How to Fix 13 Common Thanksgiving Problems
Problem: You Don’t Know How Big a Turkey to Buy
You want to be sure you have enough turkey but have no clue how many pounds you need for the number of guests you’re going to have.
If you need only enough turkey to make it through Thanksgiving dinner: Buy ¾ to 1 pound per person.
If you want enough leftovers for the long weekend: Calculate 1 pounds (or slightly more) per person. Get leftover turkey recipes and turkey sandwich ideas.
If you need a large turkey: Consider buying two 10- to 12-pound birds and roasting them side by side. Small turkeys cook (and defrost) much more quickly than supersize ones, and they tend to stay moister. Print out this simple turkey recipe to get started.
Problem: Frozen Turkey
It’s 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Dinner is at 2 p.m. And the turkey, which has been thawing for days in the refrigerator, still feels frozen solid.
Give the bird a cold bath. Water is a much better conductor of heat than air in the refrigerator, so this method works faster, says Robert L. Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of What Einstein Told His Cook 2 ($26, amazon.com). Fill a large bucket or the kitchen sink with cool water and plunge the bird in, in the original wrapper, breast-side down.
If the turkey has been defrosting in the refrigerator for several days, a mere half hour may do the trick. If you need to defrost a fully frozen turkey on the double, allow half an hour per pound. The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises changing the water every 30 minutes or so. (Birds labeled “fresh” can be chilled to 26° F, which explains why such turkeys can unexpectedly turn out to be partially frozen. The USDA suggests that you buy a fresh turkey no more than 2 days before you roast it.) No matter how dire the situation, don’t thaw a turkey at room temperature.
If it’s early in the week and there’s no rush, thaw the turkey in the refrigerator. Keep it in the original packaging, and place it on a rimmed container to catch any juices, allowing approximately 5 hours per pound.
Problem: To Baste or Not to Baste?
SolutionIt depends on your priorities. “Basting is purely a skin treatment,” says Wolke. Its only purpose is to facilitate browning and crisping. He adds that rubbing the turkey generously with oil or butter before you put it in the oven will do the job almost as well. (But be sure to pat the bird completely dry first; if the skin is wet, the fat won’t adhere.)
Not only is frequent basting a hassle but it can also wreak havoc with your cooking time. “If you do it every 20 minutes or so,” Wolke says, “you're losing a lot of heat from the oven by opening the door frequently.” If you or that loved one in your kitchen insists on basting, cookbook author and chef Sara Moulton advises that you prevent excess heat from escaping by taking the entire pan out of the oven and closing the door.
Problem: You Can’t Tell if the Turkey Is Done
The drumsticks wiggle. The juices run clear. But you’re still not sure if the turkey is ready.
Take its temperature. “You need a thermometer for dependable accuracy,” says Moulton. Insert one―oven-safe or instant-read―in several places, being careful not to allow the tip to touch bone.
According to the USDA, turkey is cooked through when the internal temperature of a thigh reaches 180° F. (When gauging doneness, keep in mind that the meat continues to cook―and subsequently rises a few degrees―even after it comes out of the oven.) Learn how to take a turkey's temperature by watching this video.
Problem: The Turkey Needs to Be Transferred
You need to deftly shift a hot, dripping, unwieldy turkey from roasting pan to carving board without…oops!
Ask yourself, Modern gadgetry or old-fashioned ingenuity? There are a number of products designed to minimize the awkwardness, from pricey (and iffy) turkey transport forks to extremely reliable roasting racks.
For a homespun alternative, scrunch up paper towels or aluminum foil in each hand as a buffer between hot bird and fingers, suggests Pam Anderson, author of Perfect Recipes for Having People Over ($35, amazon.com). Some home cooks prefer heavy-duty cleaning gloves. Others use oven mitts that are ready for the rag pile. Engineering types fashion a turkey hammock out of kitchen string and place it in the pan under the raw bird. Or you can simply reach for a couple of sturdy wooden spoons, indelicately insert one into each end of the bird, and let your steady hands guide the way. Learn how to transfer a turkey by watching this video.
Problem: The Turkey Has Gone Cold
SolutionWork around it. Before you slice, turkey requires at least 20 minutes to rest and allow the juices to redistribute. The laws of physics stipulate that the meat will―inevitably―cool. Anderson points out that hot gravy and side dishes can go a long way toward solving the problem. Warming the serving dishes and plates helps, too. Run them under very hot water and dry them just before dinner.
Instead of cursing the resting time, consider it a blessing, since it allows you to turn your attention at the last minute to the side dishes.
Problem: No Room on the Stove or in the Oven
You have all those side dishes to cook―and nowhere to cook them.
