My First Thanksgiving As The Chef - Help!

As others have said, plan backwards from dinnertime. Let other people bring food and help.

Plan out exactly what will be cooking where. This avoids the “but THIS was supposed to be in the oven now!” issues, plus gives you a to-do list to work from on the day. Check your baking dishes and see what can fit in on multiple shelves; do a dry run if possible. Remember, cooking temps are only a guideline, not firm rules.

Leave a fair amount of extra time, for the stuff that doesn’t work as planned. Do as much in advance as possible, because the last minute stuff will take way more time than you’ve planned for.

Plan out all of your serving ware, dinner ware, flat ware, etc. I mean, get it all out, make sure it’s in good shape, make sure you have a serving spoon for everything and enough forks and glasses, like that. Set the table early, to have that out of the way.

Lots of things can be made ahead and reheated as necessary. Desserts can all be made a couple of days in advance. Cranberry sauce, too. Most veggies can be done the day before and reheated in the oven or microwave. Rolls can be purchased or made ahead and reheated in the oven or toaster oven.

Use the turkey resting time to reheat everything to go on the table. Resting time is at least 30 minutes. Sometimes it’s an hour, if that’s what it takes. Don’t worry about it, the turkey will be fine. If you’ve got it covered in foil, it will stay warm for an amazingly long time. Tuck a towel over it if you’re worried.

You can even make gravy ahead of time. Either use chicken stock/drippings (really, I doubt anyone will know the difference) or boil your giblets & such in advance and use that to make the gravy. If you want to get gung-ho, add your defatted roasting juice to the gravy at the last minute.

Most of all, don’t sweat it too much. It’s family, what are they gonna do, kick you out? Try to keep your sense of humor, it will help.

Dinner for 5-8’s not so bad. We’ve been doing Tday for 15-20 the last few years. Man, I miss my double-oven sometimes! My equipment list is pretty close to yours, except trade the toaster oven and microwave for a large microwave/convection combo. I do have a large kitchen, which helps. But it’s definitely do-able with what you’ve got.

I saw this and am intrigued. What I can’t figure it out is where the hell you buy 3 pounds of turkey wings. :stuck_out_tongue:

Already lots of help. Just wanted to mention this thread:

A Few Thanksgiving Tips

I have followed most of the advice in it for events besides Thanksgiving since **fifty-six **originally posted it, especially numbers 4 and 6 which.

I do 1 (ONE) experimental dish a year. Last year we found out nobody likes fresh green beans in their casseroles, two years ago we found out everybody loves my butternut squash soup. If you’re considering trying something new, limit it to one item.

Lots of good tips here!

Lists, lists, lists!

Try to do a lot of stuff the day before. I chop my onions and celery for the dressing the day before. I boil my giblets for gravy stock the day before. I make pies and brownies the day before. You can make your crudite the day before, too.

Make sure you have lots of dishtowels. I swear I go through about ten of them! Also, my husband has been told (nicely!) to wash anything that is in the sink. That’s his job.

I love the tip about labeling your serving bowls. I use post-it notes. And as it’s just family, sometimes I serve out of the cooking pot! We line up and go down the counter to serve ourselves, since there’s no room on the table.

I highly recommend brining the turkey. I do mine in a cooler the night before, and make sure there is enough iced brine to cover the bird.

Find out, before you start planning any menus, whether anyone has any dietary restrictions. They may assume, because you’re family, that you know if they have any dietary restrictions and, if so, what they are. Try to offer at least a few dishes for everybody, whatever their dietary restrictions are.

Don’t dress up before you start cooking, unless you’re a much neater cook than I am. You want something machine-washable for cooking in. If you want to dress up for dinner, change after you’ve done most of the cooking.

Make sure you’ve got enough trivets (or something like them) to put dishes on when they come out of the oven.

It’s tempting to use unused stove burners as extra counter space. Don’t, especially if you have someone in your house (yes, YOU, honey) who tends to leave stove burners on low to keep food warm. Pyrex glass dishes can literally explode if put on a hot burner. This is much less cool than it sounds, especially if you have to clean it up.

Follow basic food safety rules to avoid cross-contamination:

If you get a frozen turkey, don’t thaw it at room temperature. Do it either in the refrigerator (making sure you’ve got something under it to catch anything that drips out as it thaws) or in cold water.

