My First Thanksgiving As The Chef - Help!

This year my mother in law is spending 3 weeks in Israel right before Thanksgiving so she won’t be cooking. My husband’s aunt just had knee surgery and won’t be able to stand for the long periods of time that it takes to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Because of these things they were talking about all of us just going out to dinner on Thanksgiving when I opened my big mouth and said, “Oh, I’ll cook Thanksgiving dinner! It will be wonderful!” They all agreed and now I am going to be cooking dinner for 5-8 people.


I’ve never cooked Thanksgiving dinner before! Why the hell did I volunteer for this? Well, what’s done is done and now I am coming to you for help. I cook pretty regularly and am a decent hand in the kitchen but I’ve never done a huge meal like this before. I have the following:

1 stove w/4 burners
1 medium sized oven with adjustable shelves inside
1 crock pot
1 toaster oven
1 microwave
various baking and serving dishes

Is that enough to get Thanksgiving dinner out on the table? How the hell do you bake everything when the turkey needs to be in the oven for practically half the day? For those people who have offered to bring something what should I tell them to bring? Do I need to wear pearls while I cook? Do you have any stories about hilarious happenings on your first try at Thanksgiving?

Catering is indicated…

The big thing is to plan by working backwards from when the meal is served. So, for example, if the meal will be served at 2 pm, and the turkey takes 4 hours in the oven, the turkey needs to be in the oven at (or a little before) 10 am.

The second thing is that some dishes can be prepared early, and then held ready. So, you could prepare mashed potato or mashed pumpkin 3 or even 6 hours early, and then hold covered with plastic wrap, so have fewer things to worry about at the last minute. You can do this with things that will be served cold (like salads), or with things that can be easily reheated in a microwave on in a saucepan.

The third thing is to say “yes” if anyone offers to bring food with them for the meal: that will be one less thing for you to worry about.

But cooking for 8 is not a real big deal: it’s when you’re cooking for 20 or so that it becomes interesting. And you can still do it in a normal size kitchen, if you plan carefully.

Plan plan plan! Make a list. Do the cranberry sauce days ahead and stuff it in the fridge. You can keep the mashed potatoes warm in the crock pot. People who want to bring stuff should bring appetizers, wine or desserts unless they’re particularly good at something - if they’re late you don’t want to be screwed.

My mother always managed it, with the same equipment you have. So lets see…

NIBBLES: something in the crockpot. Swedish meatballs, or a dip.
TURKEY: this gets the oven asap before dinner, of course. It will need to rest for 20-30 minutes before carving.
STUFFING: everyone says it isn’t safe to actually stuff the turkey, but definitely bake it in the roasting pan with the turkey so it absorbs the juices. Lets you double-dip your oven, too.
GRAVY: made with turkey juices on 1 burner, while the turkey is resting
ROLLS: I’d buy frozen rolls or crescent rolls. They will have plenty of time to bake in the already-hot oven while the turkey is resting, and will be piping hot for dinner
VEGETABLES: find recipes that you can cook on the stovetop. Forget casseroles; you don’t have the oven space and you don’t want to risk uneven re-heating in the microwave. I would do things like glazed carrots, creamed spinach. You might even fake green bean casserole by cooking it in a skillet, then decanting into a serving dish. Alternatively, bake something ahead of time that will re-heat nicely in a skillet… maybe a medley of roasted root veg.
CRANBERRY SAUCE: made ahead of time, not an issue. Or, you know, buy it canned.
POTATOES: I would let them go. You’ve got stuffing and rolls already. Fuggedaboudit.
PIES: are made the day ahead, so they have plenty of time to cool down and firm up before serving. My family always uses the frozen Pillsbury pie crusts… makes pie-making a doddle.

Also, set the table the day before.

God. I love to cook for a crowd… but I’m sort of glad that my husband’s mother dominates Thanksgiving.

Well, the turkey needs to rest for at least half an hour or so after it comes out of the oven - redistributes the juices and all - so at that point, other things that need the oven get popped in. (Besides, you’ll want turkey juices and drippings to make the gravy, and you only get those once it’s come out of the oven anyway. It rests while the other stuff bakes and you stir the gravy.)

Consider pre-baking some stuff ahead of time and just finishing it in the oven during turkey-resting time, rather than trying to get the casserole or whatever cooked all the way in that time.