Plan ahead. “Obviously you can’t bake eight different things at eight different temperatures at the same time,” says Francine Maroukian, a former caterer and the author of Chef's Secrets ($17, amazon.com). You have to solve that problem when you’re creating the menu, not while you’re cooking it, she says. First, write up a list of all the things you’d like to make, then evaluate the number of burners and your oven space.
And don’t leave everything for the last minute; see what can be prepared in advance. “Everything―or at least a lot―can be done long before the kitchen starts to get stressful,” says Anderson. (Find delicious make-ahead Thanksgiving recipes here).
Mashed potatoes can be made an hour or two ahead of time, transferred to a heat-proof serving bowl, and kept warm over a pot of simmering water, partially covered. For just-made flavor, Anderson suggests adding only the salt, pepper, and milk when you mash; stir in the butter when you’re ready to serve.
Problem: Flavorless Gravy
SolutionReach for a couple of common kitchen vices. A splash of fortified alcohol―Madeira, sherry, port―will lend a mellow richness to your gravy. And lots of salt (and freshly ground black pepper, if desired) will emphasize whatever flavor your gravy already claims.
To ensure a better gravy next time, boost the flavor of the pan drippings by strewing thickly sliced carrots, onions, and celery in the pan beneath the raw bird, suggests Anderson. Add just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan and, while the turkey roasts, the vegetables will caramelize, lending a depth of flavor to the drippings. Strain and discard the vegetables, or puree them and stir them into the gravy for a thick, sweet sauce. From-scratch turkey stock also prevents bland gravy. You can make and freeze the stock weeks in advance if you use turkey wings, which are available at most meat counters during the holiday season.
Problem: You Can’t Seem to Delegate Tasks
SolutionBe prepared with a list of noncooking tasks, and make sure everything required is in plain sight. Someone else can easily deal with drinks, opening the wine while you bring the turkey to the table, or making coffee while you clear the dishes. Appoint a sheepdog to herd everyone to the table, and give a five-minute warning that you’re serving hot food, since a couple of guests always seem to straggle.
And when everything really is covered, ask if you can take a rain check on help until cleanup time.
Problem: All Those Dirty Pots and Pans Waiting for You
SolutionDon’t save all the cleaning for after the meal. If you sit down to dinner with the roasting pan soaking in the sink, you’re doomed. But by making some recipes early in the day, you’ll have time in between dishes to clean. Even if you don’t make anything in advance, stop and wash something every half hour or so. Most important, get the bulky items―the roasting pan, the pot you made the mashed potatoes in―out of the way before you eat. That way, says Anderson, “when the meal is over, all you’ve got is the basic dishes.”
If you have a cleanup crew, designate a runner to bring in the dishes, a second person to transfer leftovers to containers, and a third to do the cleanup. (And be prepared with aprons, rubber gloves, and dish towels.)
But beware of butterfingers. “Thanksgiving is a very greasy meal,” former caterer and author Francine Maroukian says. “It’s when the glasses break.”
Tempting as it may be to leave the cleanup until later―much later―refrigerate the leftovers within two hours of cooking. Then pour yourself that cook’s glass of wine that you may have forgotten earlier and sit down. Finally, you can really give thanks.
Problem: You Left No Time To Clean the House
Solution: If you’re short on time, there are a few things you can do (or designate family members to do) in less than ten minutes that will make you feel better about having guests in the house. If you plan on having guests leave their coats on a bed, rather than in the closet, spread a sheet over the duvet to protect it from dirt and dust. Any toys, dirty dishes, piles of mail, and other random clutter from the living room and dining room can be temporarily stashed in a collapsible bin and put in the closet. As for the bathroom? Steal a flower from the table’s centerpiece and put it in a bud vase in the bathroom.
Problem: You’re Worried The Turkey Will Dry Out
Solution: It’s not just you: it’s almost impossible to perfectly cook a whole turkey. Lean breast meat always cooks faster than the legs and thighs, so the breast meat is overcooked when the thighs are finished. To avoid this problem, we recommend placing the turkey in the oven breast-side down, with its legs facing the back of the oven, which is hotter than the front. Halfway through cook time, carefully flip the turkey onto its back so that the breast side is facing up and the skin gets crispy. Another trick is to cut off the bone-in breast and cook it separately from the rest of the bird.
Problem: You’re Worried the Food Is Bland
Solution: Adding a few extra items to your shopping cart will ensure every dish on the table reaches its full potential. Grab some lemons, cut them into wedges, and place them on the table. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the veggies (or even the turkey) brightens a heavy meal, and they look pretty, too. In fact, we suggest adding slices of lemon to the water pitcher for a super-simple way to liven up the table. In addition to citrus, put a dish of Maldon (or other flaky sea salt) on your table in case any of the food comes out under-seasoned. Everyone can adjust the taste as needed.