Wash your hands after handling the turkey, before you touch anything else. Alternatively, you could use disposable gloves and throw them out after handling the turkey.

Don’t use utensils or cutting boards that have touched the raw turkey with anything else. Wash them in the dishwasher, if possible.

If you’re going to cook the stuffing in the turkey, don’t put the stuffing in the turkey in advance. That gives bacteria a chance to grow in it. Put the stuffing in right before you roast the turkey.

It always takes longer than you think it will. Estimates of prep time in cookbooks aren’t always accurate, either.

My grocery store sells them, probably extras from cuts like stand-alone breasts. I like to buy a package or two and make stock for gravy a couple of days ahead of time. Ask your meat guy.

Lump-free gravy is also found with the wonder of Wondra flour. It’s in a white and pale blue box near the other flours and baking stuff. Buy it NOW, since Sam Sifton says to use it every year, so no doubt it’s gone by the first week of November in NYC!

Definitely enlist the hubby to clean up as you go.

pbbth, (every-time I read your name I hear a raspberry sound)

You will do well, I am sure…you have LOTS of good advice here!

I have cooked for from 1- 1000…and the key is in the prep work and timing.

If you have a few extra $$ to spend you may wanna get a Roaster oven. I have seen some pretty magnificent birds cooked in one and it would free up your oven for side dishes and other baking. They also come in VERY handy at other times of the year. (less than 60$)

Roaster Oven

When I cook a whole bird I slide my hand under the breast skin and meat…then I place herbs in a pattern…usually sage and rosemary…when the skin cooks and browns it becomes translucent thus showing the herbs and imparting a great flavor throughout the bird…

Good luck!

+1 on all the above, especially the whole “use the crockpot to keep the mashed taters warm”. I start in on it once the turkey goes in the oven, and when it’s ready it goes into the crock pot. It will keep just fine for many hours.

This one thing made my Thanksgiving prep perfect. I knew I could make the stuffing and other sides in advance and bake them off that day, I knew to make the cranberry sauce days ahead, but trying to make mashed potatoes and also gravy last minute was a little too much at once. Now as the turkey rests all I need to do is heat up sides and deal with gravy.

Good, then my work here is done! :slight_smile:

I don’t have the space or money for an extra oven unfortunately but I will keep it in mind for next year!

I’ve posted this recipe before for make-ahead gravy. This can be done a week ahead of time, if you wish, but be aware that this makes three quarts:

Turkey Gravy in Advance

To avoid the last-minute panic on Thanksgiving, it’s an easy matter to make gravy in advance of the day. The added benefit is extra turkey meat, but you won’t have any giblets to add.

For the stock:
4 TBSP butter (perhaps more)
6 turkey legs or other dark meat parts (about 6 pounds)
salt and pepper
1 medium onion, peeled, stuck with 3 cloves
3 large carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
3 stalks celery with leaves, trimmed, cut into chunks
2 bay leaves
12 black peppercorns
1 cup water

For gravy:
12 TBSP flour
salt and pepper

Heat oven to 375. Melt 4 TBSP butter. Sprinkle turkey parts with salt and pepper, place in roasting pan and brush with melted butter. Roast 2 hours, basing with butter every 20 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool a bit and remove most of the meat from the bones. Discard skin. RESERVE THE FAT/DRIPPINGS IN THE PAN.

Transfer bones to stockpot, set roasting pan aside. Add onion, carrots, celery, bay leaves and peppercorns to stockpot. Add cold water just to cover. Bring to simmer and cook, mostly covered, about 6 hours.

Place roasting pan on stove and bring juices to a simmer over low heat. Pour in water to deglaze the pan, stirring and scraping. Pour all liquid into a bowl and refrigerate. When liquid is cool, lift of top layer of fat and reserve. Add deglazing liquid to stockpot.

Melt 12 TBSP reserved turkey fat in a skillet over medium heat. Use additional butter, if necessary. Gradually whisk in the flour. Cook until golden brown and toasty smelling, 3-5 minutes or longer.

Whisk in a small amount of stock, then add remainder more quickly and whisk until smooth. Simmer, continually whisking, until thickened. Thin if necessary. Season with salt and pepper. If desired, whisk in a few tablespoons cold butter to smooth and enrich.

