My First Thanksgiving As The Chef - Help!

Bahahaha she threw up in the other thread! Got what she deserved. Some people are so whackadoodle when it comes to food safety. It’s one thing to like your eggs a little runny, it’s another thing to be actively growing a bacterial lab in your oven.

Brine the turkey. I tried it for the first time last T-day and everyone agreed that it was amazing. We decided we would never make turkey the old way again. I used Alton Brown’s method and brine recipe. We cook our bird on the grill with a rotisserie attachment and that frees up the oven for everything else and gets hubby involved with the cooking.

I agree with making a schedule. I also mise en plase the night before - cutting up and measuring ingredients. Pies are made well in advance and frozen. I make pecan and sweet potato and they freeze extremely well. Don’t try to get fancy. Make dishes that are traditional to your family that you know everyone loves already. For the last three Thanksgivings I’ve made homemade cranberry sauce. The first year no one ate it. The next two years I bought canned and served it too. The canned sauce disappeared and no one ate the homemade. I will not ever make homemade cranberry sauce again since no one wants it.

Cheat where appropriate. Use frozen rolls or biscuits or buy some from a bakery. Buy a store made pie or other dessert if you want to. I make my own gravy, but I always buy a backup jar, just in case mine flops. If someone wants to bring something, for heaven’s sake let them.

Thanksgiving dinner is probably one of the easiest meals to make technically. You can do a bird, mashed potatoes, a green bean casserole, rolls and pie and you’ve got it made. I should say that you should try not to make too many things. Don’t go overboard. You’ll just find yourself with a ton of leftovers and end up stressed out because you don’t have enough oven space or dishes or table space. No one will care if you don’t have 3 different casseroles and 4 desserts.

I wish you the best of luck!

For only 5-8 people, do you need a whole turkey? Could you get by with maybe a turkey breast and a smallish ham?

Or buy the turkey already cooked…lots of places offer them, with or without sides. Even fried if you’re adventurous. Then you can focus on the sides/desserts, while knowing the main attraction is handled.

One of my favorite pictures is of me, as a 45 year old male, in 2002, the year my mom announced that she just didn’t feel like cooking Thanksgiving dinner that year, beaming at a table filled with Thanksgiving food for eight that I’d made all by myself. (Except, frankly, for the gravy. I just can’t make gravy. Dunno why. Just can’t. Mom dragged herself off the couch and showed me step by step. I still can’t make gravy.)

I repeated the stunt (only for four) for Canadian Thanksgiving in 2007. (Guess who made the gravy?)

I didn’t do anything ahead of time except make sure I had a complete shopping list, and that everything on the shopping list, was, in fact, shopped for. I was very busy starting from about 6am.

Don’t get excited about it, that’s my main suggestion. Just treat it like an ordinary meal, and if anything has to come in late, let it be the turkey. You can always carve off the outer edges and stick it back in the oven till people are ready for seconds.

Oh you can do this, you really can.

There’s a lot of good advice here, the only thing I can think to add is make sure everyone gets in on the action so it becomes a group effort. I know it might seem easier to kick everyone out of the kitchen so you can focus, but a perfect meal is less important than a fine family memory so ask everyone to come early and put them all to work.

Also start pouring the wine early :smiley:

I will be watching this thread as I am doing Thanksgiving dinner this year for the first time, too! For five, maybe 6 if my sister brings a date. I’m moving into a house and unfortunately, last Turkey Day involved a GIANT fight with my mother over who would make what. (I mean giant ugly fight.) So when my mom said "Well Good!! You will be in a house–YOU can cook the dinner this year, " I said sure. I’m determined to show her that it doesn’t have to be a dramafest.

I already have some things planned. I’ll only be doing a turkey breast (my dad is a traditionalist). My mom and sister are pescatarians (no meat except seafood) and the SO has agreed to grill salmon. That and a several sides (which I’m already collecting recipes for) and I think I’ll be okay.

I have already picked up a few good tips, from here too!

Thirded (or fourthed). Brining is always a hit, and it gives you a good extra bit margin of error against overcooking. If you have the time to do it, it will make the roast so much more stress-free. You have to overshoot by quite a bit to screw up a brined turkey.

