Thanksgiving Day can be the stuff of memories, and cooks everywhere plan their menus carefully, plot out their seating arrangements and strategize their approach to what's often the most elaborate meal many household chefs tackle each year. Amid Granny's pronouncement to avoid lumpy gravy and Mom's endorsement of prepackaged stuffing mix (with extra seasoning), the hoopla can be exhausting before turkey day ever arrives.
Can you do anything to prepare in advance? We can answer with a resounding "yes" to that! Actually, there are lots of things you can do to get ready to make your Thanksgiving cooking experience more fun and probably more successful, too. These 10 tips will help you start the race for a superior Thanksgiving, and best of all, you can do most of them way ahead of time.
10: Review Your Recipes
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Recipes are like song lyrics. You think you know them until the time comes to start singing. Where lyrics are concerned, you can just hum the melody and everything will probably work out OK. When you're dealing with a recipe, though, relying on your memory can spell disaster.
Drag out all your recipes, and review the ingredients again. Start a list of ingredients with quantities. Make this the year you don't have to send your significant other on an emergency store run for some sugar or a pound (or two) of butter.
Is this another year you're planning to make way more food than you'll ever need? Is it worth exhausting yourself for one more salad dish or dessert? Consider cutting back. You'll stay on budget and reduce waste, too.
9: Make Out Your Grocery List
Never leave a frozen turkey out on the counter to thaw. Instead, place it in a sink of cold water and allow about a half hour defrosting time for each pound. If you're desperate, you can also cook a frozen turkey in the oven, although we don't endorse this method.
While your recipes are sitting on the counter and your grocery list is in your purse, check your cupboards to verify the supplies you do have on hand. While you're at it, check the freshness date on your baking powder and make sure you have enough cinnamon, vanilla extract, nutmeg, sage and other spices. Now is the time to compile your grocery list. It will be ready far enough in advance for you to take advantage of all those grocery store specials leading up to Thanksgiving week.
8: Clean the Oven
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This isn't just to make Aunt Edna think you're a great housekeeper. A clean oven cooks food more evenly, and if you've ever needed an oven you can count on, this is the time. Dirty ovens will also send out plumes of foul-smelling smoke as the food stuck to the bottom of the oven continues to burn. Thanksgiving Day is not the time to call on your local fire department to come see your tarnished oven.
Self-cleaning ovens make the task easier, but even if you don't have one, you'll be ahead of the game if you expend the elbow grease to get your oven into shape now. There are severl products on the market that can help cut down on a sore arm and aching back, too.
And make sure you clean the oven far enough in advance that the oven cleaner smell has time to disappear from the air. Nothing will turn appetites off faster than a chemical odor wafting out from where the bird is cooking.
7: Calibrate the Oven
Measure a turkey's doneness by sticking a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. Ideally, you want a temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit or a little higher. Some recipes recommend cooking fowl much longer, but updated U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines have dropped the safe cooking temperature for turkey and chicken, making it much easier to cook a moist, safe bird in a standard home oven.
Before you put the broiler pan back into your newly cleaned oven, make sure the temperature sensor is accurate. Buy a portable oven thermometer and check it against the built-in thermometer in your oven.
You'll have to check the portable thermometer first to make sure it's accurate, though. There are two ways to do this. First, put the portable thermometer in boiling water and make sure it registers 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Or place it in water filled with ice cubes and verify that it reads 32 degrees Fahrenheit. You can use those temperatures as a baseline to establish the accuracy of the test thermometer you're using.
When you know the portable thermometer is accurate (or you can add or subtract from the readout based on your test), fire up your oven and measure the oven temperature against your portable thermometer. If you set the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and the oven ready light signals that the temperature matches the portable, you're good to go. If there's a difference of, say, three degrees, you can adjust for it. On some ovens, you can even manually adjust the way the dial seats to recalibrate it to a correct setting. Otherwise, make the adjustment manually each time you cook.
This sounds like a hassle, but you only need to do it once a year or so. Calibrating your oven will help you be a better baker and save on energy, too.
6: Learn About the Bird
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Turkey is the big meat dish for Thanksgiving, but it isn't all that easy to cook. If you spend some time learning a few bird basics, you're a lot more likely to have an easier time with the main event on Thanksgiving Day. Here are some things you'll definitely want to write down if this is your first time at bat:
- Turkey takes a surprisingly long time to thaw. You can plan on 30 minutes for each pound if you immerse a frozen turkey in cold water (never use hot). If you put it in the refrigerator instead, count on one day for each five pounds. You can also defrost it in your microwave -- if it will fit. Review your microwave manufacturer's directions ahead of time because defrosting times vary.
- Turkey usually comes with the neck, heart, liver and gizzards stuffed inside. It may be in the front cavity, in back or both. Take out this packet before you cook the bird. Leaving it in is a newbie mistake you don't want to make. You can use the neck and gizzards for gravy and stuffing, too, so these extra bits can be useful.
