are large enough to bake easy Thanksgiving desserts and casseroles. For Thanksgiving dinner ideas that don’t rely on the oven, check out our no-cook recipes or consider  some make-ahead Thanksgiving side dish recipes.

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For example, Kale-Apple Slaw with Poppy Seed Dressing is a make-ahead side dish that involves no cooking.

Make it a potluck. Even the story of the first Thanksgiving describes a potluck, so there’s no shame in sharing the work with your guests. Ask people to volunteer to make sides or give out assignments. If your crowd is open to trying new dishes, consider making Roasted and Raw Brussels Sprouts Salad with Pecorino and Pomegranate or a Healthy Root Vegetable Grain with Buttery Walnuts, both recipes from the new Modern Potluck cookbook.

Supplement your Thanksgiving menu with high-quality store-bought items, if necessary. Friends or family members can’t cook? Or don’t want to? To spare your own sanity, choose the Thanksgiving recipes you most want to make and outsource the rest to a local store or chef.

Be sure to include some lighter and brighter dishes. With mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and turkey with gravy, Thanksgiving dinner can be a bit mushy and sweet. To counteract those flavors and textures, be sure to serve a crisp, tangy salad, like Bitter Greens with Caper Vinaigrette.

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Don’t be afraid to compromise. If your crowd insists on a classic Thanksgiving menu but you like to cook more adventurously, pick your battles. For example, ask your aunt to make her famous buttery mashed potatoes for the purists. Then you can sauté Jerusalem artichokes to introduce your guests to something new.  Try this Jerusalem Artichokes with Crispy Prosciutto recipe.

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Tips for the Thanksgiving Turkey

While you can rub your turkey with herb butter and make an elaborate sherry-cream gravy, sometimes, the best Thanksgiving turkey recipes are the simplest, requiring little more than a good quality bird, butter, and salt.

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1. To start, buy the right size turkey. When choosing the bird, a good rule of thumb is 1 pound per person, which gives you enough meat for Thanksgiving dinner plus a little bit of leftovers. If you love tons of leftovers, either to keep for yourself or give to your guests, go with 1 ½ pounds per person.

2. Defrost well in advance. If your turkey is frozen and you plan to thaw it in the refrigerator, assume it will take at least three days. The quicker way to go is to submerge a well-wrapped turkey in cold water—this will take about 30 minutes per pound, so you’ll still want to thaw one day ahead or very early in the day.

3. Dry brine, if there’s time. For the most flavorful, crisp-skinned, and juicy bird, rub the thawed turkey with salt and refrigerate for 24 to 48 hours before drying the skin, rubbing with butter and roasting. Try our Dry-Brined Roast Turkey recipe.

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Tips for Making and Rolling a Flaky Pie Crust

All-butter pie crusts have the best flavor, so it’s worth making your own from scratch.  If you’re too intimidated and flakiness isn’t a huge concern, you can always opt for a basic pumpkin pie with a press-in crust. This Graham Cracker Crust recipe is also great for pastry novices.

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Otherwise, try these tips:

1. Keep the butter cold and use ice water. The pockets of cold butter in the dough release steam, pushing up on the flour to create flaky layers. If your butter gets too warm, the crust will be tasty but not flaky.

2. Let the dough rest. After you make the dough, refrigerate it for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days. Resting is crucial because it chills the dough, allows it to fully hydrate, and gives the flour’s gluten a chance relax, resulting in a more tender crust.

3. Generously dust the work surface and rolling pin. Before you roll out the dough, flour your surface and rolling pin to prevent sticking and add more flour if necessary as you work. Another trick to keep the dough from sticking: Give it a quarter turn after each roll.

Game Plan

Preparation is key when cooking a meal for so many people with so many dishes. This list will help you stay organized.

Up to 1 month ahead

  • Make pie dough and freeze: Be sure to wrap the crusts in double layers of plastic so they don’t absorb flavors from the freezer.
  • Order turkey: If you plan to cook a turkey from a local farm or specialty market, order your bird before they run out.
  • Buy drinks and pantry ingredients. Avoid the last minute rush on canned pumpkin, canned cranberry sauce, and booze. If you end up with more pumpkin than you need, use it in other baked goods, like this Chocolate Swirl Pumpkin Bread.

