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Hosting Thanksgiving This Year? A Pro Chef Shares Her Top Tips

From lump-free gravy to a perfectly-moist turkey, don't miss these foodie tips for a top-notch — and stress-free! — Thanksgiving meal.

November 17, 2017

I’ve cooked Thanksgiving meals for clients and strangers, as well as my own family. Over the years, I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks to ensure a delicious (and sane!) Thanksgiving feast. Family dynamics and politics aside, of course.

Preparation, not perspiration

Anyone who has cooked a Thanksgiving meal knows it’s a juggling act to get all those dishes to the table piping hot and properly cooked. A little planning will help make game day run more smoothly.

  • Plan and prep ahead. Don’t leave Thanksgiving dinner to the last minute. Carefully plan out your meal, including the use of your kitchen space and when and how things will get cooked the day of or ahead of time. Many side dishes and desserts can be prepared a in advance. If you only have limited oven space, try to plan dishes that can be heated on the stove top or served at room temperature. If you’re limited to just one day, this article from The New York Times gives a template for how to cook a meal with only four burners and one oven, all in one day.
  • Get by with a little help from your friends. Let your friends help you, potluck style — but don’t be afraid to dole out some tough love. Be very clear on what type of dish they should bring, whether they will be able to prep or cook it in your kitchen, or if all of the work (and baking, frying or roasting) should be done ahead of time.
  • Too much of a good thing? If your guests are too helpful (AKA in the way), offer a few appetizers before the main event to keep them out of the kitchen. If it’s the kids that need a task, set them up with a crafty dessert project, like these adorable Oreo turkeys.

Tryptophan-tastic turkey tips

Turkey is often center stage at a Thanksgiving meal. A few simple steps can give you a perfectly golden and juicy bird that’s full of flavor, without being dry or bland.

  • Don’t give your bird a bath. Most home cooks are under the misguided impression that they need to rinse their turkey before roasting to eliminate any bacteria. The truth is, if you roast your bird to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F, the oven will take care of the work for you. Rinsing the bird in your sink just splashes bacteria all over your kitchen.
  • To brine or not to brine? Brining adds flavor and keeps the meat moist. Skip the tub of water (there’s no room for that in the fridge anyway, and keeping it in a cooler outside is just unwise) and do a dry rub. Simply rub your thawed turkey in a heavy dose of salt and pepper and let it sit in the fridge, uncovered, for 1 to 3 days. Check out this dry-brined roast turkey recipe for more details.
  • Is it hot in here or is it just me? Many turkeys come with a pop-up thermometer inserted into the breast meat. Ignore it. These thermometers are usually set to pop at 175 to 180 degrees F — and by that time your meat will be overcooked and dry. Leave the thermometer in until it’s time to carve (it’s too hard to pull it out of a raw bird), but invest in an instant-read thermometer. When the thigh reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees F, pull the turkey from the oven and let it rest. The temperature will naturally come up to 165 degrees F, retaining all of those amazing juices for moist and tender meat.

Sidelining side-dish snafus

“Side dish” is a misnomer — if I could, I would skip the turkey altogether and just feast on side dishes.

Looking for a stuffing recipe? Try this cornbread and chorizo stuffing recipe from PCC.

Dress it, don’t stuff it. It’s traditional to stuff your bird with breadcrumbs and vegetables so the “stuffing” absorbs those delicious juices while roasting. However, by the time the stuffing reaches a safe temperature to consume, your bird will be overcooked and dry. Instead, serve the stuffing (called “dressing”) on the side. This way you can ensure a perfectly-roasted bird and delicious (and safe-to-eat) dressing. One of my favorites? Cornbread and chorizo stuffing.

Hot potato! Save yourself time by peeling your potatoes the day before and soaking them in cold water (to prevent browning) in the refrigerator. Stick with starchy potatoes, like Yukon Gold or Russets, to maximize fluff. Start your potatoes in cold, heavily-salted water to ensure even cooking and tons of flavor.

Good gravy. When it comes to gravy, do you suffer from a case of the lumps? The temperature of your ingredients is key. If you’re using hot stock and pan juices, mix in cold roux (that you made ahead of time). If you just finished browning your roux on the stovetop, add cold stock. Mixing these two hot ingredients together increases your likelihood of lumps. Make sure to mix a little at a time, and if worse comes to worse, you can always remove lumps in a blender.

No matter how the food turns out (without a hitch or a few bumps along the way), the true key to a perfect holiday meal is the company you keep. Once dinner is on the table, don’t let any kitchen mishaps prevent you from sitting down and reflecting on what you are thankful for. Cheers! 


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Jackie Freeman

Recipe developer, food stylist and culinary tinkerer, Jackie Freeman has worked in the culinary field for over 20 years as a private chef, cheesemaker, culinary instructor, recipe editor and a radio and video personality.

More stories by Jackie Freeman

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