Even the most accomplished home cook can come undone at Thanksgiving. Here are 10 tips to keep you keep you calm, cool and collected.
1. Make sure you have an instant-read thermometer.
Relying on the little pop-up thermometer that comes with the turkey will almost surely result in an overcooked bird. Cooking-time estimates are just that: rough estimates. The size and shape of the bird, its precooking temperature, the roasting pan and the oven you are using are all variable. The best way to assess whether a turkey is done is to take its temperature: Insert an instant-read thermometer into the meaty part of the thigh, not touching a bone. It should register 170 degrees. The thickest part of the breast should register 160 degrees. If you don’t have an instant-read thermometer, stop reading and go buy one.
2. Make as much beforehand as you can.
Any dessert that will be served chilled (such as puddings and mousses) should be made the night before. Ditto the cranberry sauce and the soup. Most oven-based Thanksgiving side dishes can be made ahead of time, an opportunity you should vigorously exploit. Make sweet potato casserole, pumpkin pie, stuffing, etc., the night before and refrigerate them.
3. What you can’t make and reheat, prep in advance.
For dishes that need to be cooked closer to meal time, you can still prepare the components the night before: wash salad greens, make salad dressing, trim Brussels sprouts or green beans, chop onions, mince herbs. Be thankful for resealable plastic bags.
4. Eschew starters.
Pigs in blankets and cheese puffs will only serve to fill up your guests before the main event. If you must provide pre-meal nibbles, limit yourself to raw vegetables and, perhaps, some olives and nuts. And, unless your family tradition dictates salad, consider ditching this course. If people eat it, it will divert them from worthier side dishes. In the likelier event that it gets left over, you’re left with the one course no one likes the next day.
5. Set the table and get out all serving pieces the night before.
Setting the table the night before usually has a calming effect on nervous hosts. Don’t worry if you don’t have enough matching pieces, but if you can alternate mismatched sets (e.g., one white napkin, one red napkin), it will look more deliberate.
Go through your menu and take out and set aside all the serving pieces you will need. In each platter or bowl, place the appropriate spoons, forks or tongs. If you have a lot of courses, you may want to label each piece with the dish it is destined to contain.
6. Double-check the menu the night before.
Turning your attention from the dining room to the kitchen: Go through the menu again, and this time take out and set aside all the pots, pans and tools you will need. Some of them — the baster, the instant-read thermometer — you may not have seen for a while. (And, if they are irretrievably misplaced, most Long Island Bed Bath & Beyond stores are open until 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday.)
7. Bring things to room temperature.
On Thanksgiving, oven space is at a premium. Having everything at room temperature before it goes into the oven means it will take less time to cook. Take the turkey out of the refrigerator at least two hours before you plan to cook it. While the turkey is cooking, take vegetables, side dishes and made-ahead pies out of the refrigerator so that they are at room temperature when it’s their time to go into the oven.
8. Give the turkey a rest.
Thirty minutes after your turkey comes out of the oven, it will still be too hot to carve. Let it rest anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes after it is removed from the oven. During the rest, the juices will settle back into the meat so they don’t spill out onto the cutting board when you start to carve. Tented with aluminum foil, a bird will stay hot for up to two hours.
9. Carve smart.
Instead of using a big, grooved carving board, set a small cutting board inside a shallow-sided half-sheet (18-by-13-inch) pan. To make sure the board doesn’t slip around, place a damp paper towel between it and the pan. The juices that run into the pan can be easily poured into another vessel. To carve, remove the legs and wings first, then remove the two breast halves in their entirety by running the knife along the breastbone from the center of the breast around to the back. Once they are off the bird, cut breasts crosswise into ½-inch-thick slices.
10. Save the carcass.
Once you’ve picked off all the meat for leftovers, break the carcass into manageable pieces and put them into a resealable plastic bag. On Friday, make soup.