- When you cook a turkey in the oven, the breast will cook faster than the dark meat on the legs and thighs. To keep the breast moist while the rest of the bird cooks, you'll probably need to cover the breast with foil. You'll have to remove the foil occasionally to baste the bird, too. A turkey baster is a useful tool for this and worth the investment.
- Although stuffing the bird sounds like fun, it really isn't -- and it can be a health hazard if the inside of the bird doesn't get up to temperature. A safer method is to cook the dressing in the oven instead.
- You can buy a fresh turkey (not frozen) for the Thanksgiving holiday, but you may have to put your order in a few days ahead of time.
- Some savvy cooks prepare two smaller turkeys instead of one large one when they're expecting a big holiday crowd. Larger turkeys can be harder to cook and relatively tough.
Experienced cooks have lots of turkey tricks, alternative cooking methods (like deep frying), and funny but embarrassing stories about turkey dinners past. If you take a couple of hours to become an armchair expert before you're up to your elbows in raw bird, you'll definitely be better off.
5: Prep Your Fridge
When planning your menu, allow about one pound of turkey per person.
You may think that Thanksgiving is all about the bird, but that's only part of the story. Appetizers, side dishes and desserts are important, too. If you're having guests over, a few will invariably bring something, and the dishes you prepare yourself will have to be stored somewhere. If your refrigerator is still full of last summer's pickle experiment and that huge container of "stuff" your mother-in-law sent over when you all had the flu, you might want to clear the decks before you need the space for bigger and better things. Keeping the fridge relatively clear until you need it is a good idea, too. If you like to cook large meals, scale down until after the holiday by freezing what you don't plan on using right away.
4: Plan Your Tablescape
Because Thanksgiving is such a big holiday, it's only natural to want everything to look great. If you're going to use the good china and crystal -- finally, congratulations, -- but be sure to get everything out and ready in plenty of time. You may know your regular dishware and serving pieces well enough to wing it, but using items that you only break out infrequently can be a challenge. When you're also trying to design an attractive centerpiece, choose a special tablecloth, pick the perfect flowers, and come up with a cunningly folded napkin design, you may need some time and patience to get everything to work together. If it all seems like too much, skip it. If you start far enough ahead, though, you may be able to get some of the design stuff locked down before the real fun begins.
3: Clear Your Countertops
To avoid bacterial contamination, refrigerate your cooked turkey within two hours of putting it out at room temperature.
Over the course of a year, it's amazing how many things end up on your kitchen countertops. OK, so the toaster and coffeemaker are important, but how did the popcorn maker end up next to the dishwasher, and why isn't the battery charger in the garage where it belongs? When you're serving up boxed meals that require minimal prep, you don't need much area to work with, but when the holidays roll around, you need mega room to chop, stuff and swing a rolling pin. To make your life easier, create two or three prep areas on your countertops for different projects, and lose the extra appliances and paraphernalia for the duration.
2: Review Your Utensil Inventory
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If you think Thanksgiving is a single, lavish meal, you're wrong. It's a whole day filled with eating and celebrating. If you have two wooden spoons, chances are you'll need one or two more. If you have one oven mitt, you'll be burned and crying before the day is out if you're cooking a turkey in the oven. Before the big day, check your tools, utensils and other miscellaneous stuff to make sure you have enough of what you need for the day. Even if you have a great dishwasher, you probably won't want to run it with less than a full load, so make life easier by having backup gadgets and tools. Here are some likely candidates:
- measuring cups
- measuring spoons
- slotted spoons
- cutting boards
- cookie sheets
- pie tins
- mixing bowls
1: Develop Your Thanksgiving Strategy
Americans consume about 45 million turkeys at Thanksgiving.
You may think your Thanksgiving meal preparation will be similar to your mom's or your aunt's, but you're wrong. Yours will be unique because your turkey will cook for a longer or shorter time, depending on its size, and you'll be cooking other, or more, dishes. Each dish you choose will have its own assembly requirements. Some things will need to be chilled before cooking, so they'll require refrigerator space. Others will have to go into the oven at about the same time but require different cooking temperatures.
These challenges will be unique to your experience of cooking Thanksgiving dinner. You may have to dial back on the cooking temperature for your green bean casserole in order to cook the apple pie, or vice versa. You might have to put the fruit salad in the garage fridge or even in the freezer for a few minutes so you'll have room to chill the macaroons. Juggling all the details gets easier with experience, but if this is your first or second time at it, planning is the key to getting everything prepared on time without one or two culinary casualties.
Take a look at your recipes and start strategizing your approach even before you buy ingredients. You may discover that one of your choices is just too much of a hassle, or that it's more logical to have someone else prepare a particular dish. If you know what to expect, you have options. You can cook some things ahead of time, and when your sister asks if she can bring anything, you'll have a ready answer, and it will be the right one.