Toaster oven is good - you could use that to warm up the rolls while the regular oven is busy with other stuff. You could consider using your crock pot to keep the gravy warm, or you could make soup ahead of time and crock-pot it to stay warm until you’re ready to ladle it up as an appetizer.

Figure out your serving dishes. (“That big red bowl can hold the salad, the flat platter would be good for roasted new potatoes, let’s use this striped plate for the asparagus …”) Then when guests ask “How can I help?” you can answer, “Can you please put the X into the Y and set it out on the table?” People like to help, especially if you know what you need them to do.
Bonus recipe time!

Sweet potatoes with marshmallows are an abomination that makes the baby Jesus cry. Last year, the Other Shoe and I brought sweet potatoes that we did the following way, and they were a monster hit:

Peel sweet potato and cut into chunks about 2" or so, season with salt. Cook several strips of bacon. Toss potato chunks in hot bacon grease and roast 'em up in the oven, single layer on a cookie sheet. (If you have two racks, you could put them underneath the rack with the turkey.) Stir once or twice, and when they’re about halfway done add quartered onions and some chopped rosemary. Meanwhile, chop up the cooked bacon, which you did not let anyone snack on! When the potatoes are all the way soft and a bit browned at the corners, and the onions have become translucent, toss with the bacon pieces and serve.

Don’t forget to take the ‘giblets’ out of the breast cavity of the turkey! That was my first turkey mistake. Didn’t hurt the meal any, just let me know I had a way to go. Now 35 years later, I wouldn’t hesitate to make a dinner for 20. I’ve done it camping before.

Planning is key. Also a good prep person (hubby?) will take a lot of the load off and act as second eyes and hands.

Get a fresh turkey, or buy early so it has at least 2 days to thaw in the fridge.

Make as much as possible the day before. Cut your veggies, potatoes and make the dips and even the casseroles early. Use zip lock bags and get a few coolers to use.

Go over the time required for each dish and make a list and time table.

You will have at least 30 minutes for the turkey to rest. Use this time for all the last minute items.

A good fresh cranberry dish can be a hit, rather than the jelly stuff out of the can.
Mine has fresh berries, sugar, orange and lemon juice, walnuts, golden raisins, and brandy. Bake for about 45 minutes @ 350. Add some more brandy before serving to add some extra kick. Another dish that can be done a few days ahead, and put in ziplocks in the cooler.

Set your table early so it is a display before your guests arrive… even the night before.

RELAX! It will go just fine. Even if there are bumps along the way, they make good stories for next year!

later, Tom.

Oh, excellent! I will keep this in mind.

Another good tip! :stuck_out_tongue:

No help from me, but maybe you can ask my mom how she handled it. The first Thanksgiving she and my dad were married (1963) was her first as chef. She opened her cookbook and found that the turkey recipe began thusly:

  1. Roast turkey as usual.

First, brine the turkey (you can find plenty of brining recipes on line). You should do this overnight the night before. This will not only make the turkey more flavorful and moist, but will also make it a lot more forgiving in the oven. You’d have to work hard to overcook it or get it dry, and you wont need to fuss with it while it’s roasting.

Pies can also be baked the day before, and it’s a good idea to do so and have dessert out of the way.

While the turkey is in the oven, put the neck and giblets in a pot with some water, a halved onion and a couple of celery stalks (I heartily recommend putting the celery in with the leaves still on. They give a lot of flavor). Bring to a boil, then turn down the fire and simmer for stock (about an hour, but there’s no hard time. The longer it simmers, the more flavor you will get, just make sure you add some more water if it’s reducing too much).

Also start boiling some spuds for mash.

This is a good time to start working some side dishes on the range, mix up some stuffing (it’s quick to do) and get it in the oven next to the turkey. If you have a cast iron skillet, they’re good for the stuffing because you can put it straight into the oven from the stovetop without having to put it in a casserole dish.

Something like a green bean casserole is also easy to make and get into the oven.

Since you’ve got a crockpot, I would suggest getting some sweet potatoes in there first thing in the morning (or even overnight) with some brown sugar and butter (slice them up first) and letting them take care of themselves.

