A plan for when to cook what so you’re Thanksgiving meal is ready to eat when you want to eat it
I’ve hosted quite a few Thanksgiving dinners, in addition to a traditional “Fakesgiving” I often throw the Friday before the real holiday. But if you’re not a veteran Thanksgiving host, preparing all that food can seem like and overwhelming task, and most Thanksgiving guides are fantastic at providing tasty recipes, while a little light on advice for the optimal time to prepare said food. What can be cooked the day before? What should be cooked in the morning? How do you make sure all your side dishes are warm when the turkey is finish, and how exactly does one cook a turkey and green bean casserole when there’s only one oven?
I received a special request from a very good friend of mine to create a Thanksgiving Field Guide for anyone needing a little assistance figuring out the ins and outs of hosting a Thanksgiving dinner (that isn’t a comical disaster). The following guide is a combinations of advice from my personal experiences and interviews with Thanksgiving experts (i.e., my mother). May it help you feel a little less hectic this holiday:
THANKSGIVING FIELD GUIDE
*A few notes on turkeys: If you buy a frozen turkey (as many of us do), it’s important to give your turkey time to fully defrost (this is exponentially more important if you plan to deep fry your turkey, as it’s the reaction between the hot oil and the ice inside the turkey that causes it to explode). The amount of time you’ll need to defrost depends on the size of the turkey so make sure you do a little research before hand so you can plan accordingly for whatever sized turkey you have. If you aren’t buying a frozen turkey, check if your style of turkey comes with any specific cooking instructions (e.g., a pre-fried turkey from somewhere like Popeye’s).
- Tuesday before Thanksgiving: There are a few things you can cook ahead of time. If you want to bake dinner rolls from scratch you can either cook them on Tuesday (or Wednesday) or partially cook them and finish them in the oven right before dinner. I’ve become a huge fan of making pecan pie for Thanksgiving, it’s usually the only time of the year I bake it. My recipes uses a pie crust with apple cider vinegar, which can be made ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator. I like to make mine on Tuesday so it’s all ready to use on Wednesday.
- Wednesday before Thanksgiving: The day before Thanksgiving is pie day! I will make anywhere from 1 to 3 pies every Thanksgiving—pecan, pumpkin, and then either an apple or blueberry pie. (Occasionally if I’m working on Wednesday and traveling after work, I’ll make these Tuesday night or hella early Wednesday morning.) Pies are okay to just hangout for the day or so before. There are few other sides that are good to cook the day before, too: Stuffing! If you’re putting stuffing inside your turkey, prep it on Wednesday. If you’re like me and like to cook it outside of the turkey, you can fully cook the stuffing on Wednesday, stick it in the fridge, and warm it up day of. Potatoes au gratin are a great alternative or addition to mashed potatoes; however, they can take a while to cook if you’re not making them from a box mixed. I recommend making them on Wednesday and heating them up day of. Although there are many grocery stores that remain open on Thanksgiving, I recommend taking the time on Wednesday to double check, make that triple check, that you have everything you need for the next day and making your last minute grocery runs for forgotten items now.
- Thanksgiving Day: If you are cooking your turkey in a more traditional manor, such as in an oven, you will need to start cooking the turkey earlier in the day. How early you ask? Well, that depends on how big the turkey is and what time you plan on eating it. In general the rule is anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes per pound depending on how cold it is. So a 20 pound turkey would take anywhere from 5 to 8 hours. A 15 pound turkey takes between 3 hours and 45 minutes and 6 hours and 15 minutes. Turkeys need sometime to sit afterwards as well, so plan to allow the turkey to sit for 30 to 45 minutes after its finished cooking. If you’re worried about your turkey getting cold within the first hour (it won’t), tent it with foil. Those 30 to 45 minutes are the key to having all your food hot at the same time. I would start your mashed potatoes a couple hours before go time (I’d start boiling the potatoes about 2 hours to an hour and a half before hand). If you start them earlier than that, they can be warmed up/ kept warm in the oven. If you’re a fan of non-canned cranberry sauce, you can start this on the stove around now as well. Between putting your turkey in the oven, and starting your mashed potatoes, you can prepare your other side dishes that need to cook in the oven, your green bean casseroles and sweet potato with marshmallow type sides. I like to have them ready and waiting to be cooked before starting my on-the-stove sides. These you can pop in the oven after you remove your turkey. Around the time you’re pulling these out of the oven, or slightly earlier depending on the size if your oven, you can pop in anything that needs to be warmed up, such as that stuffing you expertly make the day before.
Congrats! You’re ready to start serving your traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
A few alternatives to traditional dishes: My family isn’t really a stickler to having super traditional Thanksgiving foods. If you want to avoid cooking a turkey in your oven, try buying the turkey breasts instead of the full bird. You can marinade them in the fridge the day before, and cook them out on a bbq. You can also, obviously, choose to deep fry your turkey, but take a few extra steps to make sure you’re being super safe. (You could also forgo the turkey all together and makes another fun themed main dish, like pumpkin enchiladas or pumpkin lasagna. In fact, any sort of ethnic-pumpkin fusion will do nicely.) My mom, who was not a fan of the traditional sweet potato casserole, would make a lovely sweet potato and sautéed apples dish that is cooked on the stove top (one less thing to try to pop in the oven). While I loved green bean casserole as a kid, these days I tend to favor Brussel sprouts, which I like to cook on the stove top with cranberries and topped with a honey goat cheese. Check out my video below for my two favorite recipes for cooking Brussel sprouts. A soup, such as a creamy potato or butternut squash or even a corn chowder, can also make a nice addition to the menu (prep earlier and reheat). On more than one occasion have I done Thanksgiving dinner as a structured coursed meal instead of serving it family style.