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Thanksgiving dinner: A cooking timeline from turkey to dessert

Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanksgiving dinner. Photo Credit: iStock

Thanksgiving dinner requires a battle plan. The sheer number of dishes, coupled with a bird that takes anywhere from 2 1⁄2 to 5 hours to roast can rattle the ablest home cook.

In fact, the bird bestows a great gift because it must rest anywhere from 45 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. Thirty minutes after a 14-pound bird comes out of the oven, it will still be too hot to carve; an hour’s rest is optimal. Tented with aluminum foil, a bird will stay warm for more than 90 minutes.

Turkey roasting times vary

Do not rely on a recipe to tell you how long to cook your turkey.

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, go buy one before you start cooking. Any housewares store and most supermarkets sell them.

Side dish strategy

Once the turkey is out of the oven, your side dishes can go in. 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. Take them out of the refrigerator while the turkey is cooking so they are at room temperature when the turkey leaves the oven: It should take about an hour for most chilled dishes to come to room temperature. There will be no trouble heating them through by mealtime.

Limit yourself to one or two stovetop side dishes. One of these will be the green vegetable, and this also can be done largely ahead of time. For green beans amandine, for example, boil the beans in salted water until they are just tender. Drain and plunge them into ice water. When they’re cool, drain again, towel-dry and store in a resealable plastic bag overnight in the refrigerator. Take them out while the turkey cooks so they can come to room temperature. You will need less than 10 minutes to sauté them in butter with slivered almonds. (The same technique works with Brussels sprouts, broccoli raab and asparagus.)

If you want to serve a first course, plan one that either requires no cooking (such as salad) or can just sit, warming, on the back of the stove (such as soup).

No matter what your menu is, make a timeline. Plan to take the turkey out of the oven at least an hour before your guests sit down to dinner, and then work backward from there. Make as many items as you can in advance.

Let’s say you’re preparing Newsday’s Thanksgiving menu and dinner is planned for 6 p.m. Here is a proposed timeline:


Make chicken stock

Make cranberry sauce


Remove turkey from wrapping, sprinkle with salt and pepper, refrigerate

Make turkey stock

Make panna cottas

Cube bread and toast it for stuffing. Store in paper bag


11 a.m.

Potatoes: Preheat oven to 450 degrees

11:30 a.m.

Potatoes: Into the oven

12:15 p.m.

Potatoes: Out of the oven; turn oven off

12:30 p.m.

Potatoes: Make purée and refrigerate

1 p.m.

Turkey: Out of refrigerator

Salad: Wash greens, remove pomegranate seeds, crumble cheese; refrigerate all elements separately

Brussels sprouts: Trim and prep sprouts, dice pancetta

1:30 p.m.

Turn oven to 500 degrees

2 p.m.

Turkey: Into oven, turn heat down to 300 degrees

Stuffing: Sauté the aromatics, add to bread cubes, set aside

3 p.m.

Brussels sprouts: Make brown butter, dice pancetta

Onions: Blanch, peel and return to pot

4 p.m.

Stuffing: Sauté sausage, finish assembling in baking dish, set aside

Onions: Complete dish, cover pan to keep warm

5 p.m.

Turkey: Out of the oven; turn oven to 350 degrees.

5:15 p.m.

Stuffing: Put in oven for 30 minutes, until browned on top and hot in middle

Brussels sprouts: Cook pancetta and complete dish, cover pan to keep warm

5:30 p.m.

Turkey: Move to cutting board

Gravy: Deglaze roasting pan and make gravy

Potatoes: Place purée in saucepan and reheat, stirring, over low heat

Salad: Toss all ingredients with dressing

5:45 p.m.

Stuffing: Out of the oven

Onions: Warm in pan and transfer to serving bowl

Brussels sprouts: Toss over high heat to warm, transfer to serving bowl

Plate salad and place on table

6 p.m.

Guests sit down to eat; show them the turkey, then return to kitchen to carve

After dinner

Unmold panna cottas and drizzle with maple syrup

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