Thanksgiving dinner is usually the biggest logistical undertaking in the kitchen a home cook will tackle throughout the year. I’ve been hosting the family for about 8 years and I’ve learned a few things that are worth sharing.
Here’s my top 5 tips:
- Plan Ahead – I can’t stress this enough, plan out your menu, your cooking times and schedule and your grocery list.
- Practice – If you are making a new recipe for this year make it before the big day as practice, this lets you tweak it and get it exactly right when it counts.
- Make It – By make it I mean don’t buy processed food, I’m not talking organic I’m talking assembling everything yourself. It may seem like a lot of work but think about this, Bisquick is flour, baking powder and salt and if you can’t mix that up yourself then you probably aren’t reading the blog post. (Tip: Don’t go overboard, I do buy frozen pie crusts and the occasional can of cream of mushroom soup.)
- Buy Right – Buy just what you need and in the quantities you need, buy carrots from bulk bins so if you only need 3 you only have 3. Remember before and after Thanksgiving day your fridge will be packed full. (Tip: There are exceptions like flour and sugar, I like to buy 10 pound bags from my local big box store and pour into more manageable jars.)
- Gear Up – You can make a great dinner without all the gear, that said having an instant read thermometer, temperature probes, grease separators on hand make cooking just a little bit easier.
First things first, what’s on the menu? I do the traditional eats every year, turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce but I also mix in a couple new recipes.
Here’s my menu for this year:
I’ve got a menu, so now what? The obvious answer is make a list of ingredients and the amounts you need, the not so obvious list to make is the cooking schedule. What’s a cooking schedule you ask? I divide all the recipes into one of 3 lists:
- Make and Bake – These are recipes I can fix a day or more ahead of time, usually this is limited to pies, cranberry sauce but could include soups as well.
- Make and Don’t Bake – The night before is a good time to prep your stuffing, green bean casserole whatever you can get to the point that it just needs to be thrown in the oven.
- Day Of – Turkey, prime rib, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, yeast rolls should all be cooked the day of the event.
now that I have my lists I take the Day Of list and make a cooking schedule, it may sound like a bit much but I write down the cooking times and temps of all the recipes. Then I take a piece of paper and write what time dinner will be served at the far right and write each half hour out right to left. Now I know my turkey usually takes longest so I draw a line for the turkey, then the prime rib, casseroles and so on. What I end up with is schedule of what to put in the oven and when so everything ends up hot and done at the same time. (Tip: Letting your turkey and prime rib rest for 30 minutes gives you time to finish cooking any sides you may have prepped ahead of time.)
If you are busy and have a local grocery delivery service don’t feel obligated to go to 3 stores looking for some fresh herbs, Amazon Fresh among others will deliver everything you need right to your door.
Pies, sides and sauces are what I like to dabble in through the year.
Although t’s not practical to make every recipe ahead of time there’s always room for pie.
Staring with bechamel sauce known in France as the “mother sauce” and mastery of it gets you half way to a lot of great recipes. I think of bechamel as a gateway sauce, it’s the basis for mac and cheese, creamed spinach, cream of mushroom and mastering lets you make a roux if you are into cajun, a rich gravy for meat, creamy lasagna it’s uses are nearly endless just like the number of calories in it!
Southern cooks who make biscuits and gravy have already been using the sauce for years maybe even without knowing it.
It’s easy to work sides into your normal meals throughout the year, for fall flavors anytime of the year I like to work in a lot of roasted root vegetables. I particularly like heirloom varieties of carrots to really set off the plate.
When you are cooking for Thanksgiving it’s easy to give in and buy cream of mushroom or crispy onions or other processed items and honestly I do the same sometimes. Keep in mind that the base for mac and cheese, cream of spinach and green bean casserole are all bechamel sauce so if you make a big pot of it then you can use it as the base for 3 dishes. It will taste better, look better and I like to think since it has no preservatives it will be better for you.
There are tons of recipes and videos online on how to make just about anything.
Buying certain staples like flour, sugar, crushed tomato's, rice and beans in bulk helps you save money and guarantee you are rarely out of anything.
Buying right isn’t just buying in bulk, your local Farmer’s Market or CSA can be great sources of seasonal vegetables.
What can I say, I like tools and my kitchen looks a lot like my garage… lots of gadgets.
Now do you need any of this? No, but if I could only buy 2 it would be the Chef’s knife and instant read thermometer, you’ll use the knife everyday in the kitchen and the thermometer helps you get it cooked right every time.