Today’s Recipes: Thanksgiving Dinner Planning and Golden Brown Turkey Stock.
Thanksgiving is a my favorite holiday. I love the cool, crisp weather, the football, the focus on gratitude, and of course all the food. If there is one meal that says comfort food to me, it is the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey, dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes – I could eat them every day! But the labor that goes into that one meal is enough to daunt even the most experienced cooks.
For the next two weeks I’ll be sharing recipes perfect for a dinner that you can prepare without reducing you to tears. With lots of hints and tips all throughout so that you will be confident on Thanksgiving Day. Some parts can be made a week or two in advance so that the last minute requirements can be minimized. The following week will be dedicated to recipes that utilize Thanksgiving leftovers.
I’m going to start with some advice for party planning that I’ve gathered over the years. Many mistakes, ruined dishes, and overcooked turkeys have yielded a plethora of information that will hopefully save you from the same frustrations. And following that is a recipe for turkey stock that is the foundation for your dressing, gravy, and soup. So, without further ado, let’s get into planning for your best Thanksgiving ever!
Thanksgiving Dinner Planning
It doesn’t matter if I am having another couple over for dinner, throwing a summer barbecue, or hosting a major holiday dinner, I have a certain method that I use every time. I start planning my menu a few weeks ahead. I figure out what I will need to buy, go through the recipes and find out what can be done ahead, and plan out my dinner table. It may seem to be overkill, but it works every time and I can relax and enjoy my guests when they arrive. After many years of making Thanksgiving dinners, I’ve learned some very valuable lessons and am happy to share them with you:
|Figure out who is coming and send invitations. Ask if anyone has any dietary allergies or restrictions that you need to be aware of. Always anticipate at least one vegetarian at your table, and then you’re ready if someone forgets to mention it ahead of time.|
|Decide on your menu. Choose dishes that can be made or prepped ahead. I tend to get carried away and want to make far too many recipes, and then I have to go back through and eliminate a bunch of them. Remember that a few really delicious dishes are much more effective than a dozen that are mediocre. And don’t be afraid to ask people to bring something. Everyone loves to share a favorite recipe and if they don’t cook, they can bring bread, paper goods, wine, drinks, etc.|
|Contrary to popular opinion, I do not make all the food on Thanksgiving myself. When you are planning what to make, don’t overwhelm yourself. If you live near a great gourmet grocery store that sells prepared foods (like Whole Foods) take advantage of the things they make really well. Limit the number of dishes so that you can relax and enjoy your party!|
|Clean out and organize your cupboards, pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Plan on eating your way through your freezer in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. This is the perfect time to throw out the old and buy new baking ingredients – dry yeast, butter, shortening, baking soda, baking powder, cornstarch, salt, sugar, flour, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, etc. They lose a lot of their flavor and strength after a year.|
|Remember that you will have a lot of fresh ingredients that need to be refrigerated. The turkey will take up an enormous amount of space, so you may have to rearrange your refrigerator shelves to accommodate it. If you don’t already own a set of storage containers that stack easily, consider buying some. They can be found inexpensively at most warehouse stores. They will help you store ingredients and have parts of your meal that have been made ahead.|
|Write out a list of all the ingredients needed for each recipe. Check to see which ones you already have, which can be bought far in advance (canned goods, etc.) and which ones must be bought at the last minute (produce, the turkey, etc.). Do the bulk of your shopping at least a week in advance to avoid the crowds. Then you will only have a few things to pick up at the last minute!|
|Go through each recipe and figure out what equipment you need to complete each. Are your knives sharp? Are all your appliances in working order? Does anything need to be replaced or repaired? Make notes on the recipes – what you need for each, which ingredients will be added at the same time (so you can put them all in the same bowl when prepping), what can be prepped ahead, and what will need to be done at the last minute.|
|Print out copies of all your recipes. Many people put them in a binder to keep them organized, but I like to tape them up on my kitchen cupboards. They are out of the way, at eye level, and I don’t lose the recipes. I also put up a copy of my to-do list and check things off as they are finished.|
