The best way to cook a stress-free dinner is to think ahead, which is why we’ve created this comprehensive Thanksgiving guide with tips, techniques, and game plans that will help you host your best Turkey Day yet, whether you’re organizing your first Thanksgiving or your 40th.
With Thanksgiving only days away now, it’s a bit too late for some of the early-stage advice at this point, but there’s still plenty of useful information here, including what to do if your forgot to thaw your turkey in time, and how to fix turkey mistakes. Plus, there’s a Thanksgiving timeline to help you keep track of all the details.
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 plan.
1. 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 that oven will be used. And don’t discount a toaster oven, some of which are large enough to bake easy Thanksgiving desserts and casseroles, or at least reheat them. Check out our guide to Thanksgiving recipes you can make ahead.
And consider mixing in some no-cook sides, like our Kale-Apple Slaw with Poppy Seed Dressing recipe.
2. Make It a Potluck
If your crowd is open to trying new dishes, consider making this Roasted and Raw Brussels Sprouts Salad with Pecorino and Pomegranate or a Healthy Root Vegetable Grain with Buttery Walnuts, both recipes from the “Modern Potluck” cookbook.
Or elevate a classic, as with our Herbed Fresh Green Bean Casserole recipe below.
Related Reading: The Best Products for Safely Transporting Your Thanksgiving Food
3. Supplement Your Thanksgiving Menu with High-Quality Store-Bought Items
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. Besides, what does Ina always say? Store. Bought. Is. Fine.
Amazon Fresh Grocery Delivery
Get your groceries delivered for the big day.
Related Reading: Turkey Discounts at Whole Foods to Good to Miss
We rounded up some of the best cookies, cakes, and pies to order online if you want to outsource dessert, or you could just stop by your local Trader Joe’s. We also collected the best Thanksgiving meal kits and delivery options, from heritage turkeys to entire feasts, including a vegan Thanksgiving box that can serve as a full meal for a small group, or be incorporated into a larger omnivorous spread if you’re hosting vegan guests.
Related Reading: The Best Type of Turkey to Buy & How Much You Need Per Person
4. 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, heavy, and fairly sweet. To counteract those flavors and textures, be sure to serve a crisp, tangy salad, like our Bitter Greens with Caper Vinaigrette recipe.
5. 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 with Crispy Prosciutto to introduce your guests to something new.
Or make it a globetrotting Turkey Day with these international Thanksgiving recipes.
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.
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.
Whole Turkey for 12 People, $120 at Porter Road
This pasture-raised turkey free of antibiotics and added hormones is far better than your average grocery store bird, but they do ship frozen, so factor in defrost time.
Related Reading: The Best Turkey Delivery Options
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, and see our How to Brine a Turkey guide for wet brining tips too.
Note: Brining is great no matter how you go on to cook the turkey; our How to Cook a Turkey guide covers the classic roasting option, but you can also smoke turkey or deep fry turkey if you want to get outside.
Related Reading: How to Make Thanksgiving Dinner for One (or Two)
4. Consider Spatchcocking
This method of butterflying your turkey makes it cook faster and more evenly, giving you lots of crisp, golden skin and perfectly juicy meat. See how and why to spatchcock turkey.
Tips for Making and Rolling a Flaky Pie Crust
Pumpkin or pecan, pies are almost as important, if not more so, than the turkey, and 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.
Otherwise, try these tips for perfect pie crust:
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.
Related Reading: How to Bake Three Amazing Pies in One Morning
Thanksgiving Game Plan
Preparation is key when cooking a meal for so many people with so many dishes. This Thanksgiving timeline list will help you stay organized down to the final hours.
- 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.
- 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—and see what other to Thanksgiving recipes you can make ahead (and how best to freeze, thaw, and reheat them).
- 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 so nothing gets forgotten.
- Be sure you have enough 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. And it’s nice to have enough serving utensils for every dish.
- Pick up fresh turkey or defrost frozen turkey. As mentioned above, frozen turkeys take days to thaw so plan 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.
- 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.
- Make pumpkin pie. This classic—as well as other creamy or custardy pies— holds up perfectly in the fridge.
- Bake other desserts. Pie isn’t the only Thanksgiving dessert. Pumpkin cheesecake, cranberry shortbread bars, and pecan sandies can all easily be made ahead, but check out some other favorite Thanksgiving desserts besides pie.
- Assemble and bake stuffing and casseroles. If you bake these dishes ahead, you’ll only have to worry about reheating them come T-Day. Try this Herbed Green Bean Casserole recipe.
- Mix cocktails. If a homemade drink is on the menu, mix it ahead if you can and keep it chilled. We’ve got mocktails and cocktails in our fall drinks with seasonal fruit roundup, or you can make Thanksgiving cocktails with your cooking ingredients.
- Bake fruit pies. If you’re doing apple or pear pies, you’ll want to get these in the oven before the turkey and cooled before guests arrive.
- 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), and make homemade cranberry sauce if you haven’t already (or open up the can, slide it onto a serving dish, and cover with plastic wrap ’til it’s time to eat).
- Prepare snacks or starters. Wash and slice up vegetables for crudités; assemble any cheese board components that don’t need to be refrigerated; 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.
- 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.
- 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. See our guide to the best mashed potatoes for more pointers.
- 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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Header image courtesy of Michael Maes / Photodisc / Getty Images