Move over Christmas, Thanksgiving takes the cake (or turkey) for our favorite holiday; because, you know, comfort food! Putting together a massive and delicious spread can be a daunting task, especially if you’ve never done it before. But it doesn’t have to be. Our resident experts share their best Thanksgiving tips for your best dinner yet.
Tips For Planning
Plan Ahead – Planning ahead and starting early is key. Now is not the time to go with the flow, unless you want to end up with a mess on your hands. Start with a list that takes the number of people, dishes you plan to make, dietary preferences (don’t forget the vegetarians and vegans!), oven space, available pans, etc. into consideration and delegate if needed. One person shouldn’t be in charge of making the whole meal (or cleaning up), so don’t be afraid to ask guests to bring something. If you have kitchen limitations, make items ahead of time or serve dishes that don’t need to be baked in the oven. The Kitchn has a great guide to help out with planning and creating a Thanksgiving timeline.
Shop Early – Try to shop early and place your orders ahead of time (turkey, baked goods, desserts, etc) if you can. Trying to get everything the day before at the grocery store is a recipe for disaster, the store is busy, the selection is picked over, and everyone is in a frenzy. Save yourself the headache and create two shopping lists; one with essentials that are shelf-stable and can be purchased a week or two ahead of time, and the other with everything else needed that you can purchase a few days before Thanksgiving. Also, don’t forget to make sure your kitchen pantry is good to go with the necessary cooking pans, thermometer, baster, and other goodies for turkey day.
PRO TIP: Do all of your dishes the night before to ensure everything is clean and you aren’t left digging around for the pie server or having to wash the carving knife.
Tips For The Turkey
Roasted, grilled, smoked, deep-fried, slow cooked, wet brined, dry brined, whole, cut up, spatchcock… the options for bird are endless— and confusing. Let’s break it all down.
- Cooking Methods –
- Roasted – This classic method results in a great tasting bird, but having the oven tied up for 4 hours is a major downfall, and if prepared incorrectly, can yield dry, flavorless meat.
- Air-fried – If you’re cooking a smaller bird, consider air frying it. Similar to a convection oven, this process will create crispy skin that everyone loves.
- Slow cooked – This is one of the best ways to cook turkey breast if you like to keep it juicy and tender. While we don’t recommend cooking the entire bird in a crockpot, smaller pieces such as legs or breasts do just fine. Just be sure to temp it before serving.
- Grilled – Cold temps outside shouldn’t scare you away from grilling! This method imparts great flavor into the meat and frees up your oven— win-win.
- Deep-fried – Some people say once you have deep-fried turkey you won’t go back. Crispy skin, juicy interior— yum. However, there are a lot of precautions when cooking with hot oil to keep in mind: only attempt outside, away from buildings and flammable materials, don’t overfill the oil, and keep a fire extinguisher handy just in case.
- Smoked – The prime choice for pit-master pros and amateurs alike. This method is slow, but can yield beautiful and tasty results. Low and slow my friend.
- Instant-Pot – The device everyone loves to hate. However, we don’t hate that it only takes an hour to cook a turkey in this thing. Not to mention can pull double or triple duty by being able to quickly make other dishes such as gravy or potatoes in a quarter of the time. As for the flavor, we can’t attest to that.
- Brining – If you aren’t brining your turkey, you need to start. Brining adds mega flavor to every inch of your bird. Just be sure to plan ahead. Both methods take 24-48 hours.
- Dry-brining – The simplest method using a salt-based rub to draw out moisture on the skin. We like using the combination of salt, sugar, pepper, and sage or thyme. Rub the bird with the mixture being sure to get under the skin as well, then cover and place in the fridge for 24-48 hours. Uncover and leave in the fridge for an additional 8-12 hours before cooking to really dry out the skin. Cook in your preferred method. Dry brining results in nice crispy skin and flavorful meat.
- Wet brining – This method is a little more challenging because the entire bird needs to be submerged in a salt water liquid. A wet brine will not only add mega flavor, it also changes the texture of the meat making it super tender and juicy. However, if you’re planning on making gravy from the drippings, skip the wet brine because the juices that end up in the bottom of the pan won’t have the concentration of flavor since it’s mostly just water.
- Whole vs. Cut Up vs. Spatchcock
- Whole – The classic preparation, enough said.
- Cut-up – Different parts of the turkey cook at different amounts of time. Instead of roasting the turkey whole, cut up the bird into legs, thighs, and breasts. It cooks much faster and most importantly, it cooks nice and even…nothing gets overcooked.
- Spatchcock – The best of both worlds. Crispy golden skin and perfectly-cooked tender legs and drumsticks, and a breast that isn’t dried out. All you need to do is use a pair of shears to snip the spine from the turkey and flatten it, then roast it. You’ll have a perfect bird in about an hour.
Chef Shaun’s Thanksgiving Turkey
If you can’t deep fry your turkey definitely brine it in a salt water solution the night before. Then drain it and pat it dry. Stuff the skin with a compound bacon fat herb butter. Baste it every 20-30 minutes in its drippings while roasting. Cook uncovered on high heat for the last 30 minutes or so for crisp skin. Splurge on high quality ingredients. Make the classics but use bad for you stuff like heavy cream and lots of butter. It’s only once a year— treat yo’ self.
