We Asked the World's Best Chefs to Solve Our Every Thanksgiving Dinner Dilemma—and Wow, Did They Deliver
Thanksgiving should be all good times and joy in the kitchen, but the fear of cooking catastrophes (and worse, having those fears become reality) can make the day a disaster. From too-dry turkey to wilted salad greens, soggy pie crust, and stiff cranberry sauce, we've all been there. And we'd like to never go back, thankyouverymuch.
Luckily, you'll have no reason to sweat the small stuff this year. Why? Because we turned to a roster of world-renowned chefs and food scientists to figure out the reasons behind the most common turkey day pitfalls—plus, some simple ways to avoid them. Here, they share their best tips and techniques for a stress-free feast.
Daniel Humm is considered one of the world’s best chefs, but even he acknowledges how easily turkey breast dries out. “A big problem with cooking turkey—or any whole poultry for that matter—is that the lean breast meat is always done before the legs and thighs,” he says. His solution is simple: Cook the bone-in breast separately. It still looks gorgeous on the table and slices beautifully. To make the meat even more succulent, Humm smears butter under and over the skin. “As the butter melts, it will keep the breast moist and almost fry the skin from above and below," he says. "You’ll end up with buttery moist breast meat and crispy skin.” What more could you want in turkey?
Gravy is traditionally prepped after the turkey comes out of the oven, which not only adds to the anxiety of last-minute preparations, but can also result in insipid flavors. That’s why Chef Daniel Boulud, who has created countless Thanksgiving feasts in his restaurants across America, sticks to his French roots when making gravy. “I prefer a gravy made like a jus, with roasted vegetables—it has much more flavor and depth,” he says. The vegetables bring a natural sweetness and blend into lusciously thick and silky gravy. Best of all, this technique can be followed a few days before the feast. Simply reheat before serving!
Your Family Tends to Get Full Before Dinner
Skip the marathon of heavy, rich appetizers and build a beautiful crudité board that won't send their dinner plans down the drain instead. Raid the market for the prettiest produce that’s in season—tiny turnips, cauliflower, radishes, multicolored carrots. Trim or thinly slice the vegetables, then sprinkle them with sea salt, which will slightly soften them and intensify their flavor. Toss together some pomegranate seeds, finely chopped parsley, and a splash of olive oil; drizzle this mixture over the top of the vegetables. Serve with small dishes of nuts, olives, marinated artichokes, and sour pickles.
Cold Mashed Potatoes
Making them right before serving seems like common sense, but food scientist Shirley Corriher warns us otherwise. “Everybody waits until the last minute to make mashed potatoes and then they whip cold room temperature air into them and they’re not going to be hot," she says. "For really hot mashed potatoes, prepare the mashed potatoes that morning or the day before, chill, and then cover tightly with foil and heat them in the oven. They will get hot all the way through and stay hot the whole meal.” Indeed, we tried her ingenious tactic and found the spuds still steaming long after they came to the table.
Has your dressing come out pasty or mushy in the past? To avoid that mess, we turned to noted food scientist, Harold McGee. “The best way to avoid gummy bread stuffing is to start with dry bread," he says. "Dry bread will stay firmer and prevent the pieces from sticking together into a solid mass.” The simplest route is to toast bread cubes in the oven. You can do this way ahead of time and even start with a stale loaf. In fact, the longer the toasted bread sits out, the drier it gets.
Boring, Wilted Salads
Skip the sad bagged spinach and go for a hearty, crisp, refreshing beet and ricotta salata salad instead. It can stand at room temperature without going slimy, and it uses delicious ingredients like fresh mint, almonds, and salty ricotta salata cheese. Peel and dice 4 beets and roast them in olive oil, salt, and pepper in a 450°F oven for about 35 minutes. Toss with fresh mint, red wine vinegar, ricotta salata cheese, diced almonds, and extra EVOO. To make ahead (lifesaving), you can roast the beets up to 2 days in advance and store, covered, in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before dressing and serving.
