The No-Tears, No-Panic Thanksgiving Countdown Guide: The Final Week
by Emerson Beyer
You guys, I couldn’t be prouder if I were a den mother ironing some gold arrow points on your scouting uniforms. You can head into the final seven days before Thanksgiving with your heads held high. When you get released from work early next Wednesday, you won’t be rushing to the grocery store. Instead, you’ll have time for an extended happy hour or to pick up your visitors from the airport, because your shopping is done, the sheets are pressed and dinner is waiting in the slow cooker. But even though you are in an advanced state of preparation, with little additional planning left to do, don’t yet retire to the bubble bath. You still have a turkey to roast! So read on for the truth about that, as well as some other tips for the home stretch.
Now, if you didn’t get through all your homework in the past two weeks, take solace. Even though Thanksgiving is the “Olympics of Entertaining,” there aren’t any medals for finishing first. Review Week 1 and Week 2, and catch up on the important stuff: sourcing a turkey, writing your menu and shopping list, making pie dough, checking your space and equipment constraints, and stocking the wine. If your welcome is true, the meal will be perfect in every meaningful regard.
Whether or not you need to make up overdue preparation, this weekend do go ahead and set the table. Trim the wicks on your candles. Make up the guest bed. Purchase and arrange the flowers. (By the way, remember when I said “no gourds?” I went to a dinner last week that had tables decorated with beautiful gray kabochas along with black stones and… so elegant — feel free to do that.)
Some “dos” for the days and hours leading up to the big meal:
• Measure out dry ingredients into zipper bags. Anything that requires measuring spoons or cups can be pre-portioned. This may seem excessive, but there’s nothing worse than needing a half-tablespoon to measure out sugar at a hectic moment, and the only one you can find is covered with olive oil. Mark the ingredients and associated recipe with a Sharpie on the outside of the bag.
• Print all the recipes you’ll need on Thanksgiving and tape them to the cabinet doors. Use Magic Tape, which won’t mess up the cabinets. No need to fumble with cookbooks or loose paper cluttering the counters. Keep that Sharpie handy for ticking off steps. When a dish is done, pull down the recipe and toss it in the dustbin.
• Wear an apron. Is this obvious? On Thanksgiving, it’s unlikely you’ll have time to take a last-minute shower before dinner time. Take your time getting ready in the morning — feeling put-together will boost your confidence and help you enjoy the day. Just wear an apron, because gravy stains are the nadir of schlubbiness.
• Use place cards. If anyone is a “newcomer” — especially if only one person is a newcomer — assigned seats will make everyone feel more welcome and comfortable.
And some “don’ts”:
• Don’t prep vegetables too early. Although you should get up early on Saturday morning to finalize your produce shopping at the farmers’ market, don’t cut things up too soon. Sweet potatoes, onions and garlic are some of the many things that don’t hold up. If you are cutting up a whole pumpkin for a side dish or for pie (which: fiiiiiiine, if you must), you can do that ahead of time, because it takes forever.
• Don’t make the pie too early. Ideally, you’ll serve the pie warm, and reheated pie, though delectable in its own way, doesn’t have the same thrilling freshness. If you time things right, you could even put the pie in the oven while you eat dinner, and it will be finished when the guests are ready for dessert.
• Don’t forget to use the microwave. Something about the traditionalism of Thanksgiving makes it seem like you ought to cook everything over a good ol’ flame. But the microwave will save you time and sanity. Use it for warming stock (for the stuffing) and making cranberry sauce.
A BIRD IN THE PAN
Obviously the highest-pressure component of the meal is the turkey. Everyone seems to agree that Thanksgiving turkey is 1. usually gross and 2. difficult to cook and 3. mostly a formality. I think this is one of those examples of conventional wisdom getting ahead of reality. Thanksgiving turkey is in fact almost always awesome! Even when it’s dry, it’s a great platform for parfaits of stuffing, gravy, and cranberries. So my advice on turkey is not “how to get it minimally edible” but rather “how to make it succulent.” Here’s a size- and temperature-agnostic roasting guide that covers all the options.
You already know about brining, and that’s something you’ll have to start on Wednesday. But there’s more:
• Get the bird to room temperature before it goes in the oven. Take it out of the brine/fridge first thing Thursday morning and let it sit out — covered, obviously — away from heat, sunlight, and pets. (You can put the white wine in the fridge as you take the turkey out.) If this skeeves you out at all, just think of this warming as a slow part of the overall cooking process.