Tips For The Food & Beverages
Stuffing – This might be controversial, but we repeat— don’t cook the stuffing inside the turkey! In order to fully cook the stuffing completely, the bird will be overcooked. No one likes a dry bird or raw stuffing. Save yourself the hassle and just cook them separately. Use turkey stock in the stuffing for that cooked-in-the-bird flavor.
Cranberry Sauce – Gone are the days of stiff jelly-like canned cranberry sauce that no one eats. It’s super easy to make or you can fancy up the wide variety of store bought versions a little by adding a little booze or orange zest. Bourbon or port both work great and adds an extra depth of flavor.
Gravy – We love gravy (who doesn’t?). Here’s the trick to making it epic— make a rich stock. Buy an extra turkey a week or two early (when they’re on deep discount). Roast it as usual, and then take the whole bird and make a stock out of it with carrots, celery, onions, bay leaves, etc. After it reduces by half, strain out the remaining liquid, then continue to reduce it down to about 5-6 cups of intensely flavored turkey glacé (thick stock). You can then freeze it until you need it to make your “greatest turkey gravy ever” on Thanksgiving Day. It also pays to have extra chicken or turkey stock on hand. It can be used to thin out gravy, moisten a dry bird or stuffing.
Breads and Desserts – You don’t have to make everything from scratch! Limit your stress levels by making simple swaps with store-bought items. Pie crusts, puff pastry, rolls, and desserts are a great place to start. Your local bakery is your friend.
Consider Going Non-Traditional – Don’t get us wrong, we love the traditional Thanksgiving foods, but let’s face it, they can be utterly boring. Try serving a show-stopping rack of lamb, vegetarian alternative or updated sides. You probably won’t even miss the turkey or aunt Mary’s soggy green bean casserole. Not ready to ditch the bird? Try serving a second entrée instead or throwing in a new take on an old favorite. You never know, trying something new with your family could spark new traditions.
Beverages – Don’t stress about finding the perfect pairings, here are a few of our favorite tried and true options.
- Bubbles – A perfect way to start the holiday. Prosecco is awesome for larger groups. It’s often more budget friendly and generally dry enough for champagne fans but not overly dry for guests who don’t usually drink sparkling wine. Try dropping some cranberries, a twist of orange (perhaps a little orange or vanilla liqueur) or herb sprig into the glass to give it a festive flair!
- Crowd Pleasing Whites – Viognier is a delightful choice for Thanksgiving because it is medium in body and easy in sweetness, making it a perfect pairing for food and crowd pleaser. Chablis is also an excellent choice. Chablis has the perfect amount of mineralogy and acid to cut through rich thanksgiving foods, but not too much so that it offends your guest’s palates. If you’re looking for something from Michigan, the Semi-Dry Riesling from Shady Lane Cellars is a fan-favorite.
- Red wine everyone will love – Pinot Noir is maybe too obvious of a choice BUT obvious for a reason – pinot noir pairs perfectly with a Thanksgiving feast. I suggest looking for mountain fruit pinot. It will be delicate and bright enough for the food while also providing a sturdy structure for your guests. Pinot Noir grapes from mountain fruit often have thicker skins than valley floor vines and that leads to more structured juice. French pinot noir can offer similar structure too. Gamay is also a classic – easy to drink, intense and exciting enough to pair with the whole meal while not challenging your palate or your purse. A couple of options we love are a rosé pinot noir from Black Star Farms (also Michigan), and a Sonoma County, California Pinot Noir from Rodney Strong Winery.
- Beer – Don’t forget the beer lovers! Pick up a growler or 4-pack of B.O.B.’s Beer. Brewer John has a little something for everyone from rich porters to surprising seasonal flavors perfect for your feast.
Tips For The Table
Creating a beautiful table – The best way to set the mood for any event is starting with a beautiful table. If you want that wow-factor for your table-scape without a lot of fuss, choose a colorful runner or tablecloth. Accent with a simple placement of flowers, pumpkins, seasonal produce or greenery paired with a couple of candles for a warm, inviting and festive look. Add in some cloth napkins for a polished look without breaking the bank.
Set the table the day before- If you’re worried about running out of time on Thanksgiving, set the table the day before so you don’t have to worry about it. Plus it looks great when guests arrive.
PRO TIP: Don’t skip breakfast. Make sure you are well fueled and energized for your cooking marathon and to avoid snacking throughout the day.
Tips for Making Memories
Throw a Friends-giving. – Thanksgiving isn’t just for your blood relatives. Friends are the family you choose, celebrate with them. Choose a day and have everyone bring a dish to pass.
Don’t sweat the small stuff – Don’t stress about small details of the day or lose sight of what the holiday is really about; spending time with those you love. Use Thanksgiving as a time to reflect on life’s blessings not the stresses.
Make New Memories – Keep traditions strong and impart the heritage of your family and friends in the preparation. Make it special and make memories. At the core of it all is the company and the experiences. If you focus too much on making it perfect, you’ll miss out on what these days are about. Just enjoy it and above all have fun.
What are some of your best Thanksgiving tips? Share them below!