Stiff Cranberry Sauce
The likely culprits are adding too much sugar and cooking the mixture too long. But it’s an easy and understandable mistake. “People don’t realize how much pectin is in cranberries and how the sauce will be much runnier than you expect while bubbling on the stove," says star chef Carla Hall. "But don’t add more sugar or overcook it to thicken it and get it the way you want it. Just remember, it’ll thicken as it sits and chills.” Hall recommends sticking to the ratio of ingredients given in tried and true recipes.
Sad, Limp Green Vegetables
This one’s easy: Don't cook them as long. Green vegetables should be cooked to super-soft only in dishes like old-fashioned green bean casserole or Southern-style collard greens. Otherwise, remove them from the heat as soon as they’re bright and crisp-tender. Food scientist Shirley Corriher says this also prevents cruciferous greens like broccoli and Brussels sprouts from getting stinky. “The stinky hydrogen sulfide smells double after 5 minutes of cooking,” she says. On a less technical note, Corriher also advises preparing green vegetables ahead of time, but being careful to avoid overcooking them before serving. Her rule of thumb: “Don’t reheat like crazy. Just reheat to reheat.”
Too-Sweet Sweet Potatoes
It's a no-brainer: skip, at all costs, anything involving marshmallows, maple syrup, or brown sugar. Instead, swap in flavor-packed fresh herbs like cilantro, fresh-squeezed lime juice, and warming spices like cumin.
Pie Crust That Won’t Cooperate
If you’re going to make a rolled-out pie crust, you’ll want to be sure the bottom doesn’t turn soggy under a load of apples or pumpkin filling. Day offers not one but two tips for a crust that stays crisp and flaky all the way through. “We do a two-part blind baking: We line the shell with parchment paper and beans and bake until the edges are just starting to set,” she says. “Then we remove the parchment and beans and, for extra insurance, we’ll brush some beaten egg white on the bottom and insides of the crust and put it back in the oven.”
You Can’t Clean Your Copper
A mix of equal parts flour and salt, with enough vinegar to make a paste, is the most effective copper cleaner. Every time you wash your copper, says chef Anita Olivarez Eisenhauer, a lecturing instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y., apply the paste to the outside and the interior of the pot and let it sit for 10 minutes. Rinse it with hot water, then dry with a cloth. “It will make the copper shine and help release any bacteria or grease that seeped into the metal when it was hot," she says.
Your Cookies Fall Flat
Fact: Using shortening instead of butter produces fluffier cookies. Butter has water in it, and water means a thinner dough, which means a flatter cookie. Shortening contains no water, so it always produces a cookie that stands taller than one made with only butter. “The trade-off is flavor,” says Emily Luchetti, executive pastry chef for Marlowe, Park Tavern, and The Cavalier Restaurants in San Francisco, adding that even if a recipe calls for shortening alone, for more tasty results “you can use half butter, half shortening.” One trick Luchetti recommends to help make all-butter cookies fluffy is to beat the butter-and-sugar mixture longer—say, 5 minutes instead of 2—to whip in more air.
You Ran Out of Time to Set Up a Bar
“Rather than setting up a bar, which can be really cumbersome in a house, I make a punch or festive cocktail that can be done in batches," says Jeremy Sewall, chef-owner of Boston’s Island Creek Oyster Bar, Lineage, and Row 34. "I also take a label maker and label everyone’s glasses with their name so it doesn’t turn into a free for all.” Renee Erickson, James Beard-nominated chef-owner of the Whale Wins, Boat Street Café, the Walrus and the Carpenter, and Barnacle—all in Seattle, Wash.—says she sticks to sparkling wine. “For reds, gamay—which is the primary grape of Beaujolais—is a Thanksgiving classic. I especially love Morgon, which is a little richer than village-level Beaujolais, but still a great value.”