For home cooks, there is no holiday more revered — and more fraught with anxiety — than Thanksgiving. There's something about the timing, the turkey and the throngs of hungry guests that can jangle the nerves of even the most seasoned host. America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country editor Tucker Shaw can relate. Here he serves up meal prep tips and tricks for making the big day easier and (almost) stress-free.
Q. What is the No. 1 mistake people make when cooking a turkey?
There are a couple of really big easy mistakes to make. One is forgetting to take [the turkey] out to thaw soon enough. It really takes a couple to three days in the fridge to thaw so if you find yourself on Wednesday with a frozen turkey … it’s time to start making a different plan.
Q. And the second biggest mistake?
Stuffing [the turkey] with stuffing. It’s a bad idea. First, the cavity is not big enough for all the stuffing that you need for your party. And if you stuff the cavity with a breaded stuffing in order to get that stuffing cooked through you will have to overcook your turkey.
You are much better off cooking your stuffing separately. It is also better to leave that cavity open so heat can come in there. The meat will cook more evenly throughout the breast.
Q. Nobody likes lumpy mashed potatoes. What’s the trick to making them creamy?
We recently did an extensive testing of handheld potato mashers and there are two basic designs: One has a wire squiggle shape at the end; one is a perforated disk with a bunch of holes at the end [like a ricer]. Go for the ricer. The holes force the potatoes through a smaller opening and leave the chunks behind.
Q. What do you add to your potatoes?
Oh, I load them up. Butter. Tons of butter. I mean, that is the best thing about mashed potatoes — they carry butter and salt. To my mind butter is more important than a creamy element like heavy cream or half and half, but some people love that, too. One trick: Take the chill off whatever dairy product you add (stick it in the microwave for a minute) so you are not introducing super cold stuff into your mashed potatoes.
Q. What is the key to tasty gravy?
The key to smooth gravy is attention. I think you should make your gravy ahead of time — and you can make it the day before.
Q. Wait — gravy without pan drippings?
When your bird is nearly thawed on Wednesday retrieve the giblets and the neck. You can use those to brown and add the meaty element to your gravy; then concurrently whisk together a roux — that is the thing that will either be lumpy or not. If you have a kitchen full of people and a bunch of other things you are trying to pay attention to you are kind of likely to — at least I am kind of likely to — lose track of the gravy. Make your gravy the day before using those elements and keep it in the fridge. Then, warm it up before you serve, and you can still stir the drippings from the turkey into the gravy.
Q. That’s big!
Can I just say one thing? I think partly the reason that turkey and gravy are sort of mysterious for people is because no one makes them more than once a year, really. Many of us don’t. I never roast a turkey except on Thanksgiving and rarely make gravy.
Q. It’s a lot of pressure. How do you time everything correctly?
My top tip is not everything has to be piping hot, especially not turkey, since you are putting gravy on it. Your side dishes — your mashed potatoes and so forth — will probably be relatively hot. Turkey is meat that is very forgiving, in that regard. Serve it on warmed plates with warm gravy so you are not eating it cold, but certainly pleasantly warm.
Q. Any other timing tips?
If you were to set up a playbook for yourself, start with the time you would like to sit down. If your turkey takes 3 hours to cook and it needs 45 minutes to rest then work backward from there. You almost always have to rest a bird when it comes out of the oven depending on the size from 30 minutes to an hour to let the juices redistribute and be easier to carve … that is your window for warming up stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, etc.
Q. What should you just go ahead and buy?
Wine! But listen; if you have a great bakery, dinner rolls or things that are bread-related are a great buy.
Q. If you serve the same traditional dinner every year, what is a fresh twist?
Dessert is a great place to shake things up. I know there’s the traditional pumpkin pie or apple pie, but we have a Maple Syrup Pie that I am bonkers for (recipe below.) It’s very sweet, so if you don’t have a sweet tooth it’s not for you. It has a beautiful aroma, and maple is such an autumn flavor it looks like it belongs on the Thanksgiving table. It’s simple and great. It’s a little spendy — because maple syrup is not the cheapest ingredient in the world — but it’s a holiday.
Q. What other common mistakes do you see?
People are focused on making the food perfect, and that’s a false goal. I think you make lovely food, but really what you are doing is creating a context for a gathering. No one is really going to judge your food. You’ve got to give yourself a little break. Also, don’t take on too much. You don’t need six side dishes — just two really nice ones — and then your guests will bring something … or not. Don’t be a control freak. It’s the people, not the food.