Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can offer up a boatload of opportunities, both good and bad. It’s a day that can begin with a happy cheer and end in 911 calls.
Stress is a big part of Turkey Day, and some handle it better than others. I know: I’ve had Thanksgivings that were unequivocal home runs and some that approached Vesuvius-size disasters. During the holidays, the fragile mix of family members, friends and (sometimes) total strangers, combined with the anxiety of cooking for a large group, plus the wild card of alcohol-enhanced discord, can make the last Thursday in November a potentially combustible one.
Of course, there is only so much you, as the host, can control. But managing the variables—having a plan and organizing Thanksgiving and the days leading up to it—will heavily increase the odds of your big day going off without a hitch. Or at least without spilled blood.
You don’t need to go the Franklin Planner route, but print out a calendar and zero in on the week or 10 days up to and including Thanksgiving. Then, devise your plan of attack, beginning with ordering a turkey if you plan to cook something special like a fresh or organic bird.
8 Days a Week
If you wait until Thanksgiving Eve to get down and dirty, your goose (or turkey) will be cooked—or, more likely, undercooked, and you’ll feel like you need an eight-day week to get things under control. Spread the Thanksgiving chores over the course of a week or so. Don’t try to do all the shopping in one day or you’ll be overwhelmed. A week or so out, for example, shop for alcohol and beat the holiday crowds. Shop early, too, for items that won’t spoil: canned goods, dry ingredients and such. Then, the closer you get to T-Day, shop for things like fresh produce, bread for stuffing, eggs, butter and the like. Be sure to pick up your turkey early enough to completely thaw it in the fridge (if using a frozen bird) and to brine it, if you plan to do that.
Carefully plan out your day of cooking, which probably begins on Thanksgiving Eve. Create an hour-by-hour program of what needs to be done and when. For example, you don’t want to get stuck trying to bake pies and roast the turkey in the same oven at the same time. So, carefully map everything out—side dishes, desserts, prepping, etc.—so that you encounter as few surprises as possible.
Don’t Get Chopped
Ever watch the cooking reality show Chopped? Well, one of the reasons chefs get chopped from the competition is that they get in over their heads. Thanksgiving is not the time to try out the new mango-foie-bacon-sourdough stuffing you’ve been eyeing in the latest issue of Cooking Insanity. Stick with what you know and wow your guests with can’t-miss, time-tested recipes. This is not the day to experiment. Well, maybe experiment with one side dish or dessert, but that’s it. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel on this day when what people really want is just a moist, tender turkey and some good gravy to go with it.
Tools of the Trade
You’ll be making a lot of lists leading up to Thanksgiving. One of them should be a list of tools you’ll need. The last thing you want to do is to be shopping for a roasting pan on Thanksgiving Day. “Gee, I thought I had one!” Do an inventory to make sure you’ve got enough pots and pans to cook everything in, serving dishes to serve everything in, plates, utensils and glasses to eat and drink everything with, and even containers, freezer bags and such to store the leftovers.
The Biggest Tool
Hey, get your mind out of the gutter. The biggest, baddest tool in my Thanksgiving kitchen is actually one of the smallest: the instant-read thermometer. The last thing I want on Thanksgiving is to kill off half of my friends by serving them E. coli-ridden, undercooked turkey or stuffing. At the same time, I don’t want to kill their taste buds with a dried-out, overcooked bird. So, I often turn to my cooking thermometers to know exactly where I stand. Don’t even think of relying on those cheesy little plastic pop-up thermometers embedded into your bird. Buy a quality, accurate instant-read thermometer and, for the turkey, aim for about 165 degrees Fahrenheit for the dark meat and 150-155 for the breast meat.
Into the Pool!
The single best piece of advice I can give for assuring a moist, juicy turkey on Thanksgiving Day is to brine it. I brine my turkey at least overnight before cooking, and usually for a couple of days. You can find lots of instructions for brines online. I use a very simple solution of 1 cup kosher salt or 2 cups table salt dissolved in 2 gallons of cold water. If you don’t have a pot large enough to brine the bird, a cooler works well (be sure to clean it thoroughly afterward), using ice packs to keep the temperature around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Be the Boss
I don’t play well with others in the kitchen, especially on Thanksgiving, when I’ve got a lot of plates in the air. You might differ, but I have strict rules about keeping people out of my kitchen when I’m cooking. This is not the time to catch up on what little Jimmy has been doing in pre-school. When people decide to congregate in the kitchen, I not-so-politely shoo them out.
Don’t be a martyr. You don’t need to carry the Thanksgiving load all by yourself. Ask guests to bring items like sodas, alcohol or ice, side dishes, flowers, extra dishes or cookware (if needed), desserts and so on.