Thanksgiving dinner is one of my favorite (and most fun) meals to cook (and I don’t even really like turkey that much.) I keep the menu simple with turkey (usually brined, but not always), gravy made from drippings and turkey stock from some extra turkey meat I buy just for the occasion, pumpkin/butternut squash/or sweet potato pie, long & slow cooked green beans (nobody I know actually likes the Campbells green bean casserole–and al dente green beans just don’t go with Thanksgiving in my mind.) Homemade cranberry sauce, as well as some canned stuff if we have it around. And mashed potatoes, of course. And usually roasted root vegetables with a few sprigs of thyme and/or rosemary. I keep it traditional for Thanksgiving. About as crazy as we’ve ever gone is that a couple of years we smoked the turkey instead of roasting it. It’s all pretty straightforward if you’re a decent cook with, just like everyone said, time management being the key.

Of all the things I prep ahead (all chopping, slicing, some baking, and many other things) I never thought to make the giblet stock the day before. This is brilliant, thank you! One less burner occupied!

I wholeheartedly agree with your lists, lists, lists

Friends used to mock my Thanksgiving schedule, broken into 5 minute intervals, covering Wednesday and Thursday, until they started doing their own Thanksgivings and wanted to borrow my list template. No more mocking! Someday I am going to make it interactive, so you can just plug in what time you want dinner served and it will fill in all the times for you. This is the stuff dreams are made of!

You’d be rich!


The biggest thing I’ve found that helps things run smoothly is to figure out in advance what your work triangle’s booty number is, and enforce that rather strictly. The size of the kitchen in and of itself is not really relevant to this calculation–our kitchen is huge and can hold tons of people, but it’s pretty much a two-booty workspace, three if you’re used to cooking together and are fairly well on the same page about what’s going on. Any more than that, and you’re constantly bumping booties and tripping over feet trying to move around the work triangle.

This is, sadly, something we had to learn the hard way. Our first Thanksgiving hosting, we had all the cooking under control, up until his mom, grandmother, and aunt all three piled into the space between our stove and sink to wash dishes. It was really, really, awful–between tripping over them constantly and them snatching up every dish you sat down for 15 seconds, we couldn’t get anything accomplished. In subsequent years we’ve corralled everyone in the more open part of the kitchen and let them do things like chopping veggies and making us drinks and setting up things in the dining room, and everything has gone much simpler.

The other thing that has made a huge difference is a book that I just adore called Happy Holidays from the Diva of Do-Ahead. It sets out all these sample menus for various holidays and breaks them all down by what can be done ahead of time and how far out. She even has a detailed time line for doing it all. Her Thanksgiving plan is such that all you really have to do the day of is to roast the turkey, make the gravy, bake the rolls, and reheat the sides. It smooths the path quite a lot.

Oh, yes! I do this when I bake a chicken. Whole cloves of garlic under the skin is also fantastic, and then the gravy is extra good. I also like to add a quartered onion or two into the cavity for the express purpose of gravy flavoring.

If you’re a competent cook but just haven’t done the turkey thing before, check out Alton Brown’s thanksgiving episode (transcript at and you can usually find the video clips on youtube.) I am a vegetarian with no passed-down familial knowledge of turkey-cooking and I managed to turn it out perfectly the first time following his method (which includes brining and stuffing the cavity with aromatics for extra flavor).

There’s a follow-up good eats episode dealing with thanksgiving leftovers which you might need, too!

I changed Alton’s flavorings in the brine. It was very tasty for just the turkey, but when I wanted to use the leftover meat for other recipes, the ginger and allspice made it too “spicy” or something. I just use salt and sugar and peppercorns. After all, the point is to brine it!

I also like to make an herb butter and put it under the skin. Rosemary, thyme and sage leaves, chopped up fine and mixed with butter. It really just adds flavor, as the breast is already moist from the brining.

A few hints to add to the excellent ones you’ve already received:

Get yourself one of those disposable roasting pans, to make cleanup easier. It will need some support in the oven - my pizza stone came with a metal rack/handle which I use under the pan. If you don’t have anything like that, be super-careful when removing the pan from the oven.

Place a small rack thingy under the turkey, and rub some olive oil or melted butter all over the skin. Baste frequently. Quarter and core an apple, and place the apple in the cavity (cook your stuffing separately) along with any herbs you would like to use. And for goodness sake, do not cover the bird with foil and remove the foil for the last half hour like my mom used to do – you end up with dried-out, steamed meat. If you can get a kosher turkey, by all means buy it, but if you do, don’t brine it as it’s already partially brined.

5 - 8 people won’t be that bad. Most side dishes can be cooked as soon as you put the turkey in (or even the day before) and reheated in the oven when the turkey comes out.

I have a 4 burner gas range and the typical turkey menu I make would be
The Turkey & stuffing (or a whole breast)
Extra stuffing on the side
Mashed potatoes
Butternut squash
Sweet potatoes
Creamed onions
Green bean casserole
Jellied cranberry sauce out of the can
Put the turkey in.

