Thanksgiving for most is a day of relaxing and eating yourself into a food coma but for those of us responsible for preparing that gust busting meal it can be anything but relaxing. For the home cook producing 5-7 dishes plus dessert in a single meal can be very overwhelming but it doesn’t have to be. All it takes is some planning, advanced preparation and some tips and tricks from the pros will not only make your meal preparation simple but also improve the quality of your dishes.
Where to start? I start at least a week before Thanksgiving by choosing what dishes and desserts I want to serve. Print those recipes out, I suggest writing them out on a recipe card so they are more convenient then a pile of papers while your cooking. Take those recipes and create a shopping list for yourself. Make sure you are meticulous with this because the last thing you want to do is have to run out to the store at the last minute when the stores are just insane. Once you have your menu selected you will need to analyse your selections and determine which of those dishes or parts of those dishes that you can prepare the day before and in what order they need to be prepared so that you have enough oven space and time to get everything done in time for the meal.
I unthaw my turkey the day before Thanksgiving by placing it in a sink filled with cold water and then leave the tap on a bare trickle. This keeps the water moving and cool which will unthaw the turkey faster than just a still body of water. Is this safe? Yes it is as long as the water stays cold and you move it to the refrigerator as soon as it feels flexible and pliable. I also brine my turkey because the flavor and moisture levels are markedly better than a non-brined turkey. I will put the turkey in the sink in the morning and by late afternoon it is ready to be placed in the brine and refrigerate overnight.
Another turkey tip is to make sure you pull your turkey out of the refrigerator about 2 hours before cooking. You need to let it come up close to room temperature and allow the skin to really dry so that it will cook evenly and the skin will be crispy. If you take your turkey directly from the the refrigerator to the oven or fryer it will increase the cook time and cause some parts of it to overcook while others struggle to reach temperature.
If you want your roasted turkey to have a rich mahogany color than you should dry the skin well and then brush or rub it wil melted butter. Basting while the turkey is cooking is good but make sure you stop basting about a half hour before the end of cooking time so that the skin can crisp back up again.
Most dressing and casseroles can be made ahead of time and refrigerated overnight. Reserve any toppings for just before you place the dish in the oven so that they will brown properly. If you don’t want to make them the day before then you should cut up your ingredients and have them ready to prepare the finished dish without having to pull out your cutting board.
Desserts should be prepared the day before and their flavor will benefit from the chance to relax meld when they are covered and refrigerated overnight.
Your turkey stock should be made the day before because it takes 4 hours at least to make a good pot of basic stock. I feel this is one of the most important part of meal preparation because your gravy and stuffing or dressing require a really good stock for full flavor. I purchase turkey necks, wings and or legs and give them a light sear in the stock pot before adding water. See my Basic Stock recipe for the best professional technique for a good stock.
Finally if you make your own gravy then there are two ways to thicken them either with a rue of flour and fat or a cornstarch slurry. If you use a rue or flour to thicken your gravy make sure you give it at least 45 minutes to simmer because otherwise it will have a raw flour flavor. I can vouch that this really does make a big difference in the flavor. When you use a cornstarch slurry you need to make sure you don’t use to much because it will turn your beautiful gravy into a lump of brown jelly. Slowly drizzle in the slurry and stir and it will reach full thickness within a few seconds if the gravy is at a medium simmer. I suggest you add a bit and stir and give it a bit to see the thickness before you add anymore slurry. If you want to boost flavor you can use cool turkey stock as your liquid for the slurry.