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Tips for a stress-free Thanksgiving dinner

A roast turkey garnished with herbs and autumn

A roast turkey garnished with herbs and autumn fruits. Credit: Doug Young

Few home cooks take Thanksgiving dinner lightly. 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 among them. Here are 10 tips to ease your mind.

1. Make as many dishes ahead of time 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.

2. Be smart about starters.

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).

3. Prep ahead of time.

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. Take your turkey out of the refrigerator at least an hour before cooking it.

The temperature of a refrigerated turkey is about 35 degrees. You will be cooking it so that the thickest part of the thigh measures 170 degrees. The more chill you can take off of it while it sits on the counter, the quicker and more evenly it will cook. 

5. Don't guess about temperature.

If you don’t have an instant-read thermometer, go buy one before you start cooking. Any housewares store and most supermarkets sell them fairly cheaply. While you're at it, buy an oven thermometer too. Long Island's Bed Bath & Beyond stores will be open until 10 p.m. on Wednesday  night. 

6.  Don’t bother to baste the bird.

All you are doing when you baste is wetting the skin, discouraging it from browning. You’re not moistening the meat — because the skin is essentially waterproof (like yours). You should have some vegetables in the bottom of your roasting pan to flavor the drippings. The only reason to open the oven while the turkey is roasting is to add water to the bottom of the pan to keep the vegetables from burning, and to take the turkey’s temperature.

7. 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.

8. Let the turkey rest. 

Thirty minutes after it comes out of the oven, the bird will still be too hot to carve. Let it rest 45 minutes, an hour is better and, if you tent it with foil, it will stay very warm for more than 90 minutes. As the turkey rests, the juices will resettle into the meat — meaning they won’t spill out onto the board — and you won’t have to wrestle a scorching hot bird.

9. Strategize your sides.

Once the turkey is out of the oven, your side dishes can go in. 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.

10. Choose the right carving board

Instead of using a big, grooved carving board, set a small board inside a shallow-sided half-sheet (18-by-13-inch) pan. The juices will run off into the pan — and not all over your counter, and, when you are finished, they can be easily poured into another vessel.

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