If you’re surfing cooking websites, it can’t have escaped your notice that Thanksgiving is just around the corner. You may be wondering how you’ll deliver a great Thanksgiving Dinner and remain sane. Don’t worry. I’ve got your back.
I start thinking about Thanksgiving Dinner around the beginning of October. I usually end up making roughly the same thing each year, but the dialogue in my head goes something like this: “Wonder how many people will come this year? Maybe I should do scalloped potatoes instead of mashed. Or creamed spinach instead of green bean casserole? I need a new gravy recipe. Should I learn how to make pie crust?”
I thought I’d take this time to write some of this Thanksgiving Dinner thought-chaos down—maybe I can make sense of it all and share some helpful advice in the process! I’ll also include links to my favorite recipes and a game plan for “getting ‘er done.”
I remember my mother getting up very early in the morning—still groggy—to get the bird in the oven. This produced all sorts of hilarious results, from discovering that she’d put the bird in the oven upside-down to finding the giblet packet still nestled inside the cavity like a gory Christmas present. She would roast the turkey all day for fear of salmonella contamination—as a result, the bird would often be reminiscent of the turkey scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
My ex was a fan of brining and/or injecting the turkey. This seemed like an incredible hassle to me for marginal results. In my opinion, brined turkey ends up tasting more like ham. I realize that this is due to a brine gone terribly wrong, but there you go. What really torpedoes the whole thing for me, though, is that the drippings from a brined bird are too salty for gravy. So there.
Given what I’ve described above, it’s probably no surprise that I never cared for turkey that much. Until…
The first Thanksgiving Dinner that I made from start to finish was to rescue Phil, the love of my life, and now my wonderful hubby unit, from Thanksgiving Dinner Hell. Both new divorcées, we had been dating for several months; Phil was having his family over along with his three kids. He had never done Thanksgiving by himself, and didn’t know where to start. I couldn’t say “no” to those gorgeous, puppy eyes when he asked me for help.
“How many are coming?” I asked. Phil sweetly replied, “EIGHTEEN.”
When I recovered from shock, we convened a council of war to strategize. Both of us had must-haves for Thanksgiving Dinner: I had to have my buttery-mashed-potato-calorie-explosion fix, and Phil needed his Mom’s stuffing. We both agreed that cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, gravy, and some sort of pie were essential. And, of course, there’s the turkey.
So, I began studying the art of turkey roasting: the pros and cons of wet brines vs. dry brines, of injecting vs. basting, and whether to stuff or not to stuff. I watched Alton Brown (he’s a brining, no-basting, non-stuffer). I watched Food Network’s Thanksgiving Special. I combed through the Thanksgiving Dinner editions of Fine Cooking and Food and Wine.
And then, I found a reportedly fail-safe recipe from Martha Stewart. The comment section was full of fans raving about how their turkey came out picture perfect, tender, and delicious every time. I decided to give it a try.
The recipe involves covering the turkey, mummy-like, in cheesecloth that has been soaked in a mixture of wine and butter. What’s not to like about THAT? It gets repeated bastings with the mixture during the roast to keep it from drying out on the outside, while the stuffing keeps the bird juicy on the inside. The yummy bandage is removed during the final part of the roast to allow the turkey to brown up—which it does beautifully.
I have since taken to nestling herbs—sage, rosemary, and thyme—into the cheesecloth, which really takes the flavor over the top. The turkey goes in the oven around 11 am, and it’s ready to come out by around 4 pm. I have to say, it really does come out perfect and succulent EVERY time, with just about the least amount of fuss of any turkey recipe I’ve ever tried. This will be my fourth year using Martha’s ever-so-slightly adapted recipe.
Phil’s mom passed away several years ago. She was survived by her husband and six sons, a few of whom usually join us on Turkey Day. Her memory lives on, in part, through this stuffing’s presence each year on the Thanksgiving Dinner table. As such, her stuffing recipe is absolutely SACRED and MUST NOT be altered in ANY WAY. (One of these days, I might sneak some dried cranberries in there. What will they do? FIRE ME?!) The stuffing IS really very yummy…in an artery-clogging kind of way.
THE CRANBERRY SAUCE
There is no excuse for canned cranberry sauce. I remember this abomination from my childhood: everyone would cut a slice from the can-shaped blob and put it on their plate. It was vile then, and it’s vile now.
I live in Wisconsin, which is cranberry central (fun fact: WI produces >60% of the cranberries in the U.S.). I am practically obligated to represent. Here’s the thing: you can make cranberry sauce a few days in advance, using—wait for it—fresh cranberries. It couldn’t be easier. I like a subtly spiced version with Chinese 5-spice powder and finely minced ginger and shallots.
Gravy is a can of worms, a scary beast in-and-of itself. Among the conundrums faced by the aspiring gravy maker are: Giblets or no giblets? Eggs or no eggs? Roux or slurry?? Flour or cornstarch?!?!
I have tried just about every iteration of these questions that you can imagine.
I am not a fan of giblets, though I do chuck most of the carnage from that packet (no liver—EW!) into a pot of boiling water with a turkey leg or two, onion, celery, dried mushrooms, and herbs to make stock. I strain out the nasty bits later.