• When you prep your onions, celery and carrots, make enough for stuffing and gravy at the same time. If you’re going to make your gravy directly in the roasting pan (see below), spread about 1–1/2 cups of these diced vegetables in the pan under the rack and turkey. (If there is no rack, you can rest the turkey on thick slices of onion, but don’t put diced vegetables in the pan.)
• Don’t stuff the bird. Instead, put “aromatics” in the cavity. The traditional aromatics would be a lemon cut in half, some sprigs of rosemary and thyme, and maybe an apple with cloves spiked into it. Make the stuffing in a separate baking dish or in the slow cooker, which will save you crucial oven space. (Don’t forget to use your homemade turkey stock for the stuffing!)
• Cut off the tips of the wings. If they don’t have a lot of pin feathers, reserve them for later use. Loosely loop some twine around the “ankles”; if you don’t do this, the legs will spread indecently as the bird cooks.
• Put a ping pong ball-sized piece of the compound butter you made last week under the skin on each side of the breast. This is a surefire way to get delicious white meat that doesn’t turn to shoe leather as it cools.
• Put even more butter all over the skin. Seriously, then probably invest in a dairy farm. Children should be making paper cutouts of cows this month, not turkeys. Butter! BUTTER!!
• If you took my advice and have a bird of reasonable size, use high-temperature roasting. That’s 500F for 2 to 2–1/2 hours. No flipping, no basting. There are some additional details you need for high-heat roasting that you can get from the leading evangelist of this technique, Barbara Kafka.
• If you got a giant bird (20 pounds or more), the high-temperature thing is not going to work. You need a way to deal with the unequal speed with which the dark- and white-meat parts will cook so that you don’t have raw drumsticks or desiccated breasts. The solution is to start the bird roasting breast-side-down for an hour at 400F. After that, flip it over, lower the heat to 325, and keep roasting until the thigh registers 165F.
• You do have a meat thermometer, right?
• Rest the turkey, tented with foil. Don’t serve the turkey straight out of the oven. Resting (according to Harold McGee, and borne out by experience) is another crucial way to make the meat juicy. I think it has something to do with cell membranes.
Even if everything goes terribly wrong with the roasting, there is no turkey so bad that gravy can’t fix it. Your gravy is going to be awesome because you have already crafted two crucial tools: homemade turkey stock and beurre manié! Here’s how to use them:
1. When the turkey comes out of the oven, transfer it to a serving platter or carving board. If you used a big, heavy-duty pan, you can put it right on the stovetop over two burners. If your pan is lightweight or oval (please don’t use an unsafe disposable foil roasting pan), get a friend to help you scrape all of the drippings into a big skillet or sauté pan.
2. Turn the burner(s) to medium-high. If you didn’t cook your celery, carrots, and onion under/with the turkey, add them now. Add the wing tips if you reserved them and the giblets except for the liver. Depending on the amount of turkey fat in the pan, add one or two tablespoons of beurre manié. Get everything really dark brown.
3. Add a cup of wine to the pan and immediately start to scrape, scrape, scrape. The wine will cook off quickly, so work quickly. What wine? Whichever is the cheapest bottle you have open at the moment. White, red, pink — it doesn’t matter, just nothing sweet. You could even use beer or whiskey.
4. Lower the heat to medium. Add turkey stock. You want to reduce by about half, so use approximately twice the volume you need. As it cooks down, it will thicken beautifully. But if you need additional weight, add more of your beurre manié a tablespoon at a time.
5. This will take a while! Maybe half an hour. It’s okay, your turkey needs time to rest. Be patient. When the gravy looks like gravy, run it through a mesh strainer. I am of the opinion that you don’t need to try to separate the fat out at this point. Later, if you have leftover gravy, the fat will rise and solidify in the refrigerator — you’ll want to scrape that off, it’s gross.
Okay, now enjoy eating! Try to have a civil conversation! We always start with a toast to our loved ones who can’t be with us because of distance or death, and take a moment remember the troops — this definitely helps rein in any pettiness.
After all this work, you’re likely to be pretty keyed up and the weekend may seem less relaxing than straight-up boring. Someone is going to tune the television to USA Network for a “Psych” marathon or something. So, consider having projects ready, such as testing Christmas lights, dipping candles, or writing out cards. If you moved in the past year, getting your holiday cards out the door early is a very good way to make sure everyone has your address for their cards, so they don’t have to ask you for it over Facebook!
Emerson Beyer is thankful for having a great view from his writing desk and a husband who makes perfect risotto. (Happy birthday, Professor!) He lives in Durham, NC and tweets as @patebrisee.