This is where things start to get a little tricky with timing, but it’s ok. Get the side dishes out of the oven when they’re done, and cover them with foil to keep them warm. You’ll also have time to mash the potatoes during this interval while you’re waiting for the turkey to finish cooking. When the turkey is done, set it aside to rest, and use the drippings and giblet stock to make a gravy (add flour to the drippings to make a roux, add stock, boil and thicken, season with S&P. Sage is good too). You can make the gravy right in the roasting pan (obviously take the bird out first) unless it’s one of those disposable foil things.

At this point, you should have turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, slow cooked sweet potatoes, green bean casserole (or whatever other veggie side dish you want) and pies ready to go.

Cranberry sauce is also very quick and easy to make if you want. Put a bag of cranberries in a cup of water, add a cup of sugar, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about five minutes. I also like to add a little cinnamon, or here’s a little tip – pumpkin pie spice. Crabnberry sauce can also be made the day before and refrigerated.

Something else you can do the day before is a cold pasta salad or three bean salad.
Good luck. I love making Thanksgiving dinner. It’s my favorite holiday just for that reason.

If you are not experienced in gravy-making, the secret to non-lumps is to put a hot liquid into a hot liquid.

If you are making turkey gravy, therefore, you get 3-4 tablespoons of the basting liquid and put it into a metal saucepan, and bring it to a fast simmer. Add 2-3 tablespoons of flour, and cook, stirring continuously for 1 or 2 minutes. But heat up 2-3 cups of turkey stock (which you made from the turkey neck and giblets) and add it gradually to the roux (the flour and fat mixture you cooked), stirring it up with a wire whisk. Add salt and white pepper to taste.

The longer you cook the roux, the darker it gets and the darker your gravy will be. Don’t let it burn.


Moved MPSIMS --> Cafe Society.

Definitely make the cranberry sauce and pies the day before. Even ones that you want to have warm for dessert can be rewarmed in the oven while you’re eating.

For cranberry sauce I recommend the following -

Put washed cranberries into a pot. Pour in orange juice until the liquid is almost to the level of the cranberries. Cook them until they’ve started to split. Add sugar to taste ( I use about 1/2 cup per bag of cranberries) and simmer for a couple of hours. To make it thicker add more sugar and/or cook longer. If you prefer it a bit runnier less sugar and/or less cooking time. Pour it into a pretty serving bowl, cover with plastic and refridgerate until serving time.

This can be made up to a week in advance.

During the day - Butterball runs a phone line for assistance. Get the number and have it handy. Even if you don’t need it having it there will give you the feeling of having someone to fall back on.

If people want to bring something have them bring desserts or side dishes, whichever you prefer to not make.

I tried a new way of making sweet potatoes this year as well. Unpeeled, slices about 1.5 inches thick. Tiny pat of butter on top of each slice in a casserole dish and bake at 350 for about 2 hours. If you don’t have room in the oven with the turkey I would skip this type of side dish and stick with stove top and/or crock pot recipes.

About that stuffing/dressing: the newest issue of Cook’s Illustrated (on shelves now!) has a bread stuffing recipe that’s baked outside the bird. But it’s baked with turkey wings on top to add that cooked-in-a-bird flavor. I only just got my copy, so I haven’t tested it yet, but it sounds *really *promising:

Essentially: cut wings at each joint and brown them thoroughly. Saute yer onions and celery and carrots and whatnot in the rendered fat (with added butter) and deglaze with stock. Mix that with the bread cubes. Whisk eggs with more broth, mix into veg/bread combo. Dump it all into your baking dish, top with the browned wings, cover tightly with foil. Place covered baking dish on a baking sheet and pop in 375 F oven for about an hour. (They suggest using the wing meat in soup.)

Uses 2 lbs. of bread to 3 lbs. of turkey wings for a 13x7 baking pan to make 10-12 servings, so I’m sure it can be scaled back.
Somebody, try it and report back!

Serve the gravy piping hot!

Everything else can be a little on the cool side. Hot gravy covers a multitude of sins.

I’ve done Thanksgiving for anywhere from 4 to 14 with a bit less equipment than you have (no crockpot, no toaster oven). As others have said, work backwards, and make sure you’re not planning to have five pots on four burners or anything like that. Put a note on each serving bowl and spoon so you know you have enough. If you can make it ahead, do so. And don’t overdo it - this is not the day to try new recipes, or decide you have to have a spread worthy of Martha Stewart. Just make your family’s favorites and serve them with joy and enthusiasm - and piping hot gravy.

