If you celebrate Thanksgiving, there will almost certainly be a point in your life where you choose (or are stuck with) the task of hosting the big event.
Whether you are cooking for friends or family, this can be completely stressful, but have no fear!
I’ll walk you through how to a Thanksgiving dinner that is a huge success, teach you how to make the best roasted turkey you’ve ever had AND share a few twists on some classic T-day recipes.
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HOW TO PLAN YOUR THANKSGIVING MEAL
Planning and organization are the absolute best tools you have when trying to feed any large group of people, especially on Thanksgiving!
Start with the turkey. If you’re cooking a full bird, be sure to look into it at least a week before the holidays. If you’re ordering a fresh bird, you probably need to do so even earlier. I order mine three weeks in advance, generally.
- If you’re buying a frozen bird, know that it will take a long time to thaw.
- If you’re cooking an eighteen-pound turkey, don’t expect it to thaw overnight. You have to thaw turkeys slowly in the fridge and that takes time.
- Generally, I estimate that it takes 24 hours of fridge time to thaw every five pounds of bird. So if you have an eighteen-pound frozen turkey, start thawing it four to five days before you intend to cook it.
List of lists. To be honest, I’m not much of a list guy, but when it comes to Thanksgiving there is no better way to get organized.
As you can see, I make one large shopping list that has ingredients for all of my planned recipes, plus I make day-by-day to do lists for each dish.
Dishes and Plates. Sometimes you might plan the cooking portion of Thanksgiving perfectly, only to find that you don’t have anywhere to actually put the food. At least 24 hours in advance, I recommend laying out all the plates that you intend to use for serving.
In general, I think people are excited to cook something for Thanksgiving. Even people that don’t cook normally are happy to try out their grandma’s pie recipe or maybe a family casserole.
Use this enthusiasm to your advantage! Don’t feel like just because you are hosting that you have to cook everything as well. Have people sign up for dishes to take off some of the stress.
The other benefit of doing a potluck-style Thanksgiving is that it will expose you to other people’s recipes. It’s a great time to try new dishes!
HOW TO COOK THANKSGIVING TURKEY
There is no doubt that the turkey is THE symbol of Thanksgiving. While you can just cook a turkey breast, if you have more than ten people coming, I suggest going for the whole bird.
Below are the steps I use to roast a perfect bird every year. It requires some planning and some equipment, but it’s guaranteed to be good!
Three general tips to turkey success:
1) Brine the bird. As you’ll see below, I recommend marinating the entire turkey in a salty-sweet apple cider brine for at least 12 hours before cooking it. This will flavor the meat and make it really juicy.
2) Temperature control. If your turkey has one of those pop-up thermometers, don’t take it out, but ignore it. I repeat: Do not follow it. It typically pops up at around 180 degrees Fahrenheit and by then your turkey will be dry like the desert. Instead, make sure to have a good probe thermometer on hand and pull the bird when it reaches 162 degrees Fahrenheit in the breast meat (more on this later).
3) Cook it hot. Sometimes you hear that the way to cook turkey is low and slow. I hate low and slow! I cook my turkey at a blazing 500 degrees F for 30 minutes. Then I turn down to 350 degrees and let it cook until it hits the right temperature, which will take about three hours for an 18 pound turkey.
For the full brine info, see my apple cider brined turkey recipe. And here’s the Alton Brown trick to thoroughly cook dark meat (to ~180 degrees F) without overcooking white meat (to ~161 degrees F) that’s referenced in step 4.
Combine brine ingredients (except cold water) in a large pot and bring to a simmer. Simmer for a few minutes to make sure sugar and salt are dissolved. Cover and let sit for 10 minutes.
Need some help on that last step? Here’s a how to carve turkey video.
MUST-HAVE THANKSGIVING RECIPES
Besides the bird, there are a few things that I always look for during Thanksgiving.
First on the list for most people is probably some sort of stuffing. I really never recommend stuffing the actual turkey with stuffing because it changes the cooking time and will generally just dry out your bird.
For this Thanksgiving, I tried something fun. I took one of my favorite stuffing recipes (I made it vegetarian though this time around) and baked it in tiny silicon muffin tins rather than in one huge casserole dish. This made it cook faster and also made sure that each piece of stuffing had some nice crispy edges!
If you’re looking for a shortcut on stuffing, check out Betty Crocker Turkey Stuffing. Toss the ingredients together and bake it in a casserole dish or muffin tins.
Side Dish Twist: Mashed Potato Bar
Mashed potatoes are also a staple for any Thanksgiving. I tried something new this time: A mashed potato bar! I made ten pounds of mashed potatoes (with plenty of butter and milk) and then kept them warm in my slow cooker.
Then I set out some fun toppings like broccoli florets (I used Green Giant frozen florets), crispy crumbled bacon, shredded cheese, chopped scallions, and sour cream.
Side Dish Twist: Brussels Sprouts
I made one side dish that was very delicious and well-received by my eaters. I just used Green Giant Brussels sprouts and then continued on with my red wine glazed brussel sprout recipe. The results were very delicious (for the sprout lovers)!
Side Dish Twist: Edamame Casserole
The other side dish I made was a fun spin on a classic green bean casserole. Instead of green beans though, I used frozen edamame! Check out the edamame casserole recipe and see the step-by-step below!
Slice up mushrooms, thaw your pearl onions and edamame, mince the garlic and herbs.
In a large pot over medium-high heat, melt the butter and then add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Cook for about 5 minutes until the mushrooms start to break down and release their liquid. Then add garlic, pepper flakes, and herbs. Stir and cook for 30 seconds.
Add flour to the pot, stir, and cook for another minute to cook out the flour flavor.
Stir in the stock in small batches. Don’t just add it all at once. Stir it constantly as you add the stock so it stays creamy and doesn’t get lumpy. If it’s too thick, add more stock or water. If it’s too thin, just simmer for a few minutes until it thickens.
Add edamame and pearl onions and stir to combine.
Pour mixture into a large casserole dish and top with Parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, and slivered almonds.
Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes until the top is nicely browned. Let cool for a few minutes and serve immediately.
This year I tried something really fun. I made these mini cheesecakes but substituted pumpkin instead of applesauce to make them pumpkin flavored. I also made a simple frosting that was just 8 ounces cream cheese, one small Yoplait Pumpkin Spice yogurt, and about two pounds of powdered sugar.
The frosting works best if it is completely chilled and you frost the cheesecakes right before serving them.
I had a bunch of friends over to help me eat all this delicious food last weekend. It was like a trial Thanksgiving!
I always like to try and have a few areas with appetizers and stuff so people can mingle and not be all crowded in the kitchen or around one table.
As you can see, people were excited to eat!
My lovely wife Betsy could barely support her plate!
Thanksgiving can be a great celebration of family and/or friends.
If I had to give one rule though it would be to relax. Don’t worry if one dish doesn’t turn out great. Just go with the flow and laugh it off.
Have a great holiday season everybody!