Avoid Common Thanksgiving Cooking Mishaps

Even accomplished home cooks feel the pressure of preparing a big feast for family and friends on Thanksgiving Day. It's a perfect storm of anxieties: Beloved traditions, high expectations, a huge menu and a big crowd all add up to a stressful few days in the kitchen. Here are a few strategies for avoiding culinary mishaps. But if the potatoes are done too early or the gravy gets lumpy, relax. We can help you with that, too.
Avoid Problems in the First Place
Here's the best piece of advice we can share to ensure your Thanksgiving dinner is a success: Plan. (Or more specifically, plan, plan and then double-check your plan.) Two weeks beforehand, plan the menu. From there, assemble all your recipes. Then, make a shopping list.
Make as much ahead as you can. Plot out your cooking activities for the big day and—most importantly—the day before. Make yourself an hour-by-hour agenda that includes prep and cooking time for every recipe. What can be made ahead? Pies and cranberry sauce, for instance, can be completely prepared and baked the day before. Chop any vegetables for your stuffing, seal them in plastic bags (better than containers when space is at a premium) and refrigerate. If you're making stuffing with fresh breadcrumbs, prep those on Wednesday.
When you're plotting out your cooking agenda, consider baking temperatures, as well. If your dressing recipe calls for an hour at 400 degrees but the turkey roasts at 325, then anticipate that the dressing will take longer to cook thoroughly if you have it in the oven with the turkey.
Allocate enough time to thaw a whole frozen turkey. According to the experts at Butterball, you should expect 1 day of thawing for every 4 pounds of bird. If you wake up on Thanksgiving Day and discover that the bird isn't fully thawed, you fully submerge the turkey, in its unopened wrapper, in cold water (in a sink or large basin). Change the water frequently to keep the bird cool; estimate 30 minutes of thawing time per pound.
Allow enough time for roasting a turkey. Be sure to follow the recipe, your butcher's recommendations or the cooking instructions on the turkey packaging. Butterball's turkey pros say an 18- to 22-pound turkey will take 3.5 to 4 hours of roasting time at 325 degrees. Here's a great basic roast turkey recipe from SparkRecipes.
Give the turkey a head-start. You can roast the turkey earlier and keep it nicely warm for up to an hour: Remove the roasting pan from the oven and transfer the bird to a big platter or tray. Wrap very tightly with foil, and then cover with a heavy bath towel until you're ready to carve and eat.
Whether you're a veteran of Thanksgiving meal preparation or this is your first big feast, here's one more sanity saver: Ask for help. Graciously accept any offers from friends or family members who want to contribute a dish to the meal. And when guests arrive on the holiday, don't hesitate to put folks to work in the kitchen. That's where people will want to hang out, anyway.
The 4 Most Common Thanksgiving Mishaps (and How to Fix Them)
So, despite your best planning, you run into a kitchen problem on Thanksgiving Day (we won't call it a disaster). Here's how to resolve some common issues.
  1. The potatoes are done too early! This one's easy. Go ahead and finish preparing the mashed potatoes. Transfer them to a greased baking dish, dot them with butter and cover tightly with foil. They can be kept warm (or later re-warmed) in a 325 degree oven for about 30 minutes.
  1. The pie crust is browning too quickly! Use foil to cover the crust only. For a 9-inch pie, cut roughly 10-inch circle of foil. Fold the circle in half, and then cut out the center, yielding a 3-inch-wide ring of foil. Place that ring over the crust and continue baking.
  1. The gravy is lumpy! Pour the gravy through a fine mesh strainer to remove any clumps of flour or cornstarch.
  1. The sliced turkey is dry! The key to avoiding dry turkey is in the preparation. Many home cooks prefer to brine the whole turkey before roasting (this involves soaking the bird in a solution of water, salt, herbs and spices for several hours or overnight). Others soak a large piece of cheesecloth in melted butter and drape that over the bird. Roasting a stuffed turkey can also cause dryness. Whichever cooking method you choose, follow your recipe or directions carefully, and don't overcook. Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness: the temperature should be 180 degrees when you insert the thermometer deep into the thigh.
    If your turkey still winds up a bit on the dry side, then heat up about 1 cup of chicken stock or broth, pour that over the sliced meat in a baking dish and wrap tightly with foil. Warm the moistened turkey in the oven at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.
The final piece of advice? Relax. No one at your holiday table will go hungry, and any mishaps will make for a great family story in years to come.
Butterball. "How to Thaw," accessed November 2011. www.butterball.com.
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About The Author

Bryn Mooth
Bryn Mooth
Bryn Mooth is an independent copywriter and journalist focused on food, wellness and design; she's also a Master Gardener and enthusiastic green thumb. She shares seasonal recipes, kitchen techniques, healthy eating tips and food wisdom on her blog writes4food.com.
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