|Set your table up to a week ahead of time. Make sure your linens are clean and freshly ironed and silver pieces are polished. If you will be passing food at the table, set out all of your containers and serving utensils. Label each bowl or plate with the food that will be served in it. Do you have all the dishes and equipment you need? Buy or borrow anything you are missing. If needed, drape the entire table (already set) with a large sheet to protect it. Uncover it the night before and finish arranging the dishes and decorations.|
|If you need to place an order for your turkey or make other arrangements, do that at least two weeks ahead. Most butcher shops or better grocery stores will have cut up turkeys for sale. If you are planning a small dinner or want to make the gravy base ahead of time, buying separate pieces is the way to go. I always make my base with wings and thighs which are very inexpensive.|
|If you don’t already have one, buy a digital instant thermometer. It will tell you exactly when the turkey is ready so there is no guesswork! And make sure you have a roasting pan that is big enough to roast the turkey in but not so big that it won’t fit in your oven!|
|You are going to be spending a great deal of time, money and effort on the main meal, that you don’t want people filling up on appetizers. Plan on simple items that can be served at room temperature. Your oven will be in full swing during the party! A simple platter of fresh vegetables with dips, and some cured Italian meats and cheeses with crackers is perfect.|
|Set up your bar area (even if you aren’t serving liquor) somewhere separate from the kitchen. Have a cooler full of ice for drinks (leave it in bags) and for cooling sodas, waters, etc. Assign one of your guests the job of making sure everyone has something to drink – it’s one less thing you have to worry about!|
Mise en Place
The concept of having everything prepared before beginning to cook is an age-old tradition that every chef uses daily. It will keep you organized and efficient. Certain parts of recipes can be made ahead of time and will save you many hours of work on Thanksgiving Day.
|Pie crust dough, sauces, dessert fillings and toppings can often be made ahead and frozen or refrigerated. Plan on baking your pies a day ahead.|
|If you like cornbread in your stuffing or dressing (stuffing goes inside the turkey, dressing is cooked alongside), bake it a day or two ahead. Cut it into small cubes along with regular bread if you are using it (I like a combination of the two). The bread for stuffing is better if it is dried out! Store them in paper bags at room temperature the night before.|
|You can slice, dice, chop, and mince most of your aromatics and vegetables a day ahead. If you are grinding any spices, those can be done a few days ahead. Regular potatoes can be peeled in the morning and held in a pot of water until ready to cook. Sweet potatoes can be roasted and whipped a day ahead.|
|The cranberry sauce can be made up to a week ahead and kept in the refrigerator. Plan on a beautiful glass serving bowl for this because the stunning red color is amazing!|
|Wash all your vegetables and fresh herbs when you bring them home, then they are ready whenever you need them! Wrap in paper towels and then in plastic bags in the refrigerator. Herbs can be placed into a jar with a little water in it and covered loosely with a plastic bag. Set it in the refrigerator or keep it on the counter.|
If you make your stock and gravy base ahead of time the way I do, the hardest part of your gravy is already done and you have the most amazingly flavorful liquid to make your dressing with. Then, if you have any leftover, you have the base for your turkey soup already made!!
|I know you’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating … never defrost your turkey at room temperature! Bacteria grows at room temperature and no amount of cooking can guarantee you will kill it all. The last thing you want is your guests to get sick at your dinner! If you are running short of time, you can thaw it in a bath of COLD water, in its original packaging. Change the water every 30 minutes to make sure it stays cold and clean. Allow about 30 minutes per pound. Here is a chart for defrosting a frozen turkey:|
How Long it Takes to Thaw a Frozen Turkey
Turkey Weight Days to Thaw in Refrigerator Hours to Thaw in Cold Water
8 to 12 pounds 2 to 2-1/2 days 4 to 6 hours
12 to 16 pounds 2-1/2 to 4 days 6 to 8 hours
16 to 20 pounds 4 to 5 days 8 to 10 hours
20 to 24 pounds 5 to 6 days 10 to 12 hours
How Long to Cook an Unstuffed Turkey
(For a stuffed turkey, add an additional 5 to 7 minutes per pound)
Turkey Weight Total Roasting Time at 350°F
8 to 12 pounds 2 to 3-1/2 hours
12 to 16 pounds 3 to 4 hours
16 to 20 pounds 4 to 5 hours
20 to 25 pounds 5 to 6 hours
25 to 30 pounds 6 + hours
Avoiding and Fixing Problems!
