Cooking a big meal for a big group on Thanksgiving—or anytime–is an exercise in organization, planning, budgeting, and execution. From making sure you have the right ingredients, cookware, and enough oven space to budgeting the time to execute all your dishes, and doing all of this without going broke, it’s not easy to keep it all straight.
No one knows this better than a restaurant team who does this routine daily and whose livelihoods depend on getting it right, on a strict schedule all while working within some pretty thin margins when it comes to costs.
Knowing that, we tapped Rick Camac, dean of restaurant & hospitality management at the Institute of Culinary Education, to find out how we might apply some restaurant management and budgeting know-how to Thanksgiving in hopes of shaving a few bucks off our grocery bill, and a few stress lines from our brow.
Plan and Cook Ahead
Camac stresses making everything—yes everything—but the turkey the day before. If you can swing it, cook as much as possible to about “90 percent done” and finish them off the day of. (If you prepare to 100 percent when you heat, it may overcook.) In general, restaurants do this for service and holidays as it’s a great way to save time on the day, especially since this is a meal where everything needs to be ready for the table at the same time.
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Start Your Cooking Early
While most restaurants have prep cooks you probably don’t, so prepare your mise en place (pre-chopped and measured out ingredients) a day or two before you plan to cook, unless it’s very perishable. Camac suggests completing your mise en place on Tuesday, make your sides on Wednesday, and your turkey on Thursday to be sure there is plenty of time for everything.
Oven Geometry (No Round Pans)
A great restaurant trick when cooking multiple items in the oven at once, according to Camac, is to always use square pans. Round and oval pans take up more space in your oven and most home ovens won’t have a lot of room for everything.
All-Clad Stainless Steel Roasting Pan, $99 on Sur La Table
A great deal on a (mostly) square roaster.
Use Your Cooler…as a Warmer
In restaurants, chefs are resourceful and learn to use what they have. Unlike in a restaurant, home kitchens typically don’t have a lot of refrigerator or oven space.
Enter the cooler…
You’ve probably already put it away from the summer picnic season, but coolers can be used for cooling or heating since they’re insulated. “I love using it as a warmer for cooked food–line with aluminum foil,” Camac mentions, “and put cooked dishes in the cooler to keep warm, leaving space in your oven.”
Igloo High Performance Cooler, $99 on Amazon
You can stash all your prepped food in this guy.
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If you don’t have room in your refrigerator to cool wine, and you need to bring it down to temperature quickly, use this restaurant trick: Fill a flat vessel with a huge handful of salt, top with ice, then bottles, then water to cover completely (put plastic wrap around the bottles if you want to save labels). You can chill wine in just 20 minutes. “In a restaurant, we’d use a hotel pan for this,” Camac says,” but if you don’t have that, any deep vessel or even a small sink will work.”
Hotel Pan, $18.40 on Amazon
You don't have to run a hotel to get great use out of one of these.
Save Money on Ingredients
Camac says to consider using fewer ingredients if it doesn’t seem like it will diminish the result much. If a recipe calls for shallots, onions, and scallions, for instance, you probably don’t need all of them. Cutting down on ingredients will make everything easier, quicker, and less expensive.
Planning ahead is essential for minimizing stress, but also costs. You can get great deals ordering turkey online early (or even free birds) but as you get closer, you’ll have to pay for quicker delivery, and the price of the turkey itself will rise the closer it is to the big day.
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Plan your cooking time as a chef does, and always assume your turkey will take longer than you think it will. Home ovens don’t always work the same way as a recipe says it will, so start earlier than you feel you need to so you aren’t down to the wire when guests arrive.
Be sure to take the temperature correctly. People often take the temperature incorrectly, and end up with an over or undercooked bird. To correctly take a turkey’s temperature, insert the thermometer into the thigh horizontally until you hit the bone and then pull back ¼ of an inch.
Related Reading: How to Smoke Turkey Like a Pro
If you do overcook the turkey, one way to give it some life is to pour warm chicken broth over it and let it sit; it’ll do a lot to save the texture.
Kizen Digital Meat Thermometer, $16.95 on Amazon
A high performance thermometer at a fair price.
Portion Control (& Some Turkey Math)
The rule of thumb is that you need approximately six to eight ounces of turkey per person. This amount will give you more than you need, but on Thanksgiving, people will overeat, and you want leftovers. For your turkey, assume a yield of 50 percent of the actual poundage because of the bones so that a 20-pound turkey will yield only about 10 pounds of edible meat. Take 10 pounds and break down to 6-ounce servings. To figure out how many pounds you need, take the number of guests, multiply by 8 ounces, convert ounces to pounds and then multiply by two because of yield.
For more Thanksgiving tips, tricks, hacks, and recipes, check out our Ultimate Thanksgiving Guide and our Ultimate Guide to Friendsgiving.
Header image courtesy of LauriPatterson / E+ / Getty Images