I realize that many people add hardboiled eggs to their gravy, but when I gave it a try, the eggs—in my opinion—not only managed to completely destroy the flavor with their vaguely eggy (er, farty) taste, but they also ruined the texture.
A flour slurry does the thickening job quite well, but you run the risk of your gravy tasting floury. Cornstarch slurries result in nicely thickened, silky gravy. But to achieve maximum richness and to capture the essence of all things turkey, my go-to gravy starts with a roux. This is where you whisk flour into equal parts fat (turkey drippings, OF COURSE!) over gentle heat for a few minutes until the roux takes on a nice, golden-blonde color. The mixture has a subtle, nutty richness rather than the native, raw flour flavor. Slowly add in your turkey stock and pan juices while whisking like mad, bring to a boil, then simmer, and you’re done.
Thanksgiving dinner at the Frank house requires fountains of gravy. I learned this the hard way from one of Phil’s brothers, who has gained notoriety for the amount of food he can blithely put away—and then go back for more. (And then have three helpings of dessert.) His preference, I as I came to find out, is to eat gravy like soup, with the turkey and side dishes floating inside. (I exaggerate, but only a little.)
For this reason, I buy a few extra turkey legs and thighs and put them in the toaster oven with butter and herbs for a few hours to brown up and ooze out extra drippings.
I probably have about half a gallon of gravy by the time it’s all said and done. (And I keep some in reserve so that we can have it with our leftovers.) I highly recommend this strategy so that you have extra drippings and juices on hand just in case.
This year, I suggested that maybe we try creamed spinach instead of the usual green bean casserole (GBC). That was vetoed immediately: Phil made the valid point that the above-mentioned brother loves GBC, and we have to fill him up on something other than gravy. And I have to admit: I do love GBC.
THE GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE
Speaking of green bean casserole: GBC is to Thanksgiving Dinner what fruitcake is to Christmas. Like fruitcake, GBC can be good…but it can also be really, really bad. And believe me, I’ve experienced LOTS of GBC badness. Concentrated cream-of-mushroom soup and canned green beans are almost certainly involved. One memorable GBC was scorched and—quite literally—inedible.
GBC is one dish that I have explored extensively. I’ve used canned, frozen, and fresh green beans. I have used canned and homemade cream-of-mushroom soup. I’ve topped with breadcrumbs, French’s fried onions, and homemade fried onions. After all that, I’ve settled on a solution that’s probably more complicated than you want to hear, but not as complicated as it might be. And it’s worth it. More importantly, you can make most of it ahead of time so that all you have to do is pop it in the oven when the turkey comes out.
I’ve found that homemade cream-of-mushroom soup and fresh GBs are a must. (The soup comes out so delicious that it could be eaten on its own!) But homemade fried onions are too froufy for true GBC aficionados: French’s fried onions, which I mix with buttery breadcrumbs, are the required topping (no, I received no kickbacks for this!).
THE MASHED POTATOES
I use Yukon gold potatoes for this recipe. I’ve done skins-on, new red potatoes before, but it went over like a lead balloon with my crowd, all of whom like smooth potatoes. Simplicity is best for the MPs, because let’s face it: everyone wants to douse their mashed in your fabulous turkey gravy anyway, so why frou-frou them up with horseradish, cheese, or anything else that might clash with your masterpiece?
I do a pre-soak in lots of water to take out some of the starch that can otherwise make MPs too gummy. Guess what that means? Yep: you can peel the potatoes the day before. (See a theme here?) Take them out of the fridge, drain them, and boil until soft. Then drain again.
Thanksgiving Dinner is the one time of year that I choose not to take the low-calorie route: S&P, plenty of butter, and milk go into the strained potatoes (I also sometimes use broth, heavy cream, sour cream, or any combination thereof). Although some fanatics will insist that a ricer is critical for proper mashing, I am just fine with the results I get with a regular old mixer.
And now, we’ve reached the part where I try to help you make a coherent, easy-to-follow strategy for pulling off Thanksgiving Dinner like a pro. I call it a “lower-stress” strategy because, let’s face it: there’s always some stress associated with delivering a fantastic Thanksgiving Dinner. It’s practically tradition. Enjoy, and—best of luck!!
Some final notes for planning Thanksgiving Dinner
Thanksgiving will be here in a week. Here are a few final, important considerations before we get into strategizing:
What size turkey do you need?
The general recommendation is 1.5 lbs. of turkey per person (that allows for leftovers!)
How long should you plan to thaw your bird?
One of the saddest sights (I see it EVERY year) is a poor, lost soul shopping for frozen turkeys ON WEDNESDAY. Most sites recommend 1 day of hanging out in the fridge per 5 pounds of bird, so a 20-lb turkey will take 4 days to thaw—plan accordingly!
Be sure to carefully read not only the guide and shopping list, but also the recipes: you may have to make adjustments based on your kitchen equipment and size, baking dishes, etc. (for example, if you don’t have a toaster oven, you’ll need to make extra drippings for gravy the day beforehand).