You could just cheat: go to your local Safeway and ask for a Thanksgiving dinner order form. For $39.99 you get a fully cooked 10 to 12 pound turkey, 2 lbs of stuffing, 3 lbs of mashed potatoes, 24 oz of gravy, cranberry sauce, 1 dozen dinner rolls, and pumpkin pie. All you have to do is heat it up. I’ve had it before; not homemade quality by a longshot but I’ve certainly had worse meals in my life.

The best advise I can give, is to make a schedule.

10:00AM start pre-heating oven.
10:15AM put turkey in.

That sort of thing. Just go through your recipes and figure out when you need to do things. It will help break a massive, daunting task into a series of smaller doable tasks. Whatever you can do the day before, do the day before. Whatever your guests can bring, let them bring.

I make Christmas dinner every year for 12, and making a schedule and checklist really helps.

Cranberry sauce and pies the day before, potatoes in the crockpot for warmth, make a schedule, and hot gravy. I can do that!

I am in NYC so keep in mind when you are picturing a “normal sized” kitchen I am working with about a third of that space. Lots of cooking stuff but minimal space.

I would consider purchasing a premade meal but I do love to cook and I would hate to cheat at my first shot at thanksgiving.

How’s the spouse, as a cook? This would be a lot easier with two than with one.

Decide before anyone gets there whether you want anyone other than you and your spouse in the kitchen, helping to cook. If you don’t, be sure to have hors d’oeuvres, or something, outside the kitchen to keep guests from drifting into the kitchen.

The world won’t end if you use paper plates (I know this because we did it last year), and you’ll have less cleanup to do. If you do use paper plates, Chinette are good, and can be gotten from Costco. You should use real utensils, but they don’t have to be fancy silver. They can be your everyday stainless steel ones.

If someone offers to bring something, ask if there’s something they’d particularly like to bring. Or, if you know they make something that’s really good, have them bring that.

White Zinfandel goes well with turkey and traditional Thanksgiving sides. Really. You may want to offer some other wines as well, but if your family is like mine, there will be at least one person there who only drinks White Zin.

You can make bread stuffing in a food processor. Get some good quality white bread or challah from the grocery store (either sliced or unsliced will work), tear it into hunks, and let the food processor break the hunks down into crumbs. You don’t have to cut it into even cubes. The food processor can also be used to slice other things that will go into the stuffing.

Find out which dishes it “just isn’t Thanksgiving without” from the people who are coming. Dishes that aren’t on that list for anybody are prime candidates for cutting out.

This isn’t the time to get too experimental in your cooking. Most people, even if they’re very adventurous eaters at other times, just want the traditional Thanksgiving dishes on Thanksgiving.

Costco makes several kinds of good hors d’oeuvres that you can just heat up and serve.

If the stuffing is not cooked inside the bird, it can be done ahead of time and reheated in the oven. So can casseroles and roasted vegetables.

Never turn your back on a roux, once you’ve started cooking it, until you’ve put the liquid in and mixed it up. Rouxes don’t have a lot of stuff, so they have a low heat capacity. That means they can burn very quickly. Don’t ask the person who’s working on the roux to find something, or to do something else, until they’ve integrated the stock into it. (Mr. Neville can’t deal with not turning his attention away from the roux until you’ve put the liquid in, so I am the roux maker in our household)

If you use drippings from the turkey for the gravy, taste them first. If you cooked them with something like lemon, your turkey will taste good, but the drippings won’t be suitable for gravy. (Mr. Neville did this one year) If your drippings are not suitable for gravy, you can use regular chicken stock (boxed, canned, or from cubes or powder) instead. It won’t be as good, but it will be much better than no gravy at all.

Brined turkeys are more foolproof than unbrined, as DtC mentioned.

Fortunately, cookbooks have improved a lot in the past 50 years. You can find cookbooks with instructions for doing the most basic cooking tasks. Or you could look for directions online.

If you don’t have any cookbooks that have good Thanksgiving recipes, public libraries have cookbooks.

You and the spouse can also go through the checklist and decide who’s doing what ahead of time.