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  • Make your gravy. That’s right. There’s no need to wait until the few minutes before you serve Thanksgiving dinner to make the gravy. You can do it before Halloween even hits and keep it frozen until the big day. Try this make-ahead gravy recipe.
  • Plan out the side dishes: Whether you’re making the whole meal, hosting potluck style, or buying pre-made sides, now’s the time to create that list.
  • Be sure you have enough serving cooking and serving dishes and the right tools. If it’s your first time hosting Thanksgiving, dinner you might need to invest in a few platters and oven-to-table baking dishes. While a large stainless steel roasting pan is a great piece of equipment to own, you can always use disposable aluminum baking pans from the grocery store in a pinch. If you don’t already own a long pair of tongs, you won’t regret investing in a pair: They’re immensely helpful when trying to maneuver the turkey.

Up to 5 days ahead

  • Pick up fresh turkey or defrost frozen turkey. As mentioned above, frozen turkeys take days to thaw so plan ahead.

 

 

Up to 3 days ahead

  • Buy fresh ingredients for Thanksgiving side dishes. This is when you’ll do the bulk of your shopping for your Thanksgiving side dishes. If you can shop at a farmers’ market, even better. In-season fall vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, kale, winter squash, onions, and other root vegetables are usually fresher and tastier than those at the supermarket. Be sure to pick up some extra butter and cream as well—you can never have too much on Thanksgiving.
  • Think about your ice situation. Buy bags if you need extra and have room to keep them frozen. Otherwise, assign someone with ice duty.

Up to 2 days ahead

  • Dry-brine your turkey. Be sure to keep the bird on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, away from other ingredients.
  • Defrost pie dough and gravy. Transfer dough and gravy to the refrigerator so it’s ready to use over the next couple of days.

 

    Up to 1 day ahead

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    • Mix cocktails. If a homemade drink is on the menu, mix it ahead if you can and keep it chilled. We've got a big list of good cocktail ideas.

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    Up to 10 hours before serving

    • Bake fruit pies. You’ll want to get these in the oven before the turkey and cooled before guests arrive.

     

    Up to 6 hours before serving

    • Bring turkey to room temperature. This will help the turkey cook more quickly and evenly and free up refrigerator space as well.
    • Prepare side dishes to serve at room temperature. Roast vegetables, mix together salads (but don’t dress anything delicate yet),
    • Prepare snacks or starters. Wash and slice up vegetables for crudités; slice and refrigerate any cheese; make dips.
    • Set the table. No need to leave this task until the last minute. If you’re serving buffet style, arrange empty platters on your serving area to make sure you have enough room for everything.
    • Arrange the drinks area. If you’re hosting a lot of people, set up a self-serve bar away from the kitchen.

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    Up to 5 hours before serving

    • Roast turkey: Assume you need about 20 minutes per pound in a 350°F oven for an unstuffed turkey and about 1 hour longer for one that’s stuffed. In the end, you want to cook the turkey until it reaches 160°F on an instant-read thermometer (and at least 165°F as it rests.)
    • Peel and chop potatoes for mashed potatoes. Keep them refrigerated covered in water so they don’t discolor.

    When people arrive

    • Set out starters. Put these with the drinks, away from the kitchen.
    • Recruit one or two helpers. No need to shoulder all the work yourself. Get their help with last-minute reheats.

    Up to 1 hour before serving

    • Warm side dishes. Let the turkey rest while you reheat the stuffing and other casseroles in the oven.
    • Make mashed potatoes. While you can make them a few hours ahead and keep them warm over low heat (or in a slow cooker), this is one dish that’s often easiest to make just before serving.
    • Warm the gravy. Since you made it ahead, you can easily do this on the stovetop or in the microwave.
    • Carve turkey. For a primer, watch this video.
    • Dress salads. And now it’s finally time to feast!
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