|Write out a cooking schedule and timetable. Make sure you have time and oven-space to make everything you want to!|
|A couple of days ahead, roast some turkey parts which gives you pan drippings to make the roux for your gravy. Then you can use the meat and bones to build a flavorful broth. Use the broth for your dressing and gravy. This also gives you more flexibility to choose how you want to marinate and cook the turkey because you are not dependent upon the drippings for the gravy!|
|Never worry about lumpy gravy, because there is a way to fix it! Yes, you can have perfectly smooth gravy. The trick is to strain the gravy through a medium-weave sieve, stirring it until the liquid has gone through and the lumps remain behind. Voila! Perfect gravy! And there is another trick that I keep up my sleeve – just in case something goes wrong – it is called Savory Choice Liquid Broth Concentrate. It comes in a variety of flavors including Turkey!!|
|The breast of the turkey will cook faster than the legs and thighs. There are a variety of ways to adjust for this, but honestly the easiest thing to do is buy a turkey and have your butcher cut it up for you. Have him butterfly the bird and separate the legs and thighs from the breast. Start the dark meat in the oven first, wait about 15 to 20 minutes and then add the breast. Everything should be done at the same time! If keeping the turkey whole is important to you, start it breast-side down which will keep the breast meat moister and then turn breast-side up for the last 30 minutes to brown the top.|
|Stuffing a turkey may be delicious, but it can be dangerous (bacteria growth) and cause you to overcook the turkey. By the time the stuffing is at a safe temperature, the breast meat will invariably be overdone. So my solution is to use some of the turkey broth you made ahead (see above) to flavor the dressing mix. Bake it separately and you can make it up to two days ahead! A flavorful broth and lots of butter guarantee that everyone will be asking for seconds and thirds!|
If you have an electric mixer or a very strong-armed man available, make your own whipping cream. It is sooooo much better than anything you can buy at the store and only takes a couple of minute to make. Add a little vanilla and some powdered sugar and your guests will be swooning!
- Olive oil
- 10 lb turkey wings, necks, backs, thighs, and drumsticks, cut up
- 8 quarts water
- 1 to 2 tbsp turkey or chicken base, optional
- 3 large onions, roots cut off but skins left on, quartered
- 4 large shallots, roots cut off but skins left on, quartered
- 4 large carrots, scrubbed, ends trimmed, cut into large chunks
- 4 large celery stalks, scrubbed, ends trimmed, cut into large chunks
- 2 to 3 tsp kosher salt
- Crushed peppercorns
- Fresh thyme sprigs, rinsed and patted dry
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Pour a layer of oil in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Add the turkey parts, placing them skin side down. Roast in oven for about 1 to 2 hours or until well browned. Add a little water to the pan if drippings start to get too brown. Using tongs, transfer turkey wings and legs to a 12-quart soup pot. Reserve the thighs separately.
- Scrape the bottom of the roasting pan to loosen browned bits. If they are being stubborn add a little water and bring to a boil on the stovetop. Pour the pan drippings into a container, cover, and store in the refrigerator until ready to use to make your gravy.
- Add water, stock base (if using), and vegetables to the soup pot with the turkey parts. Stir in the salt and pepper. Add 6 to 8 sprigs of fresh thyme. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce heat to low, partially cover with a lid, and simmer for 2 to 3 hours or until it is fully flavored. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
- Strain the stock and discard the solids. Refrigerate. When cold, skim the fat that solidifies on the top and add it to the reserved pan drippings to use for the gravy.
- Stock can be refrigerated for about a week or frozen for up to 3 months.
- Yield: about 6 quarts