If Your Thanksgiving Menu Could Talk

Help Wanted thanksgiving edition

It would serve a heaping helping of advice to make cooking the most anticipated meal of the year go off without a hitch.

By Sarah DiGregorio and Colleen Sullivan
Above Image | Emily Kate Roemer/Studio D, Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

Whether you’re hosting your first Thanksgiving or your thirtieth…There’s always something new to learn when making even the most basic dishes. Use the tips to perfect your turkey and all the trimmings.

My size definitely matters.

You’ll need 1 to 1½ pounds of turkey per person to have enough for seconds and leftovers. Even if you don’t have a big crowd, aim for a bird that’s at least 12 pounds. Turkeys smaller than that have less meat on the bone.

Defrosting me can take a while.

It takes 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey to defrost in the refrigerator. So that means a 20-pound turkey needs a minimum of four days to thaw. For best results, leave the turkey in its packaging (until the night before roasting), and place it breast-side-up on a tray on the bottom shelf of the fridge.

Double-check my weight before you set the timer.

Roast your bird at 325°F for 12 minutes per pound. And get rid of the pop-up thermometer—those don’t work properly. Invest in a digital food thermometer, and for the most accurate reading, jab it in where the drumstick meets the thigh.

There’s a secret to my golden skin.

The night before you roast your turkey, take it out of the plastic, and place it on a large roasting pan. Let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator overnight to dehydrate the skin. Right before you pop it in the oven, massage the skin with softened butter.

After cooking, I need a good, long rest.

If you slice your bird right out of the oven, all the juices will stream out, leaving the meat dry. Give your turkey a 20-to-30-minute time-out before carving it, which will allow the juices to redistribute. Don’t worry about it getting cold: A whole turkey can stay warm for up to an hour.

Pick your taters wisely.

If you like fluffy mashed potatoes, choose starchy russets. For a creamy consistency, pick Yukon Golds. If you like a chunky style, opt for waxy Red Bliss. And stick to only one variety. Different kinds cook at different rates.

I hate hot water!

To make sure the inside and the outside cook evenly, cut potatoes into 1-inch chunks, put them in a pot, then add enough cold water to cover them by 1 inch and a few big pinches of salt. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes. When you can easily pierce them with a fork, they’re done.

Mash me with a ricer.

The more you work a potato, the more starch you release, which can lead to a gluey result. A ricer is the pros’ tool of choice because it gently presses the potato into a soft fluff. A potato masher works if you like chunkier spuds. On the super no-no list: blenders, handheld mixers, and food processors.

I should be the last thing you make.

Gravy can be prepared ahead of time, but that would mean missing out on the best thing about it: the flavor from the turkey drippings. Plan for gravy to be very last on your to-do list. Your turkey needs to rest for 20 to 30 minutes before it can be carved anyway, so use that window to make the gravy.

I’m really not high maintenance.

You don’t need a fat separator to make good gravy. Pour the drippings from your roasting pan into a liquid measuring cup. The fat will float to the top, where you can spoon it off. If a little fat sneaks in, no prob—that just means more flavor.

I have a secret formula.

Gravy’s golden rule: ½ cup butter, ½ cup flour, and 8 cups liquid (ideally a combination of drippings and broth) equals 8 cups of gravy. Here’s what to do: In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat, then stir in the flour until it looks like wet sand and smells a little nutty. Slowly whisk in the drippings and broth. Season with salt and pepper.

It’s smart to make me first.

Thanks to cranberries’ high acidity and natural antimicrobial compounds, homemade cranberry sauce will keep well in a refrigerated airtight container for at least a week—and the flavors will deepen as the sauce sits. Give it a quick stir before serving.

This is my season to shine.

Cranberries ripen to their peak color and flavor between mid-September and mid-November, so the bags of berries you see in grocery stores right now are fresh. Before you buy, shake the bag and take a good look: Berries should be firm and shiny.

Don’t oversweeten me!

If the sauce is too sweet, it won’t go well with your savory Thanksgiving dishes. For every 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries, add 2 tablespoons of water and 1 cup of sugar. Cook on low heat until the cranberries pop and give off their liquid, about 10 to 20 minutes.

It’s not easy staying green.

To avoid sad khaki-color beans, drop them in salted boiling water, and cook until they’re bright green and tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl of ice water for a few seconds to stop their cooking, then drain and pat dry with a paper towel.

You can buy me in advance.

Up to five days! Look for fresh beans that are firm and blemish-free. Don’t wash them before putting them in the fridge, and if they were under a mister at the store, dry them, put them in a zip-top bag, and store them in the crisper. Also, don’t trim in advance. The cut side will dry out.

There’s nothing stringy about me.

Thanks to modern science, the string has been bred out of modern green beans, meaning you don’t need to string them before cooking. To prep, cut off the woody stem, but you can leave on the tapered end—it’s tender and fine to eat.

I’m not ashamed of my canned ingredients.

Don’t bother to roast and puree a pumpkin. It takes forever and can lead to filling that’s stringy, watery, and not sweet enough. Canned pure pumpkin has good flavor and a consistent texture. Don’t use pumpkin pie filling, which has sugar and spices already added. It’s better to tweak the flavor yourself.

I’m nutritious. Really!

Pie isn’t exactly diet food, but pumpkin puree is a great source of fiber, iron, potassium, and vitamin A. If you insist on calorie-counting on Thanksgiving Day, an average piece of pumpkin pie has about 325 calories, while a slice of pecan pie has around 500.

I’m not perfect when I come out of the oven.

Pumpkin pie takes about an hour to bake at 350˚F. Pull it out of the oven when it’s still slightly jiggly in the center, even if it seems a little underdone. It will continue to firm up while it cools.

I can be semi-homemade.

A store-bought crust is totally acceptable. Just choose an all-butter one. Palm oil kinds can taste greasy and lack that distinctively rich crust flavor. If you’re using a frozen crust, defrost it, spoon in the filling, and pop it straight into the oven. When working with a rolled refrigerated crust, let it soften slightly on the counter so it won’t crack when you put it in your pie plate.

Play around with my measurements.

Pumpkin pie recipes are pretty standard—pumpkin, sugar, eggs, and some kind of dairy—but there’s no rule that says you can’t get creative with the spices. General amounts for a 9-inch pie are ½ teaspoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger, and allspice, and ¼ teaspoon of ground cloves. Omit one, beef up another, or try adding 2 tablespoons of bourbon to the filling.