Yields 3 quarts. Can be frozen for up to a month.

Caterer here…

Well, I was also going to suggest a roaster oven, but I see it’s been mentioned.

My other thought which you might think was sacrilege but would definitely make your life much easier is to prepare the turkey a day or so in advance and reheat it on Thanksgiving day. This will save oven space and also eliminate a large amount of dishes if the bird is already carved and dealt with ahead of time.

Actually you want the turkey in the oven quite a bit earlier than that. While there’s a certain Norman Rockwell-esque charm to the idea of bringing a huge steaming golden-brown turkey, whole, to the table to carve right there… that isn’t terribly practical. I try to have the bird done at least an hour before I have any hope of serving dinner. How else would I get the pan deglazed for gravy-making??? This also gives you some extra time in case the bird takes a little longer to cook than you had expected. The bird gets carved up and onto a platter, and the carcass is put aside somewhere for later soupmaking. Much tidier when everyone is going around the serving table (the kitchen island in our case) trying to load up their plates.

We’ve done dinner for a similar number of people (I think our max was 13) in a similarly-equipped kitchen.

I agree you do have to sort of work backwards from the target mealtime. Figure out everything you’re going to prepare, and oven temps needed - we have double ovens and sometimes have 4 different things at 4 different temps, that all need to be reheated… we just pick 2 temps and hope they all turn out OK :).

Let people bring as much as possible. If nothing else, this will reduce the day-of madness. Plus everyone likes to show off their specialties. We typically do the turkey, the stuffing, maybe one veg, maybe one dessert, and an appetizer, and have everyone else bring sides / desserts.

Oh - and the microwave is DEFINITELY the biggest bottleneck! We’ve usually got 3-4 things that need to get taken care of in that at the last minute.

Maybe I’ll see about replacing our over-the-stove one before Thanksgiving (it’s been dead for years). That way we’ll have two working microwaves.

I have used instant mashed potatoes, and no one has ever complained.

Just don’t be like my aunt. Don’t cook your turkey so low it doesn’t brown. Don’t make your stuffing with Wonderbread (and precious little else). Don’t serve boiled cauliflower as the only vegetable side.



My mom has been cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 30 years now, my grandma probably for 60.

In the last few years, both of them have taken to cooking the turkey days beforehand, slicing it, and freezing it. I think they freeze it in chicken broth. No one at their dinners has ever said “gee, I wish we could have all sat here and watched someone carve a turkey today.” More like “man, this turkey is great and you’re so smart for doing it the easy way!”

IMHO it comes out being very moist. Don’t quote me on this but I know I’ve heard someone explain (maybe Alton Brown?) about ice crystals penetrating and thus tenderizing the meat. When the ice is made of chicken broth, it’s extra good - a frozen brine.

My mom pre-makes a LOT of stuff for holiday meals now, and freezes it. You freeze it un-cooked, thaw it the night before, and pop it all in the oven on a schedule. Pies, casseroles…this can all be done ahead of time.

You live in an apartment, this is your first Thanksgiving, you want to impress your relatives and new in-laws. Turkey is too risky. Do it the easy way.

ETA: Mom has been using the 30 Day Gourmet cookbooks for a long time now. I see their Holiday Cooking eBook has recipes for turkey and gravy, and a ton of other stuff you can make beforehand and freeze. I’ve never had a problem with anything mom cooks from those recipes. Quite good!

If $100 isn’t a budget buster for you, consider getting one of these:

My oven died the weekend before thanksgiving last year and I bought one of these on a prayer. It has been just great, and made a wonderful Turkey - best I’ve ever cooked. It frees up your oven, and looks utterly wonderful out on the counter with that yummy turkey roasting in it.

It also stores away fairly small when you’re not using it. But I haven’t stopped using it.

I don’t know if that’s the best brand out there, so shop around. This is the one I’ve got.

Whatever you do, don’t do what my aunt did the last time I was there on Thanksgiving.

If you’re short on time, space, or kitchen help, it’s not the end of the world to do something like order a pie from the bakery. But really, the size group you’re talking about should be doable for most semi-experienced home cooks, especially if you delegate a few dishes. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Thanksgiving dinner that wasn’t at least partially potluck.