Peel and boil the potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash each in their own saucepans, a 4 quart pan for each should be big enough. When done, mash 'em up with butter, salt & pepper (& milk for the potatoes). Dump it all into disposable aluminum pans. Cover and refrigerate or just leave 'em out if it’s going to be a couple hours or less. Same thing with extra stuffing - into a throwaway pan, unless it’s “raw” stuffing, in which case hopefully it’ll fit in the oven with the turkey.

The green bean casserole either has to fit in the oven with the bird, or else you have to make it ahead of time. If you make it ahead of time, and you have a Pyrex casserole with a lid that’ll fit in your microwave, excellent, if not, it can get reheated with the other vegs.

Make the hors doeuvres.

When the turkey’s done, take it out and put in all the side dishes. If they’ve been in the fridge, it’ll take longer than you think to reheat everything, leave 30 mins at about 300. Stir the vegs once or twice to reheat thoroughly.

While the vegs are reheating, make the gravy and the creamed onions.

If you’re a stickler for the turkey being hot, slice it and stick it in the oven for the last 5 - 10 mins while the vegs are reheating.

Transfer everything to serving dishes.


You forgot the rolls!

No prob, everybody forgets the rolls. Nobody’ll miss 'em.

Quantities of the side dishes are the tricky part, it depends on whether you want a ton of leftovers or not. For not a lot of leftovers, figure 1 potato, half a sweet potato, 1 squash, 1 jar of onions, 2 cans of green beans (scale the standard recipe), 1 large can of cranberry sauce for the above recipe.

Have plenty of butter. Get a couple of jars of good turkey gravy in case something goes wrong. Don’t get overly drunk.

A friend at work mentioned those cooking bags as a great thing for “first-timers.” It’s a fairly good idea, as the bird won’t dry out or get overly browned before it’s done, which is really the tricky thing. They also catch all the juices and make gravy and clean up much easier. Don’t buy the dollar store ones though, as they tend to burn through - quality only for this.

The other really tricky bit is making sure the bird is thoroughly thawed if you bought a frozen one. It takes four to five days in the fridge, so plan accordingly. If the bird isn’t thawed, brining will save you, as will baking it in one of those bags.

And has anybody mentioned that they also hide giblets in the neck cavity? Tricky bastards! :wink:

Also, I strongly recommend against stuffing the bird if it’s your very first turkey. Stuffing is the #1 way people get sick, and it really increases the uncertainty in the cooking time.

Yes! Check all cavities before roasting! I have retrieved a package or two of giblets from the neck of a bird roasted by someone else.

No!!! No [del]wire hangers[/del] roasting bags!

Roasting bags don’t actually roast the turkey, they steam it. The meat stays moist, yes, but the texture gets ooky. The white meat, especially–it gets almost mealy, which is just plain wrong for a turkey. Those damn bags are the reason I always hate, hate, hated white meat as a kid. Just throw the thing in the oven, really. There’s no such thing as over-browning a turkey ime, provided it’s not actually black, and if you’ve brined it the meat’s not going to dry out anyhow.

Preach it!!

Yeah, the pan’s easier to clean. The turkey might need to be washed however, if you’re like my mother trying them for the first time - she dropped the turkey on the floor when she was trying to get it out of the bag. I’ve since learned that you don’t try to slide the thing out of the intact bag - you just slit the bag and let the drippings pour into the roasting pan, then you can get the bird out with your normal utensils.

The drippings aren’t flavorful, and the skin is nasty pale and icky.

We’ve been known to use the bags when cooking just a turkey breast that we don’t much care about. And the roasting bags are one option for brining (the recipe we use has instructions for using two bags, one inside the other, to hold the bird and the brine).

A plain old turkey is actually the easiest part of the meal. Even if you just get the bird from the store, thaw (if needed), rinse, and dump it in the roasting pain without doing anything else to it, it’ll taste decent. Most of them have those popup timers and when those pop, it’s done and not overcooked. Even if you brine the bird, which is a bit of work beforehand, “the day of” you just dump the brine. maybe give the bird a quick rinse, then you can just plop it into the pan.

Speaking of brining: yes, the meat won’t dry out even if you overcook the bird a bit. And there’ll be plenty of drippings for gravy-making (I never need to use stock in making the gravy). Basically a little prep work a day or so in advance, and the bird is foolproof.

At my house we buy the “brown 'n serve” rolls, and traditionally refer to them as “burn 'n serve” rolls because